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A City with Two Minds

An examination of San Diego’s collected public art reveals that we are indeed a populace divided


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"What do the fans of J. Seward Johnson see? It’s hard to fathom.

Take a look at Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic picture, V-J Day at Times Square (1945). Then consider Johnson’s 25-foot-tall sculpture of the sailor and nurse in that photograph, Unconditional Surrender (figure 1), which occupied a prime spot along San Diego’s downtown waterfront for five years and will return in 2013.

Eisenstaedt’s image captures a deliriously happy moment in American history, distilling the end of a World War into a lone picture in the medium that freezes time best. Johnson’s monumental geegaw, Unconditional Surrender, drains the magic from the image. But that’s not the way the commissioners for the Port of San Diego saw it. They thought it was important enough to violate the terms of their own public art plan and overrule the recommendation of their public art committee to give the behemoth object a permanent place along the downtown waterfront.

For as long as I have been writing about public art in San Diego, reaching back to the mid-1980s, it has seemed like a city with two minds.

One of those minds, or mindsets, embraces a pandering piece like Unconditional Surrender. There are people who are downright passionate about it, so much so that they anted up the $998,000 price for a bronze version of the original—no doubt making Johnson feel as if San Diego is his kind of town.

But is it really?

The lazy standard in this kind of work: Make it big and it will impress, even when the art isn’t in any way original.

If you were to believe the enthusiasm surrounding a proposed public art project, Wings of Freedom (figure 2), late last year, you would think this is Johnson’s sort of place—a haven for second- or third-rate art. The lazy standard in this kind of work: Make it big and it will impress, even when the art isn’t in any way original. Johnson’s sculpture doesn’t even make any pretense to fresh vision: It just lifts a beloved picture and makes it gargantuan.

The Wings, which were proposed for the end of Navy Pier downtown, appeal to some vague notion of flight as freedom and propose to embody this idea in a pair of flaccid-looking forms in titanium that would rise to an impressive 500 feet along the downtown harbor. We can’t tie this concept to one person. Malcolm Leland, an easygoing modernist who is best known for the outdoor sculpture and fountain, Bow Wave (1972), on the Civic Center Plaza in downtown San Diego, proposed these shapes a quarter-century ago for an amphitheatre and gave them a more humble title, Harbor Wings. Architects Hal Sadler and Greg Mueller then adapted the shapes for the proposed new project—now on hold for environmental study—which was heavily promoted by real estate developer Malin Burnham, architect Hal Sadler, philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, and some folks from the Midway Museum as some kind of civic icon. (Sanford agreed to put up $35 million of the $68 million price tag.) The end result looks more like a committee’s idea of important art; instead, it’s an uninspired exercise in form, straining to look important.

But there is another San Diego, which offers a different and frankly better type of public art. Examples are pretty plentiful, from Chicano Park to the County Operations Center to the Stuart Collection on the UCSD campus to a growing number of murals in La Jolla, but a couple of new, prominently sited ones should be proof enough.

There’s the recently dedicated sculptural project by Roman de Salvo, The Riparium (figure 3), which went through the normal selection process described in the Port’s Public Art Master Plan—requiring a recommendation from its public art advisory committee and approval by the commissioners. De Salvo’s title refers to the natural course of water along a shore or riverbank, and the apt site of de Salvo’s sculpture is the new $3.8-million Ruocco Park, situated west of Pacific Highway and south of Harbor Drive. It was named for the pioneering local modernist architect Lloyd Ruocco and his wife, Ilse, who left money to the San Diego Foundation for worthy civic efforts like this one. De Salvo, one of San Diego’s best artists in the public arena as well in his smaller studio works, has developed a method of composition using joined and planed branches of trees that create a fluid, elegant network of lines; in The Riparium, they are suspended like a trellis from cable, appearing to hover between pillars, and they guide your eye toward the harbor.

The Port of San Diego is responsible for this project too, suggesting that the divided nature of San Diego is mirrored in the Port’s own actions. (The Riparium went through the normal process of selection.) And if San Diego’s better mind regarding public art needed an exclamation point, it is a twofold project by Robert Irwin, a San Diegan who is arguably one of the greatest of living artists.

Irwin’s project, for which credit goes to the General Services Administration of the U.S., is integrated into the new $385-million federal courthouse downtown. (His selection had significant local input.) You will be able to experience both major facets of his luminous work there. Irwin is perhaps best known for work rooted in the viewer’s perception, most famously referred to as Light and Space Art. A virtually transparent column from the early 1970s called Acrylic Prism (figure 4), measuring 32 feet in height, will grace the courthouse lobby—changing continuously with the light of the day; it is invisible at one turn and unpredictably prismatic at another. But Irwin may be even better known for one of his public works, the Getty Center’s Central Garden in Los Angeles. He has continued to use flora and fauna as media and will do so again in San Diego, with a ramp of zigzagging hedges titled Hedge Wedge.

Irwin’s project will be dedicated early next year, but may be visible as early as November. When Unconditional Surrender returns in bronze next year, in close proximity to the de Salvo and the Irwin, you will be able to take a short walk that will embody the best and the worst in public art. Of course, there will never be agreement about what is best and worst, though to me the categories are as clear as the acrylic in Irwin’s column."

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