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Author Maria Hummel's Guide to Outdoor Art in Los Angeles

Hummel shares her favorite places to view art outdoors in the City of Angels.


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Maria Hummel, author of the L.A.-based thriller Still Lives—the August book pick for Reese’s Book Club x Hello Sunshine—shares her favorite outdoor art sites in Los Angeles. These sites, she says, embody the innovative, untamed, beautiful, and infamously corroded spirit of the city.

Downtown L.A.: Nancy Rubins

Imagine lassoing a herd of wild airplane parts with heavy wire and hoisting it high above your head, and you’ll have a good idea of how it feels to stand beneath Nancy Rubins’s massive, canted assemblage in MOCA’s plaza. Titled with the same careening joy as the sculpture possesses, Chas' Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson's Airplane Parts, About 1,000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian’s Beverly Hills Space at MOCA will give you pleasurable vertigo crossed with a serious respect for her artistic engineering. Rubins bought the airplane parts herself for 10 cents a pound, over many years, from a scrap-dealer in the Mojave Desert.

Arts District: Christina Angelina/Fanakapan (4th St. at Merrick) & RETNA (7th St.)

It’s not a kiss, and it’s not an embrace, and it might be two women, or it might be a mother and child, but the 4th Street mural by Christina Angelina (a.k.a. Starfighter) and British artist Fanakapan delivers an unequivocally arresting moment of private tenderness on a streaky silver backdrop near the SCI-Arc campus.

Several blocks away on 7th Street, the old American Apparel headquarters (now a part of ROW DTLA) wears the inky, fresh hieroglyphics of Los Angeles native RETNA. The multi-story annotations are not merely aesthetically gorgeous but steeped in meaning. “I never write random letters,” RETNA said in an interview. “All my pieces can be decoded into full messages and words that translate into English or Spanish.”

USC Campus: Jenny Holzer

There’s no better way to remind yourself of the relationship between peace and artistic freedom than to visit Jenny Holzer’s installation Blacklist, a circle of benches in a serene, olive-tree sculpture garden outside USC’s Fischer Gallery. Dedicated to the Hollywood Ten, who suffered tremendous career and personal losses for their alleged Communist ties, Blacklist’s benches are carved with relevant quotes, including this stunning public indictment by Albert Maltz: “One is destroyed so that a thousand will be rendered silent and impotent by fear.”

Wonder Valley: High Desert Test Sites

You’ll want to linger in Wonder Valley once you reach it (some 155 miles outside of L.A.), so plan this adventure for an overnight and bring water, a car that won’t sink in sand, and a driver who doesn’t mind navigating a slowly vanishing road. Better yet, decide in advance that you’ll be getting lost, or not necessarily finding what you intended to see, and let your preparations be second to your discoveries.

One the central experiments of the nonprofit High Desert Test Sites is to 'insert’ art directly into a life, a landscape, or a community where it will sink or swim based on a set of criteria beyond that of art world institutions and galleries. The projects “ultimately belong to no one” and are intended to vanish over time. So download a sitemap from here before you even leave L.A. (cell service is spotty out there), and spend a day dodging cacti and lizards on remote private properties to see what you see. Worth searching for are Karen Lofgren’s mostly buried “Trajectory Object,” Tao Urban’s nearby “Tapwater Pavilion,” and Halsey Rodman’s “Gradually We Become Aware/Of a Hum in the Room," a magenta-and-blue painted structure with outlooks and insides that are fun to explore.

Wilshire Boulevard: The Wall Project

Fans of Cold War noir, don your best trenchcoatto stroll by the most significant stretch of the Berlin Wall outside Berlin, right across the street from LACMA. Five panels wear their original graffiti, and five have bright new looks from artists Thierry Noir, Kent Twitchell, Marie Astrid González, and Farrah Karapetian.

San Pedro: Sunken City

You cannot get to the Sunken City without trespassing, so stop reading right now. Please skip to the next entry. Do not read me describing the neighborhood that slid into the sea in 1929, leaving behind a fascinating jumble of broken roads and foundations that graffiti artists have been tagging for years. Do not consider smushing yourself to your smallest width to get through a gap in the fence, or twisting your ankle climbing down the staggered cliff to reach the ruins, and definitely, do not enjoy the spectacular view of Catalina Island. Even if you find out that Martin Scorcese tried for a while to open the beach to the public, do not believe he has succeeded. There are NO TRESPASSING signs everywhere. Dozens of people have injured themselves, and some have died stumbling around the Sunken City at night. Don’t pay attention when I say this location might appear in the sequel to Still Lives, either. Why are you still reading this? Nothing to see here, people. Nothing to see.

Hollywood: Womanhouse

Every decent tour of L.A. has to feature a location that no longer exists, so do pause in front of 533 N. Mariposa Avenue in Hollywood, now a nondescript pastel apartment building. In its place, picture a dilapidated, turn-of-the-century 17-room mansion. Add Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and twenty-odd female art students transforming the area to Womanhouse, a now mythic feminist art collaboration. The year is 1972. The mansion does not have heat, hot water, or plumbing, and first, the team of students needs to paint and rewire, sand floors, and replace windows and bannisters. Then they begin transforming the rooms, addressing each in a feminist context, complete with a creepy bridal staircase, menstruation bathroom, womb room, and a linen closet with shelves that bisect the body of a mannequin. The installation attracts 10,000 visitors before it closes and the mansion is condemned and razed, preserved only in pictures and stories like this one.


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