LOS ANGELES — The Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is easy to neglect during a visit there. Set somewhat off from the cluster of buildings that form the main campus, the pavilion is exclusively devoted to Japanese art spanning from prehistory to the present. I’ve never been in the company of more than a handful of fellow patrons whenever I’ve gone, but it is one of the most distinctive exhibition spaces in the city. Yesterday, LACMA announced that the Pavilion will be closing for renovations starting February 5 for two years, leaving locals with precious little time to explore the space before a lengthy hiatus. “While minor cosmetic fixes have been made over the years,” the LACMA blog post states, “the pavilion is due for a comprehensive makeover.”
The Pavilion for Japanese Art was the last structure designed by architect Bruce Goff, completed and opened in 1988, years after his death. It was initially divisive, and the LACMA blog cites critics of the time describing the structure as resembling the likes of “warrior helmets, dinosaurs, mastodons from the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits, ships, and giant shells.” Goff, a devotee of organic style, ensured that whatever one sees when they look upon the building, it would leave an impression of anything but the conventional. There are hardly any right angles either within or outside; the Pavilion is made of curves and points, both sinuous and spiky. It looks “Japanese” in an archetypical sense rather than a concrete one, its form alluding to everything from torii gates to bamboo shoots to bunched-up scrolls.
The Pavilion’s interior has several distinct exhibition spaces. On the main floor is a gallery of netsuke (carved figurines used to fasten carrying boxes to kimonos). An upper space in the west wing houses artifacts dating back thousands of years, as well as the Pavilion’s temporary exhibits (currently a collection of beautiful cloisonné enamel works).
But most impressive is the east wing’s three-floor gallery hosting paintings, screens, and other works. Though there are some contemporary pieces, it mainly showcases Edo Period scroll prints, and does so in a way comparable to how they would have originally been displayed, in recesses similar to traditional tokonoma. The walls of the gallery are made of a translucent fiberglass material called Kalwall, allowing the space to fill with natural light. There are no stairs; ramps wind their way through the various levels like fern fronds or curling streams, creating a blissfully unhurried viewing experience.
The Pavilion is one of the few current LACMA buildings that will survive the museum’s impending massive reconstruction, which will replace much of the current campus with an enormous, street-spanning single complex. But if you haven’t been yet, I highly recommend making the trip in the next four days to one of LA’s best, most underrated art spaces while you have the opportunity.