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5 Iconic L.A. Public Art Pieces that Made a Difference

Chris Burden's "Urban Light" | © Museum Associates/LACMA

Before Instagram locations or the proliferation of blogs, you mostly ran into public art when you saw it in your neighborhood or drove past it and craned your neck to get a quick glimpse. Public art encourages us to pause our routine, but there’s often more to it than just the visual layer we take in when we do. Below, we take a look at just five public artworks that play an important part in the city, both in a geographical and artistic way. These works continue to spark the next generation of creators, while reminding us of the history embedded within the blocks of this city. 

See how public art illuminates the issues and challenges of the city on "Artbound" S11 E3: Current:LA Food. Watch this preview.
S11 E3: Current:LA Food (Preview) Media Manager

Watts Towers


What began as Sabato (Simon) Rodia’s individual project became a self-built city monument.  Rodia started putting the pieces together in 1921, adding to it over time and once even saying his wife, Carmen, left him because of his obsession with the towers. It would go on to inspire artists across disciplines; you can spot it on the cover of albums — from the 1958 Harold Land album  “Harold in the Land of Jazz” all the way to Tyrese’s 2001 release “2000 Watts.” In the realm of visual art, the towers appear both in subtle and direct ways. Cauleen Smith’s 2018 installation “Give it or Leave It”included Billy Ray’s LIFE photographs of Black men in the Watts Towers just a year after the Watts riots. Artist Alison Saar told Hyperallergic that she distinctly remembers visiting the towers as a child, one of her earliest memories of seeing art. As a source of artistic inspiration — particularly for a neighborhood mired in racial and socio-economic stereotypes — the towers continue to energize the next generation of makers. In 1961, the Watts Towers Art Center took on preservation and renovation efforts; it also started offering sculpture, music, gardening and other creative classes. Watts Towers has received a spot on many lists of important sites, including the National Register of Historic Places.

"Great Wall of Crenshaw"

A segment of the "Great Wall of Crenshaw" | Flickr/Rob "Shawdog" Helfman
A segment of the "Great Wall of Crenshaw" | Flickr/Rob "Shawdog" Helfman, published with permission

Artist collective Rocking The Nation noticed that a wall along Crenshaw boulevard in South Central Los Angeles was unclaimed. Although previously spray-painted since around the 1960s, there wasn’t a cohesive look to the more than 7,000-square-foot concrete canvas. In 2000, the 12 artists transformed it into “The Crenshaw Wall” (or “Great Wall of Crenshaw”), which chronicles the passage of time — from the beginnings of the universe in the breath of a Black woman; to ancient Kemet; to civil and political movements, like the Black Panthers; to visions of the not-so-distant future. In a 2014 YouTube video, artist Enk One describes the mural as a work created “to teach our people love, and where we came from — and where we might possibly end up.” Artist Milon “Choise One” Mitchell hopes it can “continue to be the center of Black Los Angeles.” This proves especially important during a time in which South Central Los Angeles is just around the corner from major changes, like a new Metro Line set to run between Crenshaw/Exposition to LAX. The mural will also play a large role in Destination Crenshaw, an “outdoor and culture experience” designed to span 1.3 miles, including an open-air museum. In 2018, the mural was defaced with swastikas drawn on the faces of the Black Panther figures; the faces were restored and the importance of the mural reaffirmed. “The Crenshaw Wall” serves as a reminder of the history of the space and the importance of independent artists looking to beautify and homage to their neighborhood. 

"América Tropical"

Click right and left to see images of the mural:

América Tropical Interpretive Center | El Pueblo Historical Monument
1/3 América Tropical Interpretive Center | El Pueblo Historical Monument
América Tropical Interpretive Center | El Pueblo Historical Monument
2/3 América Tropical Interpretive Center | El Pueblo Historical Monument
América Tropical Interpretive Center | El Pueblo Historical Monument
3/3 América Tropical Interpretive Center | El Pueblo Historical Monument

One of the most controversy-stirring murals in Los Angeles actually hid in plain sight for decades. Mexican artist David Alfaro Siquieros’ “América Tropical,” was completed in 1932 but met with frustration. La Plaza Art Center originally commissioned a public artwork that depicted the lushness of tropical America, but Siquieros used the opportunity to highlight American imperialist violence towards Indigenous Mexican peoples. Just a year after Siquieros completed the mural — also known as “América Tropical Oprimida y Destrozada Por Los Imperialismos” — was summarily whitewashed. In the late 1960s, figures like art historian, activist and scholar Shifra Goldman started to dive deeper into the history and cultural significance of the mural. Goldman focused on the links between the piece and the 1970s Chicano movement in particular. Over the next few decades, experts and professionals banded together to discuss restoration efforts. But it wouldn’t be until the early 1990s that efforts were fully under way. The mural reopened to the public in 2012, along with an interpretive center and specific viewing hours to protect it from natural elements. According to the Getty Conservation Institute, it is the only mural by Siquieros in the United States that still stands in its original location. It nods to the hidden histories in Los Angeles (whitewashed or otherwise obscured), as well as the presence of the Mexican muralism movements in the city. 

"Blacklist"

Blacklist, 1999. A Public Work by Jenny Holzer. Collection of USC Fisher Museum of Art. This work is a gift of The First Amendment/Blacklist Project Committee. |  Courtesy of USC Fisher Museum of Art
1/3 Blacklist, 1999. A Public Work by Jenny Holzer. Collection of USC Fisher Museum of Art. This work is a gift of The First Amendment/Blacklist Project Committee. | Courtesy of USC Fisher Museum of Art
Detail shot of "Blacklist," 1999. A Public Work by Jenny Holzer. Collection of USC Fisher Museum of Art. This work is a gift of The First Amendment/Blacklist Project Committee. | Courtesy of USC Fisher Museum of Art
2/3 Detail shot of "Blacklist," 1999. A Public Work by Jenny Holzer. Collection of USC Fisher Museum of Art. This work is a gift of The First Amendment/Blacklist Project Committee. | Courtesy of USC Fisher Museum of Art
The pathway to "Blacklist," 1999. A Public Work by Jenny Holzer. Collection of USC Fisher Museum of Art. This work is a gift of The First Amendment/Blacklist Project Committee. | Courtesy of USC Fisher Museum of Art
3/3 The pathway to "Blacklist," 1999. A Public Work by Jenny Holzer. Collection of USC Fisher Museum of Art. This work is a gift of The First Amendment/Blacklist Project Committee. | Courtesy of USC Fisher Museum of Art

One of the more visually understated of Jenny Holzer’s work — which has lit major public buildings like the Guggenheim Museum — lies just outside of the University of Southern California’s Fisher Museum of Art. At first glance, “Blacklist” appears, simply, like a circle of benches on which art lovers can rest for a minute. But the benches, and the pathway leading up to this area of the garden, show phrases and names in all capital letters. The 1999 work revolves around the Hollywood Ten, a group of people in the filmmaking industry that refused to answer questions about their political leanings when under investigation by Congress. They would go one to be blacklisted, essentially barred from receiving work in the field. According to the Fisher Museum of Art’s website, Holzer situates “Blacklist” as “a monument to the First Amendment and a memorial to the creative artists and others who became victims of the Cold War.” The installation includes each member’s name, along with a quote to capture their attitudes towards the events. In light of Los Angeles and USC’s close relationship to the filmmaking industry, the installation serves as a reminder of a not-so-distant historical chapter. 

"Urban Light"

Chris Burden's "Urban Light" | © Museum Associates/LACMA
Chris Burden's "Urban Light" | © Museum Associates/LACMA

If you need a backdrop for your engagement, headshot, quinceañera, or wedding photos, chances are that a friend might suggest one luminescent space: “Urban Light.” Chris Burden’s 2008 sculpture is one of those rare public artworks on museum grounds that technically stays open to the public 24/7 (with security personnel there to make sure nothing illicit happens). Like a technological echo of the sunrise and sunset, the lights go on and off as the day progresses. Burden originally collected the lamp posts — two hundred and two in total — and arranged them around his studio. Outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, they became a final stop for travelers on their way to the airport and a rite of passage for native Angelenos. The artwork also chronicles the different styles of lamp posts in the city over the decades, subtly encouraging us to take a closer look at the fixtures around our own neighborhoods. 

Editor’s note: In the interest of transparency, the author of this piece previously worked for the Los Angeles County Art Museum.

Top Image: Chris Burden's "Urban Light" | © Museum Associates/LACMA

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