Eugene Sturman's unusual gateway to the South Park area of downtown was the first work commissioned under the Community Redevelopment Agency's 1985 public art policy that applied to development projects throughout downtown. The Community Redevelopment Agency and the developer of the adjacent 20-story office tower, South Park Associates, assembled an art selection panel composed of former State Senator Alan Sieroty, John S. Gordon, dean of the USC School of Fine Arts, Julia Brown, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Stephanie Barron, curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Al Nodal, from the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design.(1) This panel invited Sturman, Nancy Graves, Siah Armajani, Luis Jiminez and Lloyd Hamrol to submit proposals.(2) Each artist received a package from the Community Redevelopment Agency describing the office building and the surrounding South Park area, and were advised to develop a work to mark the entrance to South Park. (3) Based on his proposal, which incorporated a time capsule, Sturman was awarded a $250,000 commission for his design.
Combining a large three wheel roller, a dome for a time capsule, a spiral, and an upward thrusting spear-like element, Sturman's design appears both futuristic and primitive. The spiral is positioned as if it pushed a lever inside its container-like base that raised the cylinder-shaped leg facing Figueroa. The spear-shaped component appears to be balanced by a structural support extended outward by the movement of the three-wheel roller toward 9th Street. Sturman incorporated a variety of strong durable materials, including bronze for the dome, cupric nickel for the spiral, stainless steel in the leg and bundles, and copper throughout, to help make the sculpture maintenance free. He designed the screws and bolts larger than what is necessary to hold each of the four components together in order to enhance the suggestion of an earlier mechanical age. Fabricated in Seattle by Fabricators Specialties, the four components making up the work form the "quadrant" referenced in the work's title. According to Sturman, the title links the design to both the cutting-edge technology, exploration and discovery now being undertaken in the city and to the past exploration and discoveries of the Spanish and Venetians. "I chose to pay homage to Juan Cabrillo," Sturman said, "because of his discoveries along the coast of California. But the Venetian subtitle is a personal tribute and a kinship I feel for the birthplace of Marco Polo and the Golden Age of the doges when people were experimenting with such devices as sextants and astrolabes, and people like Leonardo Da Vinci were laying the ground for new discoveries and, for achieving 'impossible dreams.'"(4)
The contents of the time capsule, scheduled to be opened in 2084, (5) includes a baseball glove signed by Fernando Valenzuela, a copy of a Department of Water & Power water bill, a map of downtown, a Trivia Pursuit computer game, bottles of California water and wine, winning sketches from a competition at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, a copy of "L.A. Street Cookbook," Mayor Tom Bradley's blueprint for the future, L.A. 2000: A City for the Future (which Mike Davis described as "hyperbolic rhetoric about Los Angeles's irresistible rise as a 'world crossroads' comparable to Imperial Rome or LaGuardian New York(6)), copies of Los Angeles newspapers and magazines, an answering machine, and videos of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Madonna, a Jane Fonda workout, a weather report by George Fishbeck, and the documentary 'We Are the World.'" (7) During the dedication, Mayor Tom Bradley optimistically predicted that when "they open this time capsule 100 years from today, people are going to see how we in 1985 looked to the future..."(8) Unknown to the Mayor and other invited dignitaries, Sturman also included an article about AIDS, a pistol, a porno video and videotapes of workers into the capsule before it was sealed and lowered into the ground. (9) Already, his secret additions have become a more relevant and accurate reflection of the city's direction than the capsule's officially sanctioned contents.
Most public art commissioned by corporations and real estate developers is installed without a whimper, comment or complaint. Most corporate sculpture is ironically large but largely invisible and quickly and quietly fades into the surrounding landscape. The response to "Homage to Cabrillo: Venetian Quadrant," however, was dramatically different.
In the spring of 1986, about a year after Eugene Sturman's monumental work was dedicated, the Downtown Breakfast Club, an organization of self-proclaimed movers and shakers in downtown Los Angeles, awarded the sculpture a "Lemon" as part of its annual list of good ("Roses") and bad ("Lemons") projects in downtown. Organization member and Downtown News editor, Sue Laris, called the work "bad art" and read its message as telling "all who enter there [South Park] that South Park must be ill-planned, displeasing to the eye, badly placed, lacking in grace and style and ugly." (10) Apparently not reading her own newspaper's earlier coverage, which reported that Sturman received the commission after a competition was conducted by the Community Redevelopment Agency, (11) Laris suggested that Sturman received his commission only because of his qualifications and recommended that future commissions be awarded in connection with a design competition. (12) Laris later groused that the work undermines plans for attracting people into downtown "to fill the buildings, to shop in the stores, to create the charming street life of other cities, to buy the artist's works." She went on to extol the pleasures of "Double Ascension" by Herbert Bayer at 515 S. Flower and "Four Arches," Alexander Calder's large generic work at 333 S. Hope. 13 Despite her praise, an evening or weekend visit to these addresses will find few people filling the buildings, shopping on the streets or creating a "charming street life." Though the specifics of her criticism is a more eloquent statement about her judgment than a testament to the strength of her argument, Laris raised fundamental questions on how public spaces are read, what messages are conveyed, why the messages are sent, and who should decide what messages should be sent. Unfortunately, the defenders of the sculpture skirted all these issues. Rather than taking the opportunity to debate the purpose, function and future of public art in downtown, the selection panel responded by describing Sturman's work as an "exciting and evocative" gateway to South Park. They pointed out that they recommended Sturman after reviewing proposals from other artists, and then summarized their reasons for their decision: they believed visitors and residents would enjoy the fantasy which Sturman created and they believed Sturman's design would create interests and provoke conversation. (14)
Footnotes:1 "Sturman to Sculpt Art for Building," Los Angeles Times, Pt. VII, p. 17, August 5, 1984.
2 Letter from John Spalding, Director, Urban Design and Planning, Community Redevelopment Agency to artists, March 29, 1984.
4 "Sculpture Links Past and Future," by Evelyn De Wolfe, Los Angeles Times, Pt. VIII, p. 1, June 16, 1985.
5 "Sturman Designs Tower Sculpture," Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1984.
6 "Ecology of Fear," by Mike Davis, Vintage Book, New York, 1999, p. 359.
7 De Wolfe, Op. Cit.; "Sturman Work Graces Tower," Downtown News, p. 6, June 17, 1985; "News, Madonna, Fonda Buried in Capsule," Downtown News, p. 1, June 24, 1985.
8 "News, Madonna, Fonda Buried in Capsule," Downtown News, p. 1, June 24, 1985.
9 Interview with Eugene Sturman by Michael Several, August 12, 1989.
10 "Artistic Freedom Just Isn't Enough," by Sue Laris, Downtown News, June 2, 1986.
11 "Entries Sought for Building's Time Capsule," Downtown News, p. 21, April 8, 1985.
13 "Philistines & Artists Prepare for Battle," by Sue Laris, Downtown News, June 23, 1986.
14 "Lemon' Award Leaves Jurors With Sour Taste," Letter from John S. Gordon, Alan Sieroty, Al Nodal, Stephanie Baron, Julie Brown, Los Angeles Times, Pt. VIII, p. 4, June 1, 1986; Letter from John S. Gordon, Alan Sieroty, Al Nodal, Stephanie Baron, Julie Brown, Downtown News, June 2, 1986; see also other letters, Downtown News, June 16, 1986, p. 14.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, December 1999.
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