NEA Arts Magazine

On Cloud Nine

Magritte at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art


 View of the gallery, showing the blue floor with white clouds and Magritte paintings on the walls

A view of the Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images  exhibition, gallery space designed by California artist John Baldessari. Photo courtesy of Museum Associates/LAMCA.

Stephanie Barron's feet rest on a large swatch of cloud-covered carpet that she keeps under her desk at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It's a memento from one of the most popular exhibits that she has curated in recent years: Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images. The NEA supported the exhibition with a $20,000 grant.

From November 2006 through March 2007, LACMA invited Angelenos to walk through a 12-foot-high door and into a world with clouds-on-blue carpeting, highways painted on the ceiling, and, of course, art on the walls. "You almost felt, when you walked into the exhibition, as if you were inside a Magritte painting," Barron said.

Belgian artist René Magritte possibly is most famous for his surrealist paintings of men wearing bowler hats. In Magritte and Contemporary Art, Barron set out to prove Magritte was not a purveyor of pop culture clichés, but a highly influential 20th-century artist. She chose 68 of Magritte's most iconic paintings -- many on loan from European museums -- and hung them alongside 69 works by 31 contemporary artists. The exhibition demonstrated how Magritte's approach to images and words strongly interested artists for generations after him, affecting the content and style of their own work.

Before installing the artwork in four rooms at LACMA, Barron took the unusual step of hiring the California artist John Baldessari to design the gallery space. "Baldessari is one of those artists who had an enormous affection for Magritte's sensibility," Barron said. He designed the exhibit space, which also included faux foam columns, and painted the walls in a way that played with viewers' depth perception. A few of the featured living artists were wary when they heard about the unorthodox gallery displays, but they trusted Baldessari's judgment.

Critics raved about the design. "It's magnificent, really," Andrew Berardini opined in Artforum. "And [it] highlights the irreverence in the LA aesthetic."

Given that southern California is blessed with several renowned museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, it's easy to forget that LACMA is actually the largest museum on the West Coast. Magritte and Contemporary Art competed with dozens of other special exhibits in the area. Barron and Baldessari were amazed at how many people heard about the exhibit through word of mouth. Total attendance topped 140,000. More teachers, from second grade on up, wanted their students to see the exhibit than LACMA had time to take on tours. Some of the images from the collection are available in LACMA's online collection for educators' use.

"It's a show that has continued to resonate for people," Barron said. "It just clicked. We had terriffc art . . . and we packaged the whole thing in an environment that was enormously visitor friendly."