L.A. Prime Matter

Background Information

1991, Eric Orr. 37'h x 5'w x 1'10"d. 601 South Figueroa
Imagine downtown Los Angeles as two different and distinct worlds. One is visible and manifested by its streets, buildings and people engaged in both spontaneous interaction in public spaces and in the formal structures and constraints of the work place. The other world is invisible, but not intangible, and is made of dreams, a sense of the past and the spirit of place. These two parallel worlds sometimes converge and when they do, it is often as public art. Artists are translators between the two worlds, but the process they engage in is not done by the artist alone. Among those who help are art consultants, hired by developers to help select the artists, bridge the needs of the developer with the imagination of the artist, and shepherd the installation through the mundane administrative hurdles established by government agencies.

Tamara B. Thomas, President of Fine Arts Services, Inc., was hired as art consultant by Gerald D. Hines Interests, development manager of the 55-story office building being developed by Mitsui-Fudosan (U.S.A.).(1) Adhering to the Community Redevelopment Agency's procedures, Thomas submitted a Preliminary Art Plan on November (2), 1987, which reported that a large work was planned for the corner of Wilshire and Figueroa, and small works were planned for the open space surrounding the office tower.2 (The small works were never commissioned due to budget overruns stemming from technical problems with the Eric Orr work.) Thomas also reported to the CRA's Arts Advisory Committee that three artists were considered for the large work.(3) In January 1988, Thomas recommended Eric Orr to the Arts Advisory Committee as the artist for the large work. After Orr reported that he would develop several different designs, each about 35 feet tall,(3) the committee approved the recommendation.

Orr considered a single column and a double column version of "Prime Matter," a series of fountains he designed after visiting cultic sites in Egypt and Zaire. Combining air, fire, water and the natural elements of the earth,(5) this series was inaugurated in 1981 when Orr executed a 20' tall work for the "Museum as Site" show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.(6) Subsequent versions were installed in Denver, Japan, Sweden and West Los Angeles. For the installation in downtown Los Angeles, the developer, Mitsui-Fudosan and the development manager, Gerald D. Hines Interests, accepted Orr's double column version. Orr proceeded to fabricate the work after the Arts Advisory Committee approved the "Preliminary Schematics" in May 1988.(7) His final art plan was approved by the committee in December 1988.(8) After Orr and the building's architect, David Martin of Albert C. Martin & Associates, collaborated in designing a 5' high black granite clad plinth, the Fire Department recommended raising it to 8' for safety reasons. Orr accepted the Fire Department's advice and felt the final height was symbolically appropriate because 8 is a lucky number in China.(9)

"L.A. Prime Matter" consists of two 32' high triangular bronze towers(10) at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Figueroa. Specially designed ridges in the sides of the towers form patterns in the water that slowly flows down from the top.(11) The mechanical components of the fountain were supplied by Water Entertainment Technologies (WET), Inc., the same company that constructed fountains at the Music Center and California Plaza on Bunker Hill. In contrast to other works in the "Prime Matter" series, in which the flame begins at the bottom and moves up, the fire in "L.A. Prime Matter" spilled down from the top. Though this work was conceived as juxtaposing light, fire and water, only water remains because two components no longer function. A xenon light, placed at the center of the plinth to shine 1000 feet upward like a searchlight, never operated properly because scratches on the lens blocked the light. In addition, the system regulating the cascading flame has been turned off for an upgrade. A new fire system and lens were both scheduled to be installed in early 1999.(12)


1. Memorandum from John J. Tuite, Community Redevelopment Agency, to Agency Commissioners, re: Preliminary Art Plan and Final Art Plan Schedule for the Mitsui Fudosan Office Tower in the Central Business District Development Project, November 25, 1987; Minutes, Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, October 5, 1987.

2 Art in Public Places Program, Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles Preliminary Art Plan and 50% Schematics, November 2, 1987.

3 Minutes, Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, November 2, 1987.

4 Minutes, Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, January 8, 1988.

5. "Eric Orr," The Works Gallery, Long Beach and Costa Mesa, 1990.

6 "Eric Orr at Neil G. Ovsey," Art in America, November 1991.

7 Minutes, Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, May 3, 1988.

8 Minutes, Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, December 5, 1988.

9. Interview of Eric Orr by Michael Several, April 2, 1992.

10 Drawings with measurements of "Prime Matter," January, 1988.

11 "Eric Orr Sculpture Figueroa at Wilshire," Fine Arts Services, Inc. no date.

12 Interview of Eric Orr by Michael Several, October 15, 1998.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, March 1999.

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