About Erin M. Curtis

Erin M. Curtis is the Assistant Curator at the Skirball, where she has worked on Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action, 1960–1980, Creating the United States, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open, and Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, and most recently, Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. When she is not finishing up her dissertation, she swims, reads, travels, takes photographs, and scours Los Angeles for donuts and handmade Chinese noodles.

What Big Art Is All About: Conversations with Robert Landau and Enrique Vidal

I recently sat down with photographer Robert Landau and billboard artist Enrique Vidal to discuss the billboards on view in the exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. In addition to telling me more about the history of the billboards and the labor of creating them, they each spoke of their great admiration for billboard art. This passion drove a teenaged Robert to photograph the billboards on the Sunset Strip for over a decade, a project that profoundly influenced his artistic vision. It also led Enrique to make a living “painting big,” first as a billboard artist and later as a muralist for cultural sites around the world. Hear more of their fascinating stories in the videos below, plus read some of my favorite moments from our conversations.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, on view through August 16. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Interviews have been edited for clarity.

Excerpt from my interview with Robert Landau, Photographer:

Can you tell me a little more about how you came to document the rock & roll billboards?
I had an old Nikkormat, which was kind of a poor man’s Nikon camera in those days. But the smartest thing I did was shoot color transparency film. I shot Kodachrome slides, because my main purpose in shooting them was that I would have slide shows for my friends. That’s as far as I thought the images would go. I’d invite all my friends in—they lived in other parts of the city, they never saw these things because [the billboards] came and went so frequently—and I’d have slide shows and show [my friends] all these great billboards.

I began just by trying to take good pictures of the billboards when the light on them was good. I was crossing the Strip every day: Every time I went anywhere in the city, I had to travel on the Strip. So I’d see them. I was traveling early to go to school. I’d see the crews out there, so I got to know the sites, and when and where and how [the crews] changed [the billboards] and all that. Very quickly thereon, I realized it was just as interesting to see what was happening around the billboards. Some of the first art photographers that I was interested in were mostly French street photographers . . . and I thought that they were capturing so well that city and that time. I thought I could try to do the same thing with Los Angeles.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Photo by Robert Landau. © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

What specifically drew you to these billboards?
My father, Felix Landau, was one of the early art gallerists in Los Angeles, on La Cienega. He started in the late 1940s, but throughout the ’50s and ’60s [he] had a very influential gallery Continue reading

Billboards, Covered

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.  © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.
© Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

The Skirball’s upcoming exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, opening March 24, highlights a unique era in rock & roll advertising when record companies took over the Sunset Strip with one-of-a-kind hand-painted billboards to promote their artists’ new albums. These rock advertising billboards, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, were elaborate works of art. They were also highly ephemeral, residing on Sunset Boulevard for just a month or two at a time before being dismantled and whitewashed in anticipation of the next record release. With the advent of MTV in the 1980s, billboard ads for music disappeared from the local landscape. Robert Landau’s photographs, featured in the exhibition, remain to document this brief moment when the biggest names in the music business—from Bowie to Bruce to the Beatles—clamored to be seen on billboards.

Of course, the music also remains. I revisited my days as a college radio DJ and made a mix that includes a few of the legendary musicians whose billboards appear in the exhibition—as covered by other musicians. Continue reading

Peace in a Polar Vortex

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I was determined to augment my usual schedule of visiting dozens of museums and eating a gigantic pile of Ethiopian food with an architectural adventure: a visit to a Moshe Safdie building that I had never seen in person before. As the managing curator of the exhibition Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie at the Skirball, I had been singing the praises of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Headquarters, one of my favorite Safdie designs, in tour after tour. Now I wanted to see it for myself. So on my last day in the District, I braved a polar vortex that plunged temperatures below zero degrees and set out for USIP, located next to the National Mall.

The Department of State on the left and USIP on the right—located next to one another on the National Mall.

The Department of State on the left and USIP on the right—located next to one another on the National Mall.

After a quick ride on the Metro from Logan Circle, I took a ridiculously cold walk on 23rd Street toward the Mall. Along the way I passed several office buildings, including the staid facade of the Department of State. As I approached USIP, I immediately noticed that the structure both blended in with and stood out from its bureaucratic neighbors. The windows facing 23rd were not altogether different from many office buildings, but the warm color of the stone was a nice contrast to the grey tones that dominated nearby facades. I reflected that this was a nice example of “progressive contextualism,” Moshe Safdie’s philosophy of using cues from a building’s physical and cultural surroundings in its design.

Arriving at the front of the headquarters, I caught sight of one of its best features: translucent glass sails held aloft by a steel frame. Skirball_safdie_Institute of Peace 2Safdie intended for the sails to bring to mind the wings of a dove, symbolizing the USIP’s mission of promoting peaceful resolutions to international conflict. To me, they exemplified one of my favorite things about Safdie’s work: while his buildings blend in with their surroundings, they are entirely unique entities. The USIP Headquarters was definitely unlike any other building or monument on the Mall.

I hurried to the entrance excitedly, ready to see those sails from the inside. My enthusiasm was quickly tempered by reality, however, when the guards informed me that I couldn’t go inside without an appointment. Continue reading

Winter To-Do List: Part 2

Building upon yesterday’s post, our curators have two more recommendations for your winter break excursions. Erin Curtis, who is managing our current retrospective, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, visited the Autry’s new permanent exhibition. And Erin Clancey, who is herself hard at work on a Skirball exhibition about a rock legend (to be announced soon!), ventured to the Grammy Museum to see an exhibition honoring rock music icon Ringo Starr. Read below for two more exhibitions to add to your list. And don’t forget—any well-planned winter break museum crawl should also include our Global Citizen, so we hope to see you at the Skirball this month. Happy museum-going!


Once upon a Time

Art of the WestI had been planning to visit Art of the West, the new permanent exhibition at the Autry National Center, since it opened on June 15. I’ve long enjoyed the Autry’s exhibitions about the American West, in part because I find “the West” to be a fascinatingly imprecise concept (each person has different ideas about exactly who and what comprises the West). I was looking forward to seeing a new display of art from the Autry’s collection that examines, in the words of the Autry’s website, “how shared values and interests have inspired artists from different cultures and times to create distinctive, powerful works that speak to their experience of the West as both a destination and a home.” Also, I too like cowboys.

War Music II by Mateo Romero, on display with a 1948 Indian Roadmaster motorcycle.

War Music II by Mateo Romero, on display with a 1948 Indian Roadmaster motorcycle.

The pieces in the exhibition are organized around three simple yet powerful themes: “Religion and Ritual,” “Land and Landscape,” and “Migration and Movement.” Grouping diverse objects together in broad categories allows for unusual, eye-catching, and often provocative juxtapositions of pieces from different places, cultures, and periods. In the “Migration and Movement” section, a 1948 Indian Roadmaster motorcycle sits beneath Mateo Romero’s War Music II.

Around the corner, in the “Religion and Ritual” section, a totem pole from the Pacific Northwest stands near a crucifix of roughly equal height. These often unexpected pairings are one of the show’s strengths.

David Levinthal’s The Wild West series.

David Levinthal’s The Wild West series.

I was also particularly drawn to the exhibition’s photographs, including David Levinthal’s six-part series The Wild West, for which the artist photographed toys in order to depict the West as he imagined it in his childhood. There is also a lovely display titled “Yosemite after Adams,” dedicated to the challenges that contemporary landscape photographers face in capturing Yosemite National Park years after it was so famously and definitively documented by Ansel Adams. Okay, there weren’t any sharks (as a visitor requested in my photo above), but a visit to the Art of the West is my winter break recommendation nonetheless.

Read the Los Angeles Times review of Art of the West.

Erin Curtis



“Don’t Pass Me By”

Ludwig black pearl drum set with Beatles logo

Ludwig black pearl drum set with Beatles logo

If you are a fan of The Beatles (who isn’t?), don’t pass on the exhibition Ringo: Peace & Love, currently at the Grammy Museum until March 30, 2014. Continue reading

Protest Poster or Valentine?

Decades of Dissent installation shot. Photo by Christina Williams.

“Dear Erin” began a letter I received almost one month after the opening of Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action: 1960–1980. The letter continued, “You can imagine my surprise and amusement on finding my Gay-In poster reproduced in the Los Angeles Times. Produced 42 years ago, the poster had minimal exposure or impact. Today, it serves as a reminder of the time when gay people were beginning their journey to full equality.”

The letter was from Bruce Reifel, who had created one of my favorite posters in Decades of Dissent. With affectionate couples set against a bright background, Gay-In announced a gathering of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1970. The event, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, was revolutionary. During a time when gays were expected to confine their social activities to private spaces, they asserted their right to inhabit public space.

Gay-In, Bruce Reifel, Silkscreen, 1970, Los Angeles, California

I had learned these things about the Gay-In poster in the process of curating Decades of Dissent. What I had missed, however, was the fact that Bruce had made it. The label I had written for the poster attributed the piece to the Gay Liberation Front. When Bruce’s letter arrived, the historian in me was extremely excited. Not only would I have a chance to correct my error, but I would likely deepen my knowledge of an object and the story behind it in the process. Continue reading