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FROM THE GROUND UP : BIRD OF PLAY : Richard Lippold's 'Fire Bird' spans the lobby, its great wings inside and outside the glass. 'It is both taking off and going in. It leads the outside in, and from the inside, it leads you out'

September 21, 1986|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer.

There was a time when sculptor Richard Lippold could be found dangling precariously from a ladder, setting a wire or a cable in place as he constructed one of his monumental projects. Now, at 71, he lets others do most of the actual installation. But from his studios in Locust Valley, N.Y. (where our interview took place), and in the countryside near Orvieto, Italy, the artist continues to create artwork destined to grace architectural projects around the world.

The man architect Phil- ip Johnson once called " the architectural sculptor" doesn't think small. In fact, he apparently seeks to fill--and enhance--the architectural spaces where his works appear. "Orchidia," his 16-story sculpture, will soon be installed in Singapore's Marina Centre Hotel; his famed "Orpheus and Apollo" descends dramatically from a height of three stories in the lobby of Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. And now "Fire Bird," an imposing work of stainless steel and aluminum, spans the lobby of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Sweeping through the center's Grand Portal, its great wings both inside and outside the glass, the silver, gold and red sculpture is 60 feet tall, 120 feet wide and 100 feet deep.

In every case, Lippold says, his approach is "to study the building and see what the space needs. I don't just make works and stick them somewhere."

"Fire Bird," for instance, was a "very difficult work to do because the building is so non-centered. It's not a formal situation," he says. "The lobby spaces are not symmetrical.

"The only focal point is the outside arch, so I used that as a point of departure for the work," he continues. "I started there so the piece flows from a central point. It is both taking off and going in. It leads the outside in, and from the inside, it leads you out."

"Fire Bird" may be Lippold's first indoor-outdoor piece--Orange County Performing Arts Center Executive Director Thomas R. Kendrick thinks it may be the only piece of its kind anywhere--but the sculptor is clearly accustomed to challenging assignments. His arduous assemblage of Lincoln Center's "Orpheus and Apollo" was completed in the early '60s under anything but ideal working conditions. Floors were going in, visitors were going through, and at one point somebody even stole Lippold's tools. It was "a nightmare," Lippold recalls of shaping five tons' worth of bronze sheets and stainless-steel cables into a work then billed as the largest sculpture of the 20th Century.

A few years later, however, Lippold was back doing another sculpture for a concert hall. Working with Houston architect Charles Lawrence, the artist designed and installed his "Gemini II" at the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in Houston. In fact Lawrence, lead design architect for the Orange County Performing Arts Center, has said of the Lippold commission in Costa Mesa: "I can't think of another sculptor who could create a piece that would be such an integral part of the procession of approaching, entering and moving through the center's public spaces."

Lippold, who was once called "agreeably complex" in a New Yorker magazine profile, apparently elicits such remarks from colleagues. That is probably because Lippold considers his work part of a greater collaboration. "It's like working in the theater," Lippold says. "There are so many people involved and everybody has to yield something to the other's contribution. It's a give-and-take."

Lippold's work has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Four Seasons restaurant in New York.

"Fire Bird," he says, was created for its space much as the Lincoln Center piece or the Four Seasons work was. Lippold gives example after example of what is lost when an object is taken from its natural setting and winds up in a museum, "beautifully lit on pedestals." He recalls once telling his art teacher at the Chicago Art Institute that he wanted to blow up all the museums, saying they were like mausoleums. He prefers works that will thrive in public spaces, where they will become part of people's lives.

Lippold had no plans to create public art, or even become a sculptor. Rather, the Milwaukee-born artist studied industrial design, later working and teaching in that field before turning seriously to fine art in the mid-1940s.

Along the way, Lippold had also considered music as a career. He has played the piano and the organ since he was a teen-ager, and the back wall of his studio is hidden behind a massive, 14-foot-high organ that practically scrapes the ceiling. Lippold designed the organ--built in Denmark--and he often plays works by Bach and Pachelbel for relaxation.

Lippold has written music for his wife, Louise, a former dancer, and once dedicated a series of wire sculptures to his longtime friend, composer John Cage. Speaking of his appreciation of not only music and dance but also literature, Lippold comments that "the creative processes are the same. The materials are different. I'm not stuck in the world of sculpture."

Lippold is a man of his time, and his sculpture reflects an interest in very contemporary materials. The color of "Fire Bird," for instance, is created through an electrochemical process that alters the molecular arrangement of the surface of the stainless steel in such a way that it becomes permanent. It isn't a dye, which could fade, Lippold explains, but is "almost an iridescence."

That iridescence will certainly also contribute to the piece's commanding presence. "I'm sure a lot of people will see ("Fire Bird"). It will force people to look at it," he says. "It is not a retiring work."

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