Art Trips: Visit the Art of Cities Around the World, from Los Angeles & London, to Venice and New York

When first we vis­it a city, even a small one, we can’t hope to see all of it. Hence the need for strate­gies of approach and explo­ration: do we walk its main streets? Eat its food and drink its drinks? Vis­it its most beloved book­stores? Sarah Urist Green gets into cities through their art, hard­ly a sur­pris­ing habit for the cre­ator of the PBS Dig­i­tal Stu­dios series The Art Assign­ment. We first fea­tured The Art Assign­ment five years ago here on Open Cul­ture, and Green and her col­lab­o­ra­tors have kept up the good work ever since. In that time their mis­sion of “trav­el­ing around the coun­try, vis­it­ing artists and ask­ing them to give you an art assign­ment” has expand­ed, tak­ing them out­side Amer­i­ca as well. On the road they’ve col­lect­ed not just mate­r­i­al for reg­u­lar episodes, but for spe­cial Art Trips as well.

Their first Art Trip to Los Ange­les, for instance, takes Green and com­pa­ny to the Ham­mer Muse­um, the gal­leries of Cul­ver City (one of which has a show up of Andy Warhol’s shad­ow paint­ings), the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Muse­um of Art (where they walk under Michael Heiz­er’s Lev­i­tat­ed Mass and through Chris Bur­den’s much-Insta­grammed Urban Light), and the then-new­ly-opened Broad Art Muse­um. In between they take side trips for refresh­ment at the not­ed ice cream sand­wich shop Cool­haus (named in hon­or of the Dutch archi­tect) and deep into the Inland Empire city of Bak­ers­field. This com­bi­na­tion of places expect­ed and unex­pect­ed comes not with­out the occa­sion­al tourist cliche, such as Green’s descrip­tion of “the most quin­tes­sen­tial of Los Ange­les expe­ri­ences: dri­ving.”

The Art Assig­ment’s return vis­it to the south­ern Cal­i­forn­ian metrop­o­lis focus­es on “the Los Ange­les hid­ing in plain sight” with Pacif­ic Stan­dard Time: LA/LA, a series of exhi­bi­tions all over the city on Lati­no and Lati­na artists at insti­tu­tions like the Craft and Folk Art Muse­um, the Los Ange­les Cen­tral Library, and the Gef­fen Con­tem­po­rary. All the while Green and her team eat plen­ty of tacos, as any Ange­leno would advise, and the final night of their stay finds them in Grand Park among the shrine-like hand­made offer­ings set up for Día de los Muer­tos, all of them craft­ed with an eeri­ness matched only by their good humor.

Los Ange­les has become an acknowl­edged art cap­i­tal over the past half-cen­tu­ry, but Lon­don, fair to say, has a bit more his­to­ry behind it. The Art Assign­ment’s time in the Eng­lish cap­i­tal coin­cides with Frieze Week, when gal­leries from all over the world descend on Regen­t’s Park to show off their most strik­ing artis­tic wares. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, the muse­ums and gal­leries based in the city use the same part of the year to sched­ule some of their most antic­i­pat­ed shows, turn­ing the few days of this Art Trip in Lon­don into a mad rush from Trafal­gar Square to the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery to the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Arts to the Cour­tauld Insti­tute of Art, by which point Green admits the onset of “mas­ter­piece over­load ” — but also has sev­er­al gal­leries, not to men­tion the main event of Frieze itself, to go.

Frieze Week does­n’t come to Detroit, the one­time cap­i­tal of Amer­i­can auto man­u­fac­tur­ing whose pop­u­la­tion peaked in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry and whose sub­se­quent hard times, cul­mi­nat­ing in the city’s 2013 bank­rupt­cy, have been chron­i­cled with both fas­ci­na­tion and despair. But The Art Assign­ment finds a Detroit apart from the ruined fac­to­ries, the­aters, and train sta­tions, the stuff of so many inter­net slideshows, at the Motown Muse­um and the Detroit Insti­tute of Arts (home to Diego River­a’s Detroit Indus­try Murals), as well as in folk-art envi­ron­ments like the famous Hei­del­berg Project and pub­lic-art envi­ron­ments like down­town Detroit, whose recent revival has proven as com­pelling as its long decline. But many ruins remain, and artists like Scott Hock­ing have found in them not just their sub­jects but their mate­ri­als as well.

More strik­ing than Detroit’s urban des­o­la­tion is that of anoth­er unlike­ly The Art Assign­ment des­ti­na­tion, Mar­fa, Texas. In his essay “The Repub­lic of Mar­fa,” Sean Wilsey describes it as “a hard­scrab­ble ranch­ing com­mu­ni­ty in the upper Chi­huahuan desert, six­ty miles north of the Mex­i­can bor­der, that inhab­its some of the most beau­ti­ful and intran­si­gent coun­try­side imag­in­able.” In the mid-1970s “the min­i­mal­ist artist Don­ald Judd moved to Mar­fa, exil­ing him­self from what he termed the ‘glib and harsh’ New York art scene, in order to live in a sort of high plains lab­o­ra­to­ry devot­ed to build­ing, sculp­ture, fur­ni­ture design, muse­ol­o­gy, con­ser­va­tion, and a dash of ranch­ing,” and his influ­ence — as well as the pres­ence of his large-scale instal­la­tions — helped to make Mar­fa “a sort of city-state of cat­tle­men, artists, writ­ers, fugi­tives, smug­glers, free-thinkers, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, sol­diers and seces­sion­ists.”

In Mar­fa Green explores the mon­u­men­tal work Judd left behind as well as the mon­u­men­tal work oth­er artists have since con­tributed, includ­ing a project in a con­vert­ed mil­i­tary bar­racks by neon artist Dan Flavin and a fake Pra­da store. Oth­er Art Trip des­ti­na­tions include the likes of Chica­go and Colum­bus, Indi­ana (mod­ern-archi­tec­ture mec­ca and set­ting of the recent fea­ture film by video essay­ist Kog­o­na­da) as well as Tijua­na and the Venice Bien­nale, all of which you can find on one playlist. Green has even done an Art Trip right where she lives, the “bland-lean­ing, chain restau­rant-lov­ing” Mid­west­ern city of Indi­anapo­lis — which boasts the Muse­um of Psy­ch­phon­ics, an under-free­way art instal­la­tion by Vito Acconci, and a fair few bike-share book-share sta­tions as well. We can nev­er ful­ly know the cities we don’t live in, but nor can we ever ful­ly know the cities we do live in either — which, if we nev­er­the­less enjoy the attempt as much as Green does, is no bad thing at all.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art Assign­ment: Learn About Art & the Cre­ative Process in a New Web Series by John & Sarah Green

Amer­i­can Cities Then & Now: See How New York, Los Ange­les & Detroit Look Today, Com­pared to the 1930s and 1940s

Tour the World’s Street Art with Google Street Art

Elec­tric Gui­tars Made from the Detri­tus of Detroit

Video Essay­ist Kog­o­na­da Makes His Own Acclaimed Fea­ture Film: Watch His Trib­utes to Its Inspi­ra­tions Like Ozu, Lin­klater & Mal­ick

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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