The Museum is the Message
By Marcia Manna
"A strong sense of duty imprisons you." "You must know where you stop and the workd begins." "Being judgmental is a sign of life."
THESE ILLUMINATED MESSAGES by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer have the kind of stop-and-ponder appeal that beckons the eye and captures the imagination. Theyíre the first visual attraction visitors see at downtownís newly expanded Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, celebrating its grand opening with a Community Free Day from noon to 6 p.m. on January 21.
Holzer's "truisms," created with light-emitting diodes encased in clear plastic tubes, scroll vertically along the face of the new David C. Copley Building, move along the roof, then appear across the street at the existing MCASD galleries at 1001 Kettner Boulevard. More than 200 statements, in English and Spanish, beam across the buildings, but just one - "A sense of timing is the mark of genius" - relates most closely to the museum's $25 million expansion. Timing has been critical in this massive four-year undertaking, which, now that itís finished, represents a smart and economically viable change in San Diegoís urban culture.
A city that creates a strong reputation as an arts destination draws tourists who seek a cultural experience. Reports by the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalition have documented that cultural tourism contributes more than $300 million annually to the local economy.
The downtown campus now has more than 16,000 feet of exhibition space, a requirement for some of the contemporary artworks and installations that would be too large for the original MCASD site in La Jolla. The triple buildings are accessible, too, adjacent to the commuter train and trolley routes and close to Little Italy, the Embarcadero and the Gaslamp Quarter.
The meticulously renovated Santa Fe Railroad baggage building was originally built by Bakewell & Brown for the Panama- California Exposition. Now known as the Jacobs Building, it boasts four galleries and more than 10,000 feet of exhibition space. Local artist Robert Irwin will occupy the private artist-in-residence studio and be the focus of a large exhibition in October.
"We touched the baggage building very lightly," says Hugh Davies, the museum director. "All the structure and bones of that building, and the quality of light, is very much the way it was. We were conscientious about keeping the paint color exactly the same green that was used by Bakewell & Brown. The building was too good to mess with. It was just a gift to find a building that lends itself so ideally to being a public art building."
The adjoining 15,950-square-foot Copley Building, with its elegant channel-glass windows and red corrugated-metal siding, houses rooms for education, art storage, lectures and other programs.
Holzer, whose lighted messages are titled For San Diego, is one of three notable artists commissioned to create permanent works for the opening.
San Diego artist Roman de Salvo has woven together electrical and cable wires, materials typically hidden behind a wall, to create the decorative Utility Filigree displayed in the staircase of the Copley Building.
World-renowned sculptor Richard Serra is experiencing a wave of popularity, with three recent California commissions and a major retrospective due to open at New York's Museum of Modern Art this summer. He created the six steel cubes, weighing 50,000 pounds each and titled Santa Fe Depot, forged in Germany and shipped from Belgium by freighter. Passersby and those boarding and disembarking from trains can see the huge cubes, each turned in a different way, through the grand arches in the Figi Family Concourse Courtyard.
While Serra has chosen a medium commonly perceived as industrial and unrelenting, his works inspire us to see space in a more complex way. His forte is creating majestic steel forms that are gracefully tilted, or that tower above in a way that makes one notice a linear shape against the sky or the cast of a shadow on the ground. With indented surfaces mottled with orange rust, Serra's immovable sculptures are often perceived as a physical confrontation. Our paths are interrupted, our eyes take in the scale, and in the act of responding to art, we are changed.
Davies and his curatorial colleagues considered Serra's work for a decade, traveling to New York, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and Los Angeles to see his sculptures.
"We invited him to see the site and make a proposal," says Davies. "I met Richard and his wife, Clara, at the train station and walked him through the concourse. I asked him if he would like to have lunch or see the site first. He said, very abruptly, 'Let's see the site.' I said, 'Turn around.'"
"It is such a unique space . . . one of the great examples of California Mission style. It's still a working railroad station with the advantage of wonderful perspective, great historic architecture and the animation and engagement of the public."
BORN IN SAN FRANCISCO in 1939, Serra attended Yale University, where he trained as a painter, earning a B.A. in art history and a B.F.A. and M.F.A. in art. In the late 1960s, the artist became known for his abstract expressionist "Splash" series, created by hurling molten lead against the walls of his studio, resulting in a cast that reflected the force of that action.
Today, steel is his medium of choice, but it wasn't always that way.
"When I was 17, I worked for U.S. Steel in Alameda," says Serra, who now divides his time between New York and Nova Scotia. "I was headed back to Yale, and I wanted a job where I could pick up enough money in a couple of months, and that afforded me the opportunity. I had no intention of going on to steel sculpture."
A Yale Traveling Fellowship and a Fulbright grant allowed Serra to visit Europe and Africa, and in 1966, he moved to New York and began experimenting. "I was working with rubber; you can easily manipulate it, and it has a very fluid sense," he says. "I went from rubber to lead. I really wanted to avoid steel, because it seemed like such a traditional material. I looked at [Constantin] Brancusi in Paris and [Alberto] Giacometti. But I realized, having worked in the steel industry, that no one had employed the technology of steel in terms of the Industrial Revolution."
Eventually, Serra chose steel - or perhaps it chose him.
"The choice has to do with what you are drawn to," he says. "I think matter, whether it is steel or glass or clay, imposes its own form. People often don't understand the potential of the material. I thought, 'Why not use the properties of steel in the way it had been used in industry and try to interface that aesthetically?' It took me 40 years to figure out how I could use it in a variety of ways and make it weightless or balanced or whatever."
When examining the area where he was to create Santa Fe Depot, Serra considered the sculpture's long-term impact. "There was this magnificent building, and 20 years down the road, it will look like it was built for that space. Like it belongs there."
The downtown site of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is open Thursday through Tuesday, 11-5, at 1001 Kettner Boulevard, 619-234-1001; mcasd.org.