This is Not a Surrealist Mural: 'Magritte in Los Angeles'


"Magritte in Los Angeles" was reality disguised as surreal.

Noa Bornstein's 1984 mural was a major work from a period in which Los Angeles was defining large-scale works in cities. Despite being painted over six years ago, it remains one of most important works that came during that period.

Bornstein has long moved on and continues her career as a prolific public artist and sculptor in New York, where she now lives and works. Yet she is delighted that the piece still has, as she said, "generous coverage."

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When asked about the mural and its original intent as a surrealistic spoof of advertising, she reveals that soon after the work was completed, it became a document of the times as much as a play on René Magritte's sense of realism showing altered reality. In 1986, during an exhibition of her studies in Belgium, a museum staff member said to her that the Los Angeles piece wasn't surrealism at all. Bornstein said in agreement. "It was much too literal to be really 'surreal'."

In the background, a billboard ad using illustration can be seen behind the mural, making it a literal reference.
In the background, a billboard ad using illustration can be seen behind the mural, making it a literal reference.

The surface description of the mural being a spoof and biting satire was tempered by her method of sculpting or painting portraits, making "Magritte in L.A." a portrait of a Los Angeles vista. Now, in what seems like random placement of images, the archival photos show the mural in different contemporary form, a precursor to what is now called a smash-up. Visual pop culture caught up to it, just as it was painted over in 2006.

The mural started as a small oil painting that the artist -- as a resident venting against the large billboards taking up visual air space -- worked on during 1978 to 1982, and originally had more immediate references to Magritte themes. "'The Magritte in L.A.' oil painting has slightly different imagery than the mural," said Bornstein. "It includes another image from Magritte. In one of the cars below there is a nude murdered woman, a take-off from one of his paintings."

At that time, Bornstein's professional ties introduced the concept to the Department of Cultural Affairs' mural curator, Joe Terrell, who liked the idea. As a wall was being sought our, the only suitable and available canvas that could carry the length turned out to be a peeling cement wall near LAX; it didn't hurt that the owner of the building was a fan of Magritte. After securing permission, she presented to neighbors of the building how the piece would be using the entire 100 feet of the wall. Extending the piece out from the center gave her room for images representing "Los Angeles Angels" and "Quetzalcoatl," and in time, it also came to represent the people she met during the installation.

"The people who agreed to pose for the mural were most important to me," she said. "When the mural was finished, I typed up a sheet that was in first the gas station, and then the deli, with a numbered diagram of who everyone was in the mural."

Billy Gornel as The Explorer
Billy Gornel as The Explorer

Not only did the gas station attendants bond with the artist after eleven months of work, so did people getting gasoline. Commuters filling up their tank agreed to get out of their cars and pose, according to the artist, who added that other models included a Rockwell employee and an older woman who was vacationing in her RV. "The Asian woman is based on an architect I met in a supermarket," she said.

Then there are the friends of the artist in the piece, including "The Explorer." The man in camouflage, seen off-center, is dancer Billy Gornel, who at the time was ill with AIDS. "His struggle to recover and my daily contact with him, and drawing him, was part of my [initial] work on the mural," said Bornstein.

The mural even became a chance to to some live drawing. "Not everyone liked the mural by the way. Some of the gas station attendants, not the most liberal bunch, were suspicious of those billboards I painted," she said. "But they were all happy to pose. They took breaks and stood by the wall and I drew. Sometimes right on the wall without intermediary studies."

Looking back, Bornstein said it was humankind's potential for war which also influence her thinking for "Magritte in L.A." "That big black ball of 'mystery' Rene Magritte used was both mystery and 'the bomb' in the mural," she said. As a protest against war, she placed a Tomcat fighter cloud -- which attracted the attention of another Rockwell employee who was high up in the company. She was invited to lunch, met the Rockwell employee's wife, then invited the artist in his office. "He lectured me I was naive and that the weapon I was spoofing was necessary," recalls the Bornstein. "It was too late to add him into the mural."

That new friend aside, others made it into the final version. "The Angels of Brotherhood" were also friends of the artist, and added Lila, her dog. She painted herself as a cavewoman. "The dinosaur may not have been necessary," she added. "But the arc of the neck did work for the composition."

Magritte in L.A I Photographer: Ben Martin
Magritte in L.A I Photographer: Ben Martin
Angels fly in Noa Bornstein mural from 1984
Angels fly in Noa Bornstein mural from 1984

And it is still a comment on advertisements invading space and life, she said. Not that it is any better in her current city, New York. "Here, in Times Square, the billboards, bigger than ever, seem to be mostly about clothing. There would be much room to spoof and pun the continuing thinness of the models. . .the fear of aging, or face-lifts, advertised as 'life-lifts.'"

Whenever Bornstein returned to Los Angeles, she would "go and do a bit of patching." That, along with the work of The Mural Conservancy and The Getty Museum conservation program, kept the mural in the Los Angeles portfolio until 2006 -- when it was painted over. After the top was marked by what seemed to be tar, the artist let it go.

"The loss of the mural was sad. Yet certainly a risk I was aware of," said the artist. "It escaped destruction many times -- a new freeway ended up missing it, street enlargement, change of owner of the lot, and so on. I never wanted it to be an eyesore."


Top: Happy Flying Business People on 'Magritte in L.A.' "They are happy because of sudden news of world peace, or a good business deal," says Noa Bornstein. Below: Photos courtesy Noa Bornstein. © Noa Bornstein

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