Aesthetic Wanderings

Contemporary art in historic hotels and elegant restaurants satisfies visual as well as corporeal appetites.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

The sinuous “Wood Line,” an iconic work of outdoor art by Andy Goldsworthy, snakes through the grounds of the Presidio in San Francisco. Made of eucalyptus branches reclaimed from various park projects, the 1,200 foot-long “sculpture” will eventually fade


 often tell people that I was an art major who turned into a writer. One of my first college jobs was as a studio assistant to contemporary artists (some now famous) in Los Angeles. 

Much later, as a travel writer over the past few decades, I collected, bought and sold art and antiques discovered on my sojourns. (Mid-century furniture salesman samples discovered in Brazil, anyone?)

More recently, I’ve been working as a fine-art and antiques broker, assisting clients around the globe who want to sell their treasures via international auction houses from London and Hong Kong to L.A. and New York. As a result, I have always favored cultural travel, visiting places that engage the senses and provoke both contemplation and conversation.

Here are a few places that might be of interest to those of a similar mind.

An Appetite for Art
The Belvedere at the Peninsula Hotel, Beverly Hills

It may be a European tradition: Fill a hotel with fine art, either from hotel guests who are artists (oft in residence) or display important pieces from a savvy owner’s private collection. In Amsterdam, for example, the charming Pulitzer Hotel (set in 25 row houses) houses a terrific rotating art display sourced from the Pulitzer family art collection (yes, the Pulitzer Prize dynasty).

At La Colombe d’Or in St. Paul de Vence, in the south of France, I marveled at not only the cuisine and setting, but the art and the stories behind the works hanging on the walls of this famous restaurant and pensione where Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, Georges Braque and others would dine and leave works that still grace the walls. Ah, if these walls could talk!

During the same period, while living in New York City, I remember a dessert of golden raspberries that arrived like jewels served on a snowy cold day at probably the most famous “destination” art restaurant in the U.S. for more than half a century: The Four Seasons (1959-2016). The Seagram family originally commissioned murals by Mark Rothko, who rebelled, returning the advance and keeping the paintings. Today, one of the trio hangs in the National Gallery in D.C., another at the Tate in London.

It lost Rothko, but Four Seasons did end up showing both permanent and rotating works by a changing roster of other famous 20th-century artists, including Jackson Pollack, James Rosenquist, Richard Lippold, Frank Stella, Joan Miró and Robert Indiana, over the decades.

These days, here in sunny Southern California, you can power-dine at The Belvedere at the tony Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills amidst blue-chip artworks from the hotel owner’s private collection. The multimillion-dollar works include a bright, at times controversial, Robert Indiana painting, which apparently some guests have objected to (the words “DIE” and “Paris” appear in the work that was created in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy by the artist, who was in Paris at the time) and a stunning Sean Scully. There are no titles or labels on any of the pieces, so those who don’t know their Josef Albers “Homage to the Square” from Yayoi Kusama’s trademark polka dots may just have a pure art experience devoid of name-dropping or recognition.

A lovely black and gold calligraphic nine-panel work, “Linescape I” and “Linescape II” (2015) was commissioned specifically for the room. The Parisian artist Fabienne Verdier first refused, stating that she “doesn’t do hotel art” — until she learned the caliber of artists her work would hang alongside.

Bold poppies by Donald Sultan from 2014 hang in one of two private dining rooms. Those celebrating an anniversary might request a table within view of Alex Katz’s large figurative work “Anniversary” (2003).

The cuisine, under the direction of Chef David Codney, is as sublime as the art. From delicate branzino filets with asparagus and a superb spin on a traditional Caesar salad that includes roasted Brussels sprouts and bits of crunchy kale to a hearty lobster bouillabaisse, the Belvedere is a lovely dining experience in a setting that is as cool for people-watching as it is for art appreciation. Desserts are works of art in their own right: The house specialty, the Fabergé egg, is a chocolate surprise that’s almost too pretty to deconstruct.

Graffiti Dreams
The Mayfair Hotel, Los Angeles

David Floreses and Lady Pinks of the future may be discovered at The Mayfair Hotel, a 1926 downtown L.A. architectural site with a storied history that is undergoing a major refurbishment. The 15-story hotel was the site of the first after-party for the Academy Awards in 1929 and the setting for L.A. murder-mystery writer Raymond Chandler’s 1939 short story “I’ll be Waiting.”

But something new and radical is afoot that may surprise you.

The hotel, in the midst of a $40 million restoration that was partially complete during my February tour, features art by resident curator/L.A. artist Kelly Graval aka RISK, who went from being a graffiti street artist and graduate of USC School of Fine Arts to having his work shown in museums. RISK is bringing outdoor art indoors and has reached out to other graffiti artists — Evidence and Jason Revok — whose work will be part of the hotel collection.

“Graffiti writers have always managed to leave their mark, literally, on the urban landscape in Los Angeles,” says Graval. “The pieces I’ve selected for this project symbolize each artist’s cultural imprint on our society.” 

Rooms and hallways are decorated in black, white and gray color schemes. A blown-up mural of a 1926 map of L.A. features all sorts of fun details from yesteryear. Public rooms (still under construction) will include a grand lobby, restaurant, speakeasy, a rooftop pool and even a podcast studio.

Ironically, I did see some graffiti in the ’hood, in an area officially called Central City West. Future collectors, take note: You never know who’s expressing themselves right before your very eyes, inside or out. I’m excited to return and see how the art plays out throughout the historic Mayfair. See you there for a martini in the speakeasy and some art talk!

Creative Environment
The Inn at the Presidio, San Francisco

The Inn at the Presidio is my favorite hotel in San Francisco for several reasons. The moment you enter the grounds — through one of the National Park gated entrances — the lovely natural setting flush with hiking trails, museums, earth art and restaurants provides a welcome oasis in the bustling city.

The Inn’s 22 spacious rooms and suites in the historic, three-story building are set in Pershing Hall, the former officers’ barracks in the repurposed military complex. They include lovely high-ceilinged bathrooms, fireplaces and comfy beds. The helpful staff and art curated by Julie Coyle add to the charming ambience.

But it’s what’s outside that really sets this inn apart from its competitors.

Right out the back door from the Inn is the Ecology Trail, a scenic, easy hike that leads to Inspiration Point and a 90-foot-high soaring cathedrallike tower built of recycled eucalyptus trees. This is “Spire,” an installation by internationally acclaimed sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, and I consider it the Sagrada Familia of California.

Goldsworthy is known for his earthworks that span the globe, and four of them are contained within the grounds of the Presidio. In addition to “Spire,” there’s “Wood Line,” “Tree Fall” and “Earth Wall.”

In addition to the outdoor art set amidst great hiking trails, there are plenty of other attractions and diversions within the Presidio including the Disney Museum, a bowling alley and even a YMCA. Ocean cliffs, lakes and miles of trails make for a peaceful and natural setting, while just outside the former military-base gates the big city beckons.

I can’t wait to return to this gem of a destination and visit the Goldsworthy works I failed to discover on my first visit, as well as revisit the ones I viewed before. Those, like nature and my perceptions of art, will have changed. The disintegration reminds one not only of the beauty of Mother Earth, but the transitory nature of life. 

With its cool blue palette, Alex Katz’s “Anniversary” is a beautiful complement to the décor of the dining room at the Belvedere in Beverly Hills. Photo by Ryan Forbes

Graffiti-inspired works by street artist Kelly Graval deck the halls of Los Angeles’ Mayfair Hotel.


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