« Maybe Miami's humidity isn't so bad after all | Main | Travel tips from Anthony Bourdain »

Road trip attraction: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Urbanlight1I was drawn to the massive Los Angeles County Museum of Art in part because of Edward Kienholz’s Five Car Stud (1969–72), an installation piece depicting white men doing exceptionally gruesome violence to a black man they caught drinking with a white woman. The tableau, arranged in the dirt, is illuminated by the headlights of the men’s cars, which pick out hundreds of shoe prints of people who have walked around the scene. It is a powerful work of art –- and powerfully painful to behold. This is the first U.S. exhibition of the civil-rights piece, which was shown in Germany, then was in storage in Japan for almost 40 years.

Five Car Stud is one of five exhibitions that the museum will have as part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. Dozens of museums across the Los Angeles metro area and the Getty Trust are collaborating on this project and will have more than 60 exhibitions that will run into early spring, all tracking the evolution of post-war contemporary art in Southern California.

The county Museum of Art is an enormous complex, so big it has not wings but standalone museums that happen to be grouped together. MJ&BubblesEdited My favorite is the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, designed by Renzo Piano. The Broad features permanent exhibitions of the works of Andy Warhol (including the iconic can of Cambell's Tomato soup), and Jeff Koons’ 1988 porcelain representation of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, Bubbles.

Outside the entrance to the complex is Urban Light, an arrangement of 202 antique street lights of different styles, by Chris Burden, that was installed almost four years ago. It’s eye-catching, especially at night, when the lights create a golden glow, and is extremely popular. On the evening I visited, I was lucky to see another Chris Burden sculpture being prepared for exhibit inside the Broad: Metropolis II, a large, kinetic sculpture of a city skyline, laced with tracks on which toy cars roll along. The work was still partially bound in opaque white shrink wrap, above which skyscrapers built of varied materials rose. Watching two men work on it –- and for all I know, one of them could have been Burden -– was in some ways more enlightening than seeing the finished product.

 Even those of us who didn't have any schooling in art appreciation recognize certain names and what they were known for. Warhol and his variations of the same picture with different color combinations. Picasso and body parts moved around like mixed-up puzzle pieces. Rubens and his voluptuous women.

And so it is with Monet and his water lilies, Lichtenstein and his dots. One might think that the early Impressionist and the man who put comic-book-type illustrations on canvas have little in common -- or at least that's what I thought until I saw Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals at the Broad.

More important than his Water Lilies series were Monet's paintings of the cathedral at Rouen, France, done in 1892-1895. He painted more than 30 canvases in different seasons and at different times of day, illustrating how different light created variations in color and shadow on the facade of the building. They were considered a hallmark of Impressionism.

More than 70 years after Monet created those paintings, Roy Lichtenstein recreated them in his own Pop art style. Using dots and primary colors, Lichtenstein painted the cathedral at Rouen under different lighting conditions. The result: the facade in dots of yellow and white; red and yellow; red, white and blue; yellow and black; and blue and black.

Five paintings of Rouen by each artist are on display, side by side, both series making the same point about light using entirely different styles. For someone like me, whose entire art education comes from hanging out in art museums, the exhibit added one more tiny building block to my knowledge of art. The Rouen works are on display until Jan. 2.

Photos: Chris Burden's 'Urban Light' Jeff Koons' 'Michael Jackson and Bubbles.' The Los Angeles County Museum of Art allows photography of permanent exhibits but not special exhibits, such as 'Five Car Stud' or the Rouen cathedrals.