MCASD architect to give free lecture in La Jolla

Vaulting into the Light: Architect chosen for MCASD gallery expansion, Annabelle Selldorf, to discuss work Nov. 19

As abstract painter Ad Reinhardt’s oft-repeated observation goes, in art “less is more.”

However, when it comes to having adequate gallery space to display the works of famed minimalist painters in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s (MCASD) permanent collection — including Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Agnes Martin — more is decidedly more, says the museum’s director, Hugh Davies.

While MCASD can showcase larger works and installation pieces at its downtown San Diego location, it has only 10,000 square feet of gallery space at its La Jolla campus, with the highest ceilings at 13 feet.

MCASD’s La Jolla collection includes Ellsworth Kelly’s 1963 oil on canvas painting “Red Blue Green,” which was reproduced on the cover of the collegiate art history text, “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.” Museum guests from as far as Japan and Germany have asked to view the famed work, to which Davies said he has regrettably had to reply, “It’s in storage.”

“Ellsworth Kelly has told me on more than one occasion that it is one of his favorites, if not his emblematic work, and he’s very proud that we have it here,” Davies said. “It’s really a terrible failing on our parts that we don’t have that painting on view and available all the time.”

Also languishing in storage are nearly 40 works by the artist Christo (donated by the late art patron David C. Copley), as well as a 10-foot by 10-foot flower painting by Andy Warhol that only fits in one of MCASD’s current galleries, typically used for traveling exhibitions. The museum will also be hard-pressed to find space for works by world-class artists such as Gerhard Richter, Barnett Newman and Francis Bacon that it has been promised. “We’re derelict in our civic responsibility not to be sharing these works on a permanent basis,” Davies said.

However, museum officials see a solution in the 30-foot-tall walls of MCASD’s underutilized 1959 Sherwood Auditorium — an ideal spot to create additional gallery space for such works. (La Jolla Music Society has announced plans to build its own performing arts center on Fay Avenue, and would no longer need Sherwood).

If all goes as planned, Davies and MCASD board trustees hope to generate enough interest and money to have New York-based Selldorf Architects transform Sherwood into a showcase for its collection, while providing additional space for traveling installations and contextual works.

The firm’s principal, Annabelle Selldorf, will discuss her work — including the design of other art galleries, museums and libraries in the U.S. and abroad — during a free public lecture, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19 at MCASD’s Sherwood Auditorium, 700 Prospect St. The lecture is free, but reservations are required by e-mail: lecture@MCASD.org

Selldorf’s work ranges from contemporary art galleries, such as David Zwirner, the first LEED-certified commercial art gallery in the U.S., to the Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility, a recycling plant and education center on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Speaking with La Jolla Light last month, Selldorf recounted her visits to La Jolla, during which she studied the MCASD campus and the works in its back-of-house collection, and marveled at her first in-person visits to the Salk Institute and buildings by La Jolla’s architectural founding father, Irving Gill, who designed the original, existing piece of MCASD La Jolla that once served as philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps’ 1915 home. (See related story on B1.)

“I love Gill’s architecture,” she said. “I think it’s a precursor to modern architecture. There’s a kind of beauty and sincerity about the work that is really amazing.”

After viewing MCASD’s collection, Selldorf said it was “immediately clear that there had to be better gallery space … that takes advantage of the natural beauty of La Jolla. … It’s really about those two things — more art and better spaces for art that really make it sing with the location.”

Selldorf said the site’s “steep topography,” as well as La Jolla’s restrictions on height and lot coverage make it a “complicated site.”

“From Coast (Boulevard) that elevation could really use a little bit of opening up to show a friendlier face to the public,” she said. “Right now it’s just a sort of jumble of volumes that have very few windows and are architecturally quite harsh.”

The museum is seeking to add nearly 30,000 square feet of gallery space, with the center of it being the 8,000-square-foot, repurposed Sherwood Auditorium. It would be surrounded by additional, wrap-around gallery space and, potentially, outdoor terraces, Davies said. The auditorium would become a single high-ceilinged gallery, naturally lit and devoid of columns.

The renovation would quadruple MCASD’s La Jolla gallery space.

However, Davies said, it all depends on what is allowed per La Jolla’s discretionary review process, city codes and the California Coastal Commission (which oversees permits for coastal development). If all goes well and money can be raised for the project (estimated to cost $30 million-$50 million) Davies said it wouldn’t break ground until the fall of 2017, with the La Jolla campus most likely closed during construction, which would take a minimum of two years.

The last expansion, completed by architect Robert Venturi in 1996, took more than 10 years from concept to ribbon cutting, Davies said, adding he hopes to present Selldorf’s concepts to one of La Jolla’s city advisory groups while she is in town this month.

Part of the redesign might involve moving the main entrance, which Davies said first-time visitors have difficulty locating.

During her presentation, Selldorf said she will likely share a nascent concept, with drawings and site models. “It’s first and foremost a presentation of the kind of work we do … our process and our approach to contemporary architecture,” she said. “I try to make work that’s very clear and simple and that essentially has people at the center. … It’s not aggressive or gestural. It has to sort of be confident, but it’s in the service (of the building’s function).

“People often think architecture is just what you see, but architecture oftentimes is what it does. It’s about finding the right proportions, the right rendition of light, understanding how you circulate in the space and doing that with specificity and precision, tailored to the very situation, to the very context.”

Selldorf Architects recently finished a redesign of the historic Martha Washington Hotel in New York City and is concurrently part of a team working on concepts for Luma Arles, a contemporary art center in France that involves the conversion of two historic railway structures into exhibition halls.

Davies promised that, for those attending the lecture, “it will be very clear that (Selldorf) is foremost among designers of galleries for contemporary art. She’s done many galleries in Europe and in New York, so she’s very familiar with these works and knows what spaces … suit them to their best advantage. … She’s not egotistically thumping her chest and wanting to make a building that screams that it’s by Annabelle Selldorf. She understands that a building that is more recessive and sedate makes for a much more successful museum in the short and the long run.” Online: mcasd.org

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