Getty’s Modernist Palace: Not For the Hoity-Toity

As we swoop down the San Diego Freeway, my stepdaughter looks up at the off-white Getty Center atop the Sepulveda Pass and says, “It’s a research hospital.” Exactly, thinks this New Yorker. An immense medical complex aiming to cure, or at least coax into remission, the sprawl-cum-city that has become the template for most of America’s growing conurbations. A mountaintop temple consecrated to conspicuous civilization in the thereless there-how much more L.A. does it get? You mobilize all your anticipatory Schadenfreude and prepare for an experience of giddy wealth, all dressed up in gaudiness with nothing to buy. Wrong.

The Getty is accessible from its own exit (just as the Paris Metro has not one but two stops named Louvre) and at the end of the offramp, waved in by a phalanx of attendants, you park. (Spaces are just about sold out through October, and while you can get to the lot by public bus, you’re not guaranteed entrance.) You step into L.A.’s most reliable mass transit system, a slow train up the hill from the parking lot, on a track doubling back above and parallel to the freeway. Ahead of you looms this modernist palace complex dedicated, it seems at first, to depriving you of your bearings. The glaringly huge plaza brings out the Pharaonic effect, and on a sun-saturated morning, the solar splendor is so harsh you’ve got to wear shades lest the Temple of Getty become the last thing you’ll ever behold before you go blind.

And yet, as you totter around, drunk on light, stone, sky and hills, the Pharaonic image fades and the easy L.A. jokes shut down. Architect Richard Meier has made a modernist masterpiece that enters into a spectacular swath of nature and becomes an outcropping of nature itself. Horizontally sprawling like the megalopolis it bestrides, the whole adds up to Mr. Meier’s spilling stone and aluminum, a concatenation mainly surfaced with travertine marble,1.2 million square feet of it in 30-by-30-inch units, cleft from the quarry near Rome, split along the grain (each piece unique, many bearing the fossils of ancient leaves), and aluminum panels, also in uniform squares. The perfect geometries, the shadows, reflections and light patterns, remind you how works of reason fit into the rhythms of nature. Nearby are fine waterworks, including a lovely minimalist micro-canal designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin-unfortunately marred by barricades, no doubt placed at the insurance company’s behest lest anyone twist an ankle. (A pool in the atrium has likewise been raggedly bordered with flowers to keep people from stepping into the water.) Robert Irwin’s Central Garden, trickling down a hillside, is a gorgeous spillway of greenery, flowers and a stream-already resplendent in olfactory and auditory ways, as well as visual, even before the bougainvillea has had the time to grow in.

The detail work is astounding. There are multiple cafes with reasonable food reasonably priced. Across from the restrooms, where the delicate faucet fixtures are worth your attention, are couches of (incorrectly enough) leather made from the hide of some animal whose existence was hitherto unsuspected. (I do hope it’s not an endangered species.) There’s a children’s room-so vast it seems more of a pavilion-where kids can dress up in costumes and a play a zillion games.

As you walk into and out of galleries, you see the sky, various skylines and hills framed by the travertine. No view repeats. If Valley girls hadn’t appropriated the term, you would have to say that this totality is totally awesome.

Oh, and then there’s the art. Well, the J. Paul Getty Trust may have the most Pharaonic endowment in the world, $4.2 billion-six times the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s-but there’s a depth that money can’t buy at this late date, even if you can afford to plunk down a reported $54 million for Vincent van Gogh’s lavish Irises , or $30 million for a Cézanne Still Life With Apples so pure in its proto-Cubism that it calls to mind a story Herbert Marcuse once told. A critic put forward the notion that all art is critical. A challenger stuck out his finger at a Cézanne and took up the dare, declaring: “Yes, well, of what is that a critique?” The answer: “Sloppy thinking.” Among the unheralded paintings there are some fine Géricaults, including a racy little Three Lovers . Furnished roomfuls of the French 17th and 18th centuries are more the Gettys’ thing, not my cup of stuff, but I have never seen so resplendent a desk as Bernard Van Risenburgh’s.

Mighty impressive and, so far as I know, unique, in an exhibit on archaeology (on display through Jan. 17, 1999) called Beyond Beauty: Antiquities as Evidence , is a big-screen virtual reality model of Trajan’s Forum in Rome, designed with the University of California at Los Angeles’ School of Architecture and Urban Planning, displaying what the Forum-which I had ignorantly thought of as an outdoor site-would have looked like if it had come with one or another type of roof. This is where the new electronics finally surpass the whiz-bang let’s-do-it-just-because-we-can-do-it spirit and convey a strong art-education experience. In another building is a wonderful Ed Ruscha painting, the 23-foot-high Picture Without Words , that rhymes with the cathedral-esque space where it is installed and that forces me to reconsider his work, since it’s the first of his I’ve seen that seems more than a gag.

The art is the lure, but most of what I saw during a three-hour visit (I didn’t get to photography, or do much with the renowned antiquities) is only a pretext for getting you out into a great public space. The relative thinness of the painting collection accentuates the immensity of the whole as at once a natural forum and a modernist monument. A white-haired man in a wheelchair was being rolled up a long serpentine ramp. He yelled over his shoulder to his companion: “This was not built for the hoity-toity, this was built for the ordinary Joe.” He’s right. L.A., to put it mildly, is not flush in public spaces, and a traffic jam, modernist marvel as it may be in its own way, is no crowd, but a metallic substitute. The crowds at the Getty thicken to subway densities, partly because they have a reason to cluster in public, on foot, for once.

We were at the Getty the weekend that the news came that Frank Sinatra had left the earth, leaving behind his peerless museum of music. The linkage is irresistible. J. Paul Getty was a Sinatra kind of guy-a swashbuckler and, for much of the 30′s, a fascist. His talent, of course, was for moneymaking. Getty and Sinatra, American titans, doing it their ways, making careers out of not giving a good goddamn. If you want saints, go to church. If it’s a quarter to 3 and you’re yearning, the voice you want is Sinatra’s. If you want magnificence, go to the Getty.