The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

3/9/12

LACMA rock has mass attraction - latimes.com

LACMA rock has mass attraction

A 340-ton boulder on an odyssey from a quarry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art pulls in thousands of fans along the way.

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LACMA rock
Participants in a block party for the boulder dance in the Long Beach neighborhood of Bixby Knolls. The massive piece of granite is being moved at a stately pace from a Riverside County quarry to LACMA. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times / March 7, 2012)
Los Angeles' newest rock star, like so many before her, sleeps by day and rolls on by night, gathering, as they say, no moss.

She stops in one town after another — in Ontario, La Palma, Lakewood and Long Beach. In each, she tantalizes and mesmerizes, conjuring a joyful circus, even a few moments of unbridled exuberance that some might regret down the road. Then, just as her star is brightest, she moves on, as if someone had given her the same advice offered by Gypsy Rose Lee's mother: Always leave them wanting more.

Organizers knew moving a two-story-tall granite boulder from a Riverside County rock quarry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art would be a logistical trial. The rock, after all, destined as the centerpiece of a massive art installation, weighs 340 tons. It is being toted 105 miles in a steel sling by a 176-wheel transport truck that is nearly as wide as three freeway lanes, at speeds so slow that some escorts have been on foot.

What museum leaders and transportation officials could not have anticipated, however, was the carnival that would surround the rock on its 11-day journey.

It started with small groups of spectators as the rock rumbled west through the suburbs of the Inland Empire. Then the crowds kept growing. By the time it reached the Bixby Knolls section of Long Beach on Wednesday, it had become a phenomenon.

An estimated 20,000 people came to Atlantic Avenue for what became a street festival in honor of the rock. Local artists painted renderings. Onlookers said they had taken vacation days from work to be there. The party lasted five hours longer than planned; community organizers had to beg a disc jockey to stick around.

The big move has given many who rarely get to the L.A. museum a sneak preview of what LACMA hopes will become a permanent installation as iconic as its "Urban Light" lampposts on Wilshire Boulevard. Visitors will be able to walk through an underground channel below the "levitating" rock. LACMA expects the free installation to open in the late spring or summer.

"We're going to go to LACMA in the next 10, 20, 30 years and say: 'I remember when that huge rock was in Bixby Knolls, right on Atlantic Avenue,'" said Long Beach City Councilman James Johnson.

In some ways, it's hard to fathom all the hype. The rock is, after all, just a rock — a mere pebble, really, that broke from a massive sea of cooled magma that percolated beneath what is now North America 100 million years ago, give or take. The installation, "Levitated Mass," is so highly abstract that some question whether it is art at all. And the artist, Nevada resident Michael Heizer, is famously reclusive. He's not expected to arrive in California until later this month, and it's unclear if he's fully aware of the spectacle he's created.

None of that has had a shred of a dampening effect.

As the crowds built, necks craned in downtown Long Beach when workers felled two palm trees in order to squeeze through (the trees will be replaced). Fans cheered wildly when handlers navigated an underpass with inches to spare. Then, they danced — to the theme song from "Rocky," naturally. In town after town, the impromptu geological be-ins have brought musicians, stilt-walkers, artists imitating art, paparazzi on Rollerblades, raucous fans dressed as Flintstones characters and at least one marriage proposal.

In Ontario, a few days into the odyssey, Ramone Vasquez had been waiting patiently for his lumbering metaphor to roll into town.

He and his girlfriend, Maria, spent a few minutes taking it all in. "Big, huh?" he said — as much an understatement as the "Oversize Load" warnings painted on the rock's escort trucks.

Then Vasquez dropped to one knee. "Maybe that rock won't fit on your finger," he said. "But maybe this one will." She said yes.

Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Assn., said he wasn't sure anyone would show up for the event his group organized at the rock.

"I finally got it when I was there," Cohn said. "I get the spectacle of it. I get the engineering part of it — it is totally fascinating....It's really odd, and I didn't expect it, but you get kind of attached to it."

The rock will rest Friday on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, north of Florence Avenue, and is scheduled to land at LACMA in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

LACMA officials said Southern California's reaction makes sense.

Michael Govan, LACMA's director, pointed out that carvings celebrating people moving monolithic stones date back thousands of years, and that tens of thousands of people turned out in 1880 to watch horses and masons wrestle the Cleopatra's Needle obelisk into place in New York's Central Park.

"But, no — I don't think we could have imagined this," Govan conceded. "I wasn't expecting this kind of outpouring of expression and love."

Like any modern celebrity, of course, the rock is leaving a significant cyber footprint.

Not everyone is a fan. There is now a Facebook page called "The Stupid LACMA Boulder."

One man from Tennessee wrote: "I'll sell you some rocks from my backyard, cheap!" An artist wrote on LACMA's Facebook page: "That money could buy a lot of crayons for our nonexistent art classes."

(The project's $10-million price tag has been financed by private donors — who might be heartened to learn that beneath its white tarp, the rock is swaddled in high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets so it doesn't get scratched.)

The rock, meanwhile, is pushing back with a Twitter account of its own — with a special assist from Andrew Veis, a spokesman in L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe's office.

No rock pun is too ham-handed for this boulder; the rock has given shout-outs to its "marble-ous" fans, chose "rock" in a game of rock, paper, scissors, and took the time to dispense a bit of wisdom: "If this journey to @LACMA has taught me anything, it's 'You can't take anything for granite.'"

scott.gold@latimes.com

deborah.vankin@latimes.comLACMA rock has mass attraction - latimes.com