LACMA’S LOST CEN­TER­PIECE

‘Space Sculp­ture,’ which had pride of place at the mu­seum 50 years ago, has shot into obliv­ion

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - CHRISTO­PHER KNIGHT ART CRITIC

Be­fore there was “Ur­ban Light,” there was “Space Sculp­ture.”

Erected as a dra­matic plaza cen­ter­piece when the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art first opened on Wil­shire Boule­vard 50 years ago, “Space Sculp­ture” stum­bled through a less-than-splen­did ex­is­tence. Like a movie star un­able to make the tran­si­tion from si­lent pic­tures to talkies, it shot from cen­ter stage to obliv­ion.

“Ur­ban Light,” Chris Bur­den’s clas­si­cal Greco-Ro­man tem­ple as­sem­bled from 202 ob­so­lete city street­lights, is what greets mu­seum vis­i­tors to­day. It’s a sculp­ture that has launched a mil­lion self­ies. The il­lu­mi­nated shrine to our au­to­mo­tive past be­came LACMA’s unof­fi­cial em­blem af­ter be­ing in-

stalled on the en­try plaza seven years ago. It even evolved into a vir­tual civic sym­bol.

“Space Sculp­ture” had no such luck.

Ar­tis­ti­cally, it seems rather corny in ret­ro­spect — more “mod­ernistic” than mod­ern. But on LACMA’s golden an­niver­sary, it is worth re­mem­ber­ing. “Space Sculp­ture” and its le­gacy bring back an im­por­tant time.

It be­gan life as an ex­plo­sive tower of welded stain­less steel rods, stacked up on a pedestal stand­ing in a foun­tain.

In 1967, two years af­ter it went up, a mu­seum con­ser­va­tor told The Times that the stain­less steel was be­gin­ning to cor­rode un­der the bit­ing on­slaught of L.A.’s then-no­to­ri­ous smog. Hardly an in­tran­si­gent prob­lem, the touch of de­cay was a harbinger of things to come.

The work was tem­po­rar­ily re­moved to make way for con­struc­tion of the hulk­ing An­der­son Build­ing for Mod­ern Art, now home to the Art of the Amer­i­cas gal­leries, which gob­bled up the orig­i­nal en­try plaza. The new wing opened with great fan­fare in 1986, but the sculp­ture never came back. Few seemed to no­tice. Yet, when “Space Sculp­ture” first went on dis­play in 1965, it was as con­spic­u­ous as it could be, given pride of place smack in the cen­ter of LACMA’s en­try­way. A fu­tur­is­tic fan­tasy filled with shim­mer­ing op­ti­mism glis­tened in the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia sun­light. The sculp­ture was the spin­dle around which the new mu­seum’s three mar­ble-clad pavil­ions re­volved.

Wel­come to art’s To­mor­row­land, the gleam­ing stain­less steel mon­u­ment im­plied. Vis­ually it spoke of an up­start mu­seum’s un­al­loyed am­bi­tions.

At the be­hest of LACMA Direc­tor Richard Fargo Brown, wealthy elec­tron­ics in­dus­tri­al­ist David E. Bright do­nated the money for “Space Sculp­ture.” Bright was so en­thu­si­as­tic about new art that he spon­sored an in­ter­na­tional prize at the ven­er­a­ble Venice Bi­en­nale — the only Amer­i­can to do so.

An avid Mod­ern art col­lec­tor, among the most ar­dent in L.A., he was trea­surer of LACMA’s board of trustees and chair­man of its build­ing com­mit­tee, which got the new mu­seum con­structed.

Bright’s own col­lec­tion fea­tured School of Paris ti­tans. There was a mourn­ful Blue Pe­riod Pi­casso and a large and wiry Sur­re­al­ist ab­strac­tion by Joan Miro. Fer­nand Leger’s mus­cu­lar con­struc­tion of brightly colored shapes, “The Disks,” is vis­ually as strong and ca­cophonous as an ur­ban crowd.

There were New York School masters too — firstrate ex­am­ples of veiled clouds of color by Mark Rothko, Adolph Got­tlieb’s sprawl­ing pic­to­graphic land­scape and Franz Kline’s painted con­struc­tion of pow­er­ful black vec­tors slashed across a frothy sea of white. A ro­bust 1951 blackand-white Jack­son Pol­lock was pre­car­i­ously poised be­tween cal­cu­la­tion and chance.

“Space Sculp­ture” was nowhere near as au­gust. Amid Bright’s lu­mi­nous ros­ter of Mod­ern Euro­pean and Amer­i­can artists, the name of Ger­man sculp­tor Nor­bert Kricke does not stand out.

Kricke, born in Duesseldorf and trained in Ber­lin, was 44 when his sculp­ture was cho­sen to grace the LACMA plaza. (He died in 1984.) Not well known to­day, es­pe­cially out­side Ger­many, he was among a large num­ber of mostly younger in­ter­na­tional artists on the radar in the 1950s and early 1960s. Striv­ing to match the power of re­cent paint­ing, they shared an in­ter­est in fus­ing the ra­tio­nal or­der of tech­nol­ogy with spon­ta­neous con­struc­tion tech­niques.

The re­sult was dy­namic, open-form sculp­ture, of­ten in metal. Kricke welded stain­less steel rods in im­promptu com­po­si­tions, stack­ing them into ser­rated pil­lars of in­ter­lock­ing planes.

But barely a year af­ter LACMA threw open its doors with “Space Sculp­ture” as its wel­com­ing ges­ture, a land­mark ex­hi­bi­tion called “Pri­mary Struc­tures” opened at the Jewish Mu­seum in New York. Rad­i­cally new sculp­tures dom­i­nated the buzz, among them works by six L.A. artists, in­clud­ing Larry Bell and John McCracken. Their of­ten mod­u­lar, im­per­son­ally crafted, ma­chine-fab­ri­cated forms swept away the fussi­ness of what Kricke and his co­hort were do­ing. Min­i­mal­ist sculp­ture had ar­rived, clear­ing the field and pro­pel­ling art in a new di­rec­tion.

And that was that. Sud­denly, Kricke’s jazzy, ad hoc LACMA sculp­ture made To­mor­row­land look like Yes­ter­dayville.

As years went by, the per­ceived gap only widened. In­dus­tri­al­ist Nor­ton Simon even made the work’s re­moval a con­di­tion of the pos­si­ble do­na­tion of his spec­tac­u­lar art col­lec­tion, which didn’t come to pass.

When “Space Sculp­ture” was dis­man­tled to make way for LACMA’s An­der­son Build­ing ex­pan­sion dur­ing the di­rec­tor­ship of Earl A. Pow­ell III (now the long­time head of Wash­ing­ton’s Na­tional Gallery of Art), the mu­seum sent it on a 10-year loan to Cedars-Si­nai Med­i­cal Cen­ter. Prom­i­nent col­lec­tor Mar­cia Weis­man had been as­sem­bling a con­tem­po­rary art col­lec­tion there on a shoe­string bud­get.

The sculp­ture was last seen ris­ing from the me­dian strip on Alden Drive.

Once the loan pe­riod was up, LACMA qui­etly de­cided to sell it, leav­ing a big, un­for­tu­nate hole in its col­lect­ing his­tory. Best prac­tices for deac­ces­sion­ing mu­seum art dic­tate the en­gage­ment of an auc­tion house for great­est public trans­parency or, in rare in­stances, a pri­vate dealer with spe­cial­ized knowl­edge. LACMA took a dif­fer­ent route.

A spokesman said “the mu­seum en­ter­tained sev­eral com­pet­i­tive of­fers,” fi­nally sell­ing the sculp­ture in Ger­many in 1988. LACMA de­clined to re­veal the buyer or sale price, and whether it sub­se­quently changed hands is un­known. So is the work’s cur­rent where­abouts.

What did David E. Bright, the gen­er­ous donor, think of all this? We’ll never know.

Twelve days af­ter the public first be­gan stream­ing across the plaza and past “Space Sculp­ture” to check out L.A.’s as­pir­ing new mu­seum, Bright died from a cere­bral hem­or­rhage in his room at New York’s Sher­ryNether­land ho­tel. He was 57.

His wife, Dolly, who died two years ago at 98, was at his side. It was she who gave LACMA the cream of his Mod­ern art col­lec­tion in 1967. The gift ranked as the largest, most im­por­tant be­quest of art — of any kind — that the young mu­seum had yet re­ceived.

Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art

“SPACE SCULP­TURE” greeted vis­i­tors when the mu­seum opened. Its where­abouts now are un­known.

Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

LACMA’S “Ur­ban Light” by Chris Bur­den has proved far more popular than its orig­i­nal en­trance art­work, “Space Sculp­ture,” which was lent, sold and forgotten.

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