What does it take to install a 40,000 pound sculpture in one of L.A.'s most inaccessible museums? Especially when you have no idea what it's supposed to look like? This was the Getty Center's big challenge in early September, as it sought to install a Robert Irwin sculpture entitled Black on White. The sculpture was commissioned to celebrate the opening of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-led celebration of post-war Southern California art that is starting up in museums across Los Angeles right now.
When LA Weekly visited the Getty to check out the piece, pulleys, rigging and a scaffolding surrounded an enormous slab of granite lying on the floor of the entry pavilion. Now, it's fully installed: its black, glossy mass juts out of the pavilion, through the glass wall, and out into the courtyard. It's perhaps not as spectacular-looking as its weight and scale would suggest. Instead, it's a quietly massive piece that appears incredibly dense and beautiful.
Irwin, an artist at the forefront of the California “light and space” movement of the 1960s and 70s, was an easy choice for the Getty. “Bob calls his art 'conditional art,' and so it's all done in response to a space,” says Andrew Perchuck, Deputy Director at the Getty and co-curator of the piece. “When you think of Bob's work, he's one of the great artists who uses light as a medium. It's a natural move to ask him if he wanted to respond to this incredible light-filled space that Richard Meier designed.”
There was only one catch. “The way Bob works, you have no idea what you were going to get,” Perchuck adds.
For many months, Irwin's intentions were a mystery to his curators. He came to the Getty and spent hours observing visitors in the atrium while hovering in the background. Rani Singh, a senior research associate at the Getty and the exhibit's other co-curator, remembers, “He likened the people in the atrium to being like ants, scurrying about. It took him some time to get a feel for the space. It's so open, it's so white, and there's so much white.”
Finally, Irwin crafted a response to the space: a 40,000 pound wedge of black granite that starts off four feet tall and moves through the entry pavilion, rising to five feet. It dramatically cuts through the white and airy space of the lobby.
Producing a sculpture of that scale requires nothing short of a scientific process. Irwin had to make drawings, submit them to a structural engineer for approval, and then deliberate with stone experts on the plans. He worked with Carnevale and Lohr, a third generation granite and marble company that worked on the original Getty villa. The Getty, in turn, redesigned its 6,000 pound glass doors so that the sculpture could easily span across the inside and outside of the pavilion.
But then, Irwin hit a snag. “One of the things that surprised all of us, even the stone experts, is that this is such fine black granite that it's much heavier than the granite most of the experts have seen — about 9,000 pounds more,” Perchuck says.
So radical measures had to be taken, and the team decided to core out the block from below. Singh says, “To take a 40,000 ton piece of granite and slash it through the middle is a pretty bold move. It requires a leap of faith — [Irwin] didn't know what it was going to look like when it was done.” No one entirely knew what the finished Black on White would look like, to say the least of Getty employees, who were running around the entry pavilion on the day of its installation in a quiet frenzy.
“I would be lying to you if I said I wasn't nervous about bringing in a 40,000 pound granite block,” Perchuck says.
But now, it's installed and configured, down to the last thirty-second of an inch (the team spent an hour moving the granite block to get the center line perfectly in place.) Black on White is an incredibly precise piece of sculpture, to say the least.
To see it in full is a dizzying experience, Perchuk says. “There's an incredible line that goes through the piece. The perfect slope. When you're looking at it, your vision has a certain velocity — it speeds up your vision.”
Black on White is on display at the Getty Museum through March 18, 2012. Look for an upcoming 'making-of' video on the Getty's website, which will feature interviews with Robert Irwin and Louie Carnevale about the entire process.
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