The Family Group

Background information

1955, by Tony Rosenthal. 14'h x 5'w x 3'd. Parker Center.
The late 1940s and early 1950s was an era in which suspicion and fear were exploited by self-serving politicians eager to seize political power. Republican Congressman and later Senator Richard Nixon and Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy promoted their political careers with unsubstantiated claims they were uncovering communist spies in government. Nixon's only triumph was putting Alger Hiss in prison while McCarthy branded his name into an era with smears and innuendos that destroyed the reputations and lives of numerous Americans whose only crime was being liberal and decent. Together, Nixon and McCarthy poisoned an age and made anti-communism the prism through which narrow and terrified people not only viewed politics, but how they viewed art. It was in this charged atmosphere that The Family Group was commissioned, designed and installed.

In 1952, Welton Becket & Company (now Ellerbe Becket, Inc), the architects for what has been called since 1971, the Parker Center, commissioned Tony Rosenthal to execute a sculptural piece for the building's exterior. The architects selected the site on the facade and determined the size of the sculpture, but left the subject matter, material and design to Rosenthal. At the suggestion of a police department employee, Rosenthal designed the work to represent a policeman protecting a family. An early version of the design was included in the plans for the entire building when the City's Municipal Arts Commission approved the project in September 1952.

During the following two years, Rosenthal prepared a series of metal models that together reflect both continuity and change in the design. All models depicted a policeman, represented by the tallest figure, standing behind a family composed of a mother holding a small child in her left arm and a boy standing to her right. However, the initial curved lines of the composition became increasingly angular, the natural proportions and realistic body elements became increasingly abstract and the facial features were ultimately eliminated. The head, Rosenthal said, was kept simple "so it cannot be construed as belonging to any definite race or creed in preference to another." However, he made the final design less abstract than he would have preferred in order to get it approved by the City's Municipal Arts Commission in July, 1954.

The Municipal Arts Commission's action was reported in the local newspapers, complete with a photograph of Rosenthal's design. And when it was, along came the city's conservative Councilmen Harold Harby, Ernest Debbs, Don Allen and Robert Wilkinson, who were all descendants of a thriving tradition of political hucksters known for swindling the electorate by attacking the arts. "No eyes, no nose, no ears, no G-U-T-S. Whoever designed this must have a low opinion of the American Family" observed Councilman Debbs. Councilman Allen proposed substituting a statue of Jack Webb, the star of the popular Dragnet television series. And when the sculpture was installed in January, 1955, shortly after the building was completed, Harby proclaimed, with an echo of Franklin Roosevelt, "This shameless, soulless, faceless, raceless monstrosity will live in infamy" while councilman Wilkinson suggested it be sent to Russia. Vigilante groups were invited to steal the work, anti-Semites from the Christian Nationalists picketed it, an effort was made to put its disposition on the ballot, and a lawsuit was filed by conservative Republican State Senator Jack Tenney to have it removed, claiming it was a public nuisance. The Complaint described the work as "an ugly grouping of angular, distorted and grotesque figures resembling man's crude, prehistoric efforts to depict the human form, the great ape or some long extinct half-animal or half-insect."

This cabal of political conservatives and anti-Semites, however, quietly abandoned their efforts after prominent members of the art community stood up and organized the Los Angeles Art Committee to defend the work. Though The Family Group has survived, the controversy surrounding it had a chilling effect on public art design in Los Angeles. It was not until Aquarius (which appropriately symbolized with its name that a new age had dawned) was commissioned in 1969 for the Union Bank Plaza, that an abstract work was installed in downtown Los Angeles.

Each of the four figures of The Family Group was fashioned from heavy sheets of bronze. Rosenthal created a potted appearance by using an oxy-actalyne torch to make puddles of metal on the surface. The original gold color of the work turned to its present black, Rosenthal believes, because of the acids he applied to the surface during fabrication.

During installation, each figure of the 1000 pound sculpture was first welded separately to supports on the building's terra cotta wall, which was fabricated by the noted California terra cotta manufacturer Gladding McBean. The base was then welded to the figures.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, September 1997.

Back to Los Angeles Civic Center.