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The Art of Life in a City

September 22, 1985|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

From a single vantage point in downtown Los Angeles, it's possible to see the handiwork of three major 20th-Century sculptors.

Michael Heizer's enormous geometric volumes of polished aluminum fill the Wells Fargo's patio at 5th and Flower streets; a glittery, baroque relief by Frank Stella hangs on a wall behind Heizer's work, and across the intersection, Herbert Bayer's "Double Ascension" marks the front of Atlantic Richfield Plaza's twin towers with a bright red abstraction that swirls like a spiral staircase.

The view is an eyeful for unsuspecting art lovers, but it's only a hint of the public sculpture that's beginning to populate Southern California in increasing density.

Upper patios on Wells Fargo's hillside site hold imposing works by another trio of stellar contemporary artists: Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman and Mark di Suvero. A block or so to the south, Alexander Calder's monumental red crab cavorts outside Security Pacific's world headquarters and Louise Nevelson's soaring black "Night Sail" evokes dreams of mysterious voyages at Crocker Center.

This pocket of public sculpture once seemed an isolated phenomenon--a rare humanizing touch in a sterile world of corporate commerce. But the recent completion of Eugene Sturman's "Homage to Cabrillo: Venetian Quadrant" (a 33-foot-tall metal tribute to creativity and curiosity, at 9th and Figueroa streets) and the passage of the Community Redevelopment Agency's downtown Art in Public Places Program are only two indications that public art is spreading.

This development is by no means confined to central Los Angeles. Santa Monica, Pasadena, Long Beach and various cities in Orange County all have art projects in progress. And the new outdoor sculpture no longer resides exclusively in rarefied settings of university and museum gardens or on manicured grounds of private collectors' mansions.

For better or for worse, artists' creations are rising amid gleaming office buildings. For decoration or commemoration, art is sprouting in shopping centers. For cultural enhancement or to fulfill government regulations, an aesthetic component has been added to commercial and industrial developments.

As might be expected, the results are far from homogeneous. Little Tokyo's business district, for example, offers something for everyone. Junichiro Hannya's realistic bronze depiction of a folk hero, known as "The Peasant Sage of Japan," strides along in sandals at 2nd and San Pedro streets. Symbolizing perseverance, integrity and social consciousness, the peasant's image is dedicated to the Issei pioneers who brought his spirit to America.

Opposite him, standing bolt upright at the entrance of Weller Court, Sinkichi Tajiri's sleek, white "Friendship Knot" is a Bicentennial gift to Los Angeles from the Friends of Little Tokyo. And at Japanese Village Plaza is a welded metal abstraction by Michael Todd, an Angeleno who has been profoundly influenced by Japanese culture. His works are rather like three-dimensional calligraphy or balancing acts that might be the result of Zen revelations.

Such artistic oases in the land of commerce are the product of at least three different forces: individual vision, government support for the arts and a business-world sense of what's attractive, prestigious or meaningful to its constituents.

In Costa Mesa, an area once dubbed Goat Hill and now a glittering mecca of culture and business, developer Henry T. Segerstrom's vision is credited with making art a significant part of the transformed environment. As he turned his family lima bean fields into South Coast Plaza and Town Center and donated land for the Orange County Performing Arts Center, he also bought art on a grand scale.

"I think the feeling was that if you are going to have a world class performing arts center, you ought to have a world class art collection," said Maura Eggan, director of marketing for South Coast Plaza.

The most astonishing purchase, one that captured international interest, is Isamu Noguchi's "California Scenario." The renowned Japanese-American artist fashioned this soothing environment of fountains, streams, plants and stone sculpture for a plaza bordered by two office buildings and a parking structure.

Other Segerstrom acquisitions for South Coast grounds include a trademark kinetic piece by George Rickey, a stained glass windscreen by Claire Falkenstein, Charles O. Perry's bright yellow "Ram" abstraction and a mirrored pagoda by Doug Edge. Henry Moore's massive bronze "Reclining Figure," temporarily installed in front of the Central Bank building, is a gift to the new Performing Arts Center from the Angels of the Arts.

Eggan views the South Coast collection as "a badge of the coming of age of Orange County" and an example of an entrepreneur's "enlightened self-interest." Other developers sometimes see art as an enhancement for their commercial and industrial projects, but it is still rare for them to seek high quality art out of personal interest or conviction.

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