In 1965 architect Frank Gehry embarked on his first exhibition design with LACMA’s Art Treasures from Japan, organized by the museum’s curator of Far Eastern art, George Kuwayama. Gehry’s sensitive design featured elements of Japanese architecture—for example, rock gardens, wood post-and-beam construction for the barriers protecting sculptures, and dedicated niches for the artwork. The architect alluded to the low ceilings typical of Japan’s domestic architecture through cloth that delicately canopied from the ceiling.
Fifty years and 11 LACMA exhibitions later, the museum asked Gehry, on the occasion of his retrospective, to once again design a presentation of Japanese art, resulting in Screens, Scrolls, and Prints: Japanese Art from LACMA’s Collection, on view in the Resnick Pavilion through March 20, 2016.
This selection of works, each of which employs paper as its support, highlights the extraordinary diversity of styles, subject matter, and artistic techniques found in Japanese art created from the fifteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Gehry and longtime collaborator architect C. Gregory Walsh display the screens and scrolls on a plywood platform—wood being the predominant building material in Japan, and plywood, specifically, a preferred type for the architect—whose geometrical shape alludes to the accordion folds of a Japanese screen.
The gallery’s east wall is made of a newly developed type of Japanese vulcanized fiber, a pure cellulose paper that can be molded when wet and becomes hard and durable as it dries. A nod to Japanese shoji screens, the wall also reveals Gehry’s long-standing exploration of the historical depiction of folds in art. “The Renaissance painters were architects in a way,” he explains. “They were building shapes and things with fabric, and I became interested in that—Michelangelo’s drawings of fabric, the folds in Bernini’s sculpture.... I was looking for a language that had humanity to it, and the fold is primitive and consistent through every period of architecture and art.”
The wall exemplifies Gehry’s consistent exploration of new materials and technologies that challenge traditional tenets of structural engineering: during the Renaissance, a load-bearing wall needed to be made of a heavy, impenetrable stone, and modern architecture requires three layers (interior and exterior skins as well as the primary structure), but the vulcanized fiber, only millimeters in thickness, questions the function, necessity, and independence of the three layers. This and other developments in material research have the potential to provide architects unprecedented freedom.