THE BLOG
11/19/2013 07:49 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hidden in Plain Sight: Great Art in Downtown LA

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Funny things happened on my way to a meeting in Downtown LA last week; by mistake, I arrived one hour early. With time to kill, I decided to walk around the neighborhood, which happened to be in the very heart of our city's business district. God knows how many years it's been since, instead of driving I simply strolled down Figueroa and Flower near 5th -- just a stone's throw from LA Central Library.

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City National Plaza (previously known as ARCO Plaza) is blessed with one of the most beautiful public artworks in LA - an imposing, monumental fountain sculpture by Austrian-born artist Herbert Bayer (1900-1985) titled "Double Ascension." Its twisted red metal steps, going up and down, evoke for me the dance glamour of Busby Berkeley's musicals. Hey, aren't we in Hollywood after all? There is no doubt in my mind that Herbert Bayer, with his teaching experience at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, somehow developed a taste for Hollywood movies. And by the way, the original and rather enticing title that Bayer gave to the sculpture was "Stairway to Nowhere," but corporate executives rejected it, saying that it did not properly reflect company goals.

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Catty-corner from City National Plaza sits Citigroup Center, once known as the Wells Fargo Building. In the early '80s, with advice from MOCA, bank executives commissioned several prominent American artists to create site-specific artworks. As a result, when you stroll through the public spaces of Citigroup Center -- on its plaza levels and garden terraces above -- you will discover a hidden-in-plain-sight treasure trove of monumental works by the who's who of contemporary American art.

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Let's start with Michael Heizer's sculptural installation consisting of four seemingly simple stainless steel geometric forms, which echo the spirit of Imperial Roman architecture. It's amazing that, thirty years later, Michael Heizer, still in top form, created for us in LA, his gigantic "Levitated Mass," now on the LACMA campus.

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At the very end of the plaza hangs a huge wall sculpture by Frank Stella, which is easy to miss as it is tucked away deep behind Heizer's sculptures. Made out of brightly painted honeycombed aluminum and fiberglass panels, Stella's work recalls the tangled web of LA's winding roads and freeways. Thirty some years after this Stella piece, Chris Burden created his mind-boggling "portrait" of LA freeways, "Metropolis II," with its thousands of tiny cars running nonstop in one of LACMA's ground level galleries.

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Going one level above the plaza, I rediscovered a large horizontal sculpture by Robert Rauschenberg, with his trademark collage of images of newspapers, maps, paintings, fabrics, and books -- all tacked behind a thick layer of plastic. If you were standing in front of this sculpture in a museum, you wouldn't dare touch it. But here, on the terrace, people comfortably rest their behinds on this great work of art, which is probably exactly how Rauschenberg wanted it to be.

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It takes some ingenuity to find your way to one of the upper garden terraces, but if you succeed, you will be rewarded by the sight of the 45-foot high metal sculpture by Mark DiSuvero, weighing 25 tons and constructed from 13 I-beams painted bright, vivid red. Even when you're driving through this intersection off Flower and 5th, you can easily catch a glimpse of this towering DiSuvero sculpture, which to me looks like an abstract dream of a Christmas tree.

So I hope that you, adventurous art lovers, will treat yourself to the pleasure of seeing this museum-quality public art collection in the very heart of LA. But here is a little warning: don't even try to find nameplates to identify and describe all these prominent artworks. Such nameplates are simply nowhere to be found. Could it be that corporate executives believe that it would be safer not to let the general public know how extremely valuable all these sculptures are?

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Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.