“And the wind went sighing over the land,
Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand –
So what could I do but laugh and go?”
~Richard Le Gallienne, I Meant To Do My Work Today
Winter has been lingering longer than usual in Southern California, transforming rain-drenched hills into blankets of emerald green. Frost-covered lawns, moody skies and winds that howl like coyotes in nearby canyons have been peppering this usually temperate part of the planet. No one is complaining, grateful for the possibility of water reservoirs filled to the brim, but a bit of proverbial cabin fever has been lurking about. When a big yellow sun appeared in last weekend’s forecast, I knew it was time to make some plans.
Our destination was The Getty Center – art museum, architectural wonder and garden-filled masterpiece in the Los Angeles hills. Herb and I first visited The Getty ten years ago to see a touring Bernini exhibition, and I remember being overwhelmed by the spectacular setting. On this visit, we had no specific itinerary, hoping to take in whatever the day had to offer.
We arrived at the Getty’s parking garage shortly before its 9:30 a.m. opening. An attendant directed us to a lot across the street, where we waited with other early arriving cars until the garage opened. Admission to The Getty is free, but there is a fee to park in the garage. At precisely 9:30, we headed back across the street, parked the car and boarded the tram to the top of the hill.
The Getty sits on 110 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains. Created from the vision of oil industrialist and art collector J. Paul Getty, who willed most of his personal estate to the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust, the Center was designed by architect Richard Meier and opened to the public in 1977. The Getty website states that Getty’s will “turned his small namesake museum into the wealthiest art museum in the world.”
We walked past the main entrance and headed behind the museum toward the Central Garden. Created by artist Robert Irwin, the multi-tiered landscape is a destination unto itself. Walkways lined with bronze moldings and zigzag patterned stones wind their way downhill, across bridges, over streams, past an impossible variety of plants, trees and flowers. A waterfall spills into a circular azalea pond, the garden’s defining centerpiece. Nearby a sculpture garden decorates the Lower Terrace, with distant views of the LA skyline. It’s a place filled with tremendous solitude and quiet beauty, and even in the bare-branched season of late winter, it’s surprisingly lush.
We walked back to the museum’s main entrance, stopping at the information desk for a map. The Getty is actually a series of pavilions connected by terraces and outdoor spaces. The interior and exterior environments flow together seamlessly. It’s a modern structure to be sure, but the Italian travertine exterior gives it a warm, timeless feel, as if The Getty has been perched on that hillside for a very long time.
After reviewing the museum map, we narrowed our focus to the West Pavilion, home of the Impressionists, and the East Pavilion, where Rembrandt and the Dutch masters are housed. The galleries are welcoming and easy to navigate, with muted walls and herringbone-patterned wood floors.
The most surprising treat turned out to be the exterior walkway connecting the two pavilions. A sweeping patio offers panoramic views of LA, from the downtown skyline to snow-covered distant mountains. It’s a perfect viewing spot for one of those days when people will tell you, “On a clear day you can see all the way to…”
As we turned the corner along the walkway and looked back toward where we’d been, a sculpture called Seated Cardinal came into view. We had passed it earlier, but from this angle, the inclined figure was even more striking. Two rows of symmetrical columns and an outdoor ceiling form a doorway that frames the sculpture – a moment of art, architecture and environment coming together in an extraordinary way.
Morning had turned to early afternoon by the time we finished our Getty Center visit. We stopped at the Terrace Café for a quick lunch before moving on to our next destination, the Getty Villa. The café offers outdoor seating overlooking the Central Garden, and visitors are even welcome to have a picnic on the lawn. But this was not a picnic kind of day. Instead, I had my sights set on a bowl of hot soup. It was still winter in Southern California, after all.