t a time when the words “big box” are spat out as insult of overconsumption, Zellnerplus’s recent project, the Matthew Marks Gallery in West Hollywood, is a windowless medium-sized. Architect Peter Zellner designed a 3,000 square foot study in restraint. A single (albeit elongated) glass door opens onto two white-walled galleries lit by a deceivingly simple grid of skylights, six rectangular apertures centered in the larger space. The venue opened its West Coast outpost in late January with the exhibition Ellsworth Kelly: Los Angeles, a collection of the 88-year old artist’s spare geometries.
Outside, a 5,000-pound, fourty-foot-long metal sculpture by Kelly dominates the façade. Defiant under the glare of the Southern Californian sun, the piece draws heavily from earlier artworks made in other climates: Study for Black and White Panels, a 1954 collage made in Paris, and Black Over White, which Kelly painted in New York City in 1966. The artist and the architect collaborated on the installation, suspending the artwork ten inches from the face of the stucco exterior to form either an erstaz entablature or a kind of censored signage. “One afternoon I was standing outside the gallery and an old woman passing by looked up at the Kelly and wondered what the sign would say,” recalls Zellner. “The building is either camouflaged or uncanny.”
And indeed, the gallery does seem posed between the two terms: camouflaged, as in blending into the commercial vernacular along Santa Monica Boulevard, and uncanny, broadcasting a disquieting muteness. Understanding this oscillation requires a bit of backstory on Zellner’s design. The addition of the sculpture came late in the process as the architect and the gallerist worked closely with the John Chase, the visionary planner for City of West Hollywood who passed away in 2011. The trio were in the midst of convincing the city that that there is an argument to be made for minimalism for art-use spaces, and Kelly’s artwork solidified their stance, transforming the whole building into a piece of public art.
However, early in the project’s development, he undertook a typological study. Following Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip, he photographed the anonymous, blank-faced commercial buildings that serve as endless infill: warehouses with roll-up doors, shuttered upholstery shops leftover from an earlier era, and other unremarkable facades decorated with security grills and air conditioners. Taken together, the black and white photographs make a case for finding the beauty in reductive everyday architecture.
Yet Zellner isn’t content with simply quotidian references; a Southern California native, his architectural vocabulary is built on a history of reductive design: white-walled missions and Irving Gill’s early 20th Century abstractions of them. Or Frank Gehry’s first projects such as the Danziger Studio (1965) and Gemini Studio Building (1976) that push the blank stucco facades out of the realm of mid-century modernism and into a taut minimalism. “There is absolutely a local language,” he explains with authority.
At Matthew Marks, that legacy is played out in the choice of material: stucco. The success of any minimalist endeavor often turns on how simple gestures evoke intense meaning. For Zellner, stucco resonates with his childhood in the Valley — of a time when he knocked his hand against a stucco wall. He still has a scar on his left knuckle. For anyone who grew up around these kinds of boxes, the material is a reminder that no matter how blank, the architecture is certainly not benign. For the façade, Zellner’s office prepared twelve stucco samples from fine to heavy dash finish and brought them Kelly’s studio in Spencertown, New York. The artist chose a middle dash to complement his sculpture.
Zellner gets excited when I tell him that the afternoon I visited the gallery, a shadow of a telephone pole had landed smack in the middle of the façade, disrupting the pure harmony between his architecture and Kelly’s sculpture. There’s only a parking lot across the street from the gallery, so there’s no other shade, just the encroachment of urban infrastructure on the west-facing edifice. “Those shadows couldn’t be cast with the same intensity anywhere else,” says Zellner. “The minimalism that I refer to is not John Pawson minimalism, but the minimalism Isozaki attempted, or Gehry’s minimalism. It’s California minimalism.”