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Art for the Fast Lane : Just What Is That Hanging Above the Hollywood Freeway?

October 27, 1985|WENDY LEOPOLD | Wendy Leopold is a staff researcher in The Times' Chicago bureau

At a time of delicate political relations with Yugoslavia in the late '70s, the Carter Administration established a cultural presence there--with a "light sculpture," a quarter mile of 2,400 disembodied automobile headlights blinking in amber, blue and white.

And when a British architectural journal commissioned a number of doll houses for soon-to-be-born Prince Harry, the most unusual was a dreamlike house of clouds--a neon sculpture with the less-than-royal title "Doll's House for Lady Di."

The sculptor responsible for these international gestures, Chicago artist John David Mooney, is hardly a household name in Los Angeles. But his largest permanent work--the largest public sculpture in North America--is familiar, on sight if not by name, to most Angelenos.

It's called "Starsteps,"--the giant metal latticework that sits atop the Metromedia Building like a toppled antenna hanging over the Hollywood Freeway at Sunset Boulevard.

No one ever actually ordered a giant rooftop sculpture for Los Angeles. Mooney--along with British sculptor Henry Moore and Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro--was simply asked to create a piece for Metromedia's California headquarters. But to do so, he first had to come to grips with L.A.'s less-than-intimate scale.

"It was a frightening experience," the small, silver-haired artist said of his first visit to the city. "I'd lived in Rome, London, New York and Chicago, and I'd never owned an automobile. I could get anywhere. But in L.A. I had to hire someone to drive me around to get a real sense of the city."

Mooney, 43, an advocate of public sculpture and a designer of civic pieces for several other cities, found no tradition of public art in Los Angeles.

"I had to re-create a way to speak to the people, and L.A. had the perfect setup," he said. "Here were all these relatively low, flat buildings. I saw them as pedestals for sculpture.

"I made the Metromedia Building an example of a building acting as a pedestal for sculpture that could be viewed by people driving at 55 miles per hour, as well as by people walking around it."

The result is a 40,000-pound, 35x133-foot sculpture that "breaks every city and state highway code in the book," says a gleeful Mooney. Above all, it's a realization of his conviction that art must reach beyond museum walls.

"Even now, four years after its installation, it still attracts a great deal of attention," says Nan Hogan, administrative assistant to Metromedia's senior vice president. Some tour buses now include the sculpture as one of their stops, she says.

The white steel sculpture reflects natural light by day and is illuminated at night by 33 footlights and three searchlights. "It's used as a landmark by air-traffic controllers," Mooney says, boasting that the piece truly combines form and function.

Not all of Mooney's creations are landmarks. Like contemporary artist Christo, Mooney is a proponent of process art--that is, that the act of creating is as important as the finished work. Many of his installations last only a few days or hours.

"Every artist should be in touch with the time in which he's working," he says. "I don't do 20-foot pieces in bronze because bronze is a material of another golden age of art, not a material of our time. It's too sacred, too art-oriented."

Instead, he prefers "mundane materials"--paper bags, candles, headlights, aluminum and steel.

Using volunteers, craftsmen, construction workers, welders and others to create art lends to the "celebration" that Mooney sees as part of the process. The steelworkers who helped erect "Starsteps" usually work on skyscrapers. Mooney remembers how they'd return at night, bringing wives, girlfriends and six-packs "to look at the sculpture they were helping to make."

"These guys may have helped build any number of big buildings around L.A., but their work was always hidden behind glass and bricks," Mooney says. " 'Starsteps' was a piece they could show to their children and say, 'I made that.' "

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