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Los Angeles: art's brave new world

Hats off to the city that launched Andy Warhol, spawned Ed Ruscha and now boasts Frank Gehry's most beautiful building

Los Angeles. The first thing you notice is the light: it's like walking into a David Hockney painting.

But the work of art that makes the most poetic use of the silver and blue optical clarity of Californian sunshine is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. The way the curved sails of shining metal that shape this beautiful building glitter against the sky is a glimpse of paradise in the middle of the city. Gehry is a truly great architect and this public monument is his masterpiece – an even lighter and more dynamic creation than his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Or perhaps it is simply that California is the true home of his art. His concave and convex, hard-yet-yielding forms seem to belong here, to blow in the breeze like the sails of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B.

LA is not a city with a reputation for a developed public life. It's more famous for car culture than for ... culture, and more renowned for strip malls than civic piazzas. Yet Gehry's generous civic building, loved by locals, could give London some lessons in architecture, with a heart and soul that pour life into a city, instead of sucking it out. Yes, I am once again referring to the Shard. Why is London letting an oversize tower wreck its skyline for no good reason, while here in LA an infinitely more imaginative contemporary building performs a creative instead of destructive role in community life?

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a classic of modern architecture, a building that proves the social and cultural value of poetry, personal expression and beauty. Architecture does not have to be a corporate trashing of the common life. It can save the world, in the hands of a genius like Gehry.

Another genius who has been captivating me in LA is Ed Ruscha. Ever since the 1960s, Ruscha has created art with such indefinable cool that categorising it as pop, or conceptualism – or anything except a deeply brilliant triumph of precision and impersonal style – seems clumsy. He is the west coast's Warhol, the Gerhard Richter of the Pacific. I saw a painting by him yesterday called Annie, Poured in Maple Syrup. It was painted in 1966. The bold letters of the name Annie do indeed seem to be written in gooey syrup – yet the infantilist, supersweet lettering is painted with meticulous conviction in oil on canvas. I find this both a hilarious and eerie work. It seems to do everything pop art ever wanted to do, but better.

Well, not better than Warhol. There is a powerful display at Moca of his soup-can paintings, a reconstruction of the exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, LA, in 1962 when these irresistible paintings were first shown to the world. Warhol made a road trip across America to exhibit in LA. It was the city that gave him his first solo show – an exhibit purely of soup cans, painted as icons. The show was supported by film star Dennis Hopper among others. In LA, Warhol must have felt like he was coming home. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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