Commentary - Footloose in La-La land

Great bookshops and galleries, sunshine and starlets - George Waldenlolls in LA

Last time I was in Los Angeles I was giving a lecture on the Soviet Union and communist China to military officers based in Monterey, just up the coast. My wife, Sarah, meanwhile, adjusted to what is now called "La-La land" in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where I swear I saw a starlet wearing a light-aluminium bathing suit. This time it was Sarah, a conservator of painting, who gave the lecture, at the new Getty Museum, on her restoration of sundry masterpieces, including Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black, familiarly known as his Mother, while I buckled down to the relaxing. Something is going right in a world with no cold war where women do the work.

A friend had recommended the beachside Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica. No old Ma Whistler types here; in fact it's hard to think of her hailing from the same country. I don't see her smiling on the fluorescent roller-bladers flitting past the verandah in the sinful sun, or cocktailing loudly with filmic-looking folk.

She would have liked the old Getty in Malibu - statuary, neo-classical columns - but its successor would have knocked her back a bit. With the mountain of cash it sits on, it is awesome to think of the mess the Getty Institute could have made of its new museum. It could have built a fantasy in Gothic, a ziggurat in platinum, or a tower with a revolving gallery stocked with expensive brand-names, irrespective of aesthetic worth. And it could have done its pictures to death by consigning them to science-crazed restorers, in the way American museums have been known to do, then hung the flayed remains against painfully unsuitable backgrounds, which is not unknown either.

That none of this has happened owes a lot to John Walsh, the scholarly director who came to the Getty from Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and two of Americas top restorers, Andrea Rothe and Mark Leonard. The modernist architecture of the new museum is a huge improvement on Malibu. On a hilltop, it makes no flaunting statement from afar but opens into a wonderland of light and angles and air the moment you get inside.

The result is an airy citadel, where you can turn from contemplating the dozen levels of meaning of a Rembrandt or Pontormo to pondering the implications for humanity of the dozen lanes of traffic snorting effluent on the San Diego freeway below. Walsh resisted pressures to conform to the dictates of minimalism, which would have meant displaying the pictures against stark walls in artificial light. Instead they hang against maroons, greens and browns, and stone colours, while a canny system of shutters automatically modulates the daylight glare.

Star exhibits include a Mantegna of the Adoration of the Magi, a heart-stopping picture in distemper on canvas which had been thoughtlessly varnished, and has now been returned to its original matt tonality. Another is the slate Sebastiano del Piombo of a Medici pope, lost for centuries before turning up in an English saleroom, where it had been carelessly consigned. A good test of a collection are the works by less familiar artists and here the choice is inspired, especially the huge, proto-expressionist canvas by the Belgian painter Ensor depicting the Entrance of Christ into Brussels amid revolutionary slogans and insignia.

We reflected on these and other wonders of West Coast sophistication at the Sky Bar on Sunset Boulevard. Here you can see in the flesh amazing portraits of our age, from another sort of studio, as arresting as the Rembrandts and Pontormos in their Hollywood way, though not with quite so many levels of meaning. And on closer investigation not a few of them turned out to be outrageously over-restored.

The new Getty is having its impact on the intellectual life of an already art-rich city. LA, it is sometimes forgotten, is a cultural experience in more senses than one. The Norton Simon and Armand Hammer collections, the Huntington Library, the Museum of Modern Art and the LA County Art Gallery make for a lot of pictures. Then there is the LA Symphony Orchestra and, believe it or not, literature. Books in LA, the average culturally self-deluding Brit may have thought, would be things to be gutted for screenable stories. Not so. One of the wonders of LA is the book section of the Los Angeles Times, edited by the energetic Steve Wasserman. A book review containing entire pages of print may seem oxymoronic, yet that is what it is: a model of well-written seriousness that puts many a populist Sunday book section to shame. No interminable sagas of Diana or Delia Smith here.

When I asked Wasserman how he got away with it, he explained that there was a thirst for good writing and that book festivals and the like were frequent and well-attended, before speeding off to address yet another literary gathering somewhere south of the city. The bookstores bear out his words. Many are cavernous and superbly stocked, especially the Barnes and Noble in Santa Monica, where you browse among the civilising aroma of coffee. All that is lacking is a whiff of cigars, but in California smoking is the only field where the censorious spirit of old Ma Whistler lingers. And don't try walking from hotel to bookshop in the dark. We set out to do just that but were warned by a receptionist, in delightfully circumlocutory language, that it was inadvisable. There is little need to dwell on that side of things. LA is a terrific place in many senses, but then Arcadia would not be itself without the occasional memento mori.

George Walden's "Lucky George: memoirs of an anti-politician" is published by Penguin in May

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie