"I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit . . . in a museum," Claes Oldenburg wrote in an often-quoted statement for a 1961 exhibition.
In Los Angeles this week, the artist is installing a new work that doesn't sit at all. It will stand precariously on one leg, as if about to fall, and it will pull off this feat not in a museum but on Loyola Law School's downtown campus.
"Toppling Ladder With Spilling Paint," a 14-foot-high stainless steel and aluminum sculpture, was being put in place at an agonizingly slow pace Tuesday morning. Workmen raised the 1,300-pound sculpture--wrapped in blue padding--from a flatbed truck onto a forklift. Suspended from a chain, the ungainly bundle crept along through a parking garage and out onto the small campus.
"The slower it goes, the happier I am," said Oldenburg, who has been through this process dozens of times as his works have been placed in an international array of cities. Characteristically calm, cool and a bit droll around the edges, Oldenburg said he still feels a rush of excitement whenever a new piece is in the process of being installed.
The Loyola sculpture--commissioned for the site--is his first publicly visible work in Los Angeles. It's "very special" according to Coosje van Bruggen, Oldenburg's wife and professional partner. "We usually have to work with and against existing architecture. This is the first time the art has been totally in harmony with its surroundings."
"There were no obstructions here at all," Oldenburg agreed.
"Toppling Ladder" will rise east of Merrifield Hall on the center of the campus amid a collection of buildings designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Taking a cue from Gehry and "paying homage" to the architect who has made controversial use of chain-link fencing in his buildings, Oldenburg and Van Bruggen designed the ladder of cast aluminum chain-link forms that wrap around cylindrical steel legs. A steel paint can sits atop the ladder, spilling a wavy ribbon of steel painted blue to resemble a splash of pigment.
The sculpture may appear to be an innocent enough object--off the drawing board of an artist who has made a brilliant career of turning ordinary objects into humorous monuments. And it seems to spring from another part of his celebrated statement: "I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself."
But, also characteristically, "Toppling Ladder" has a pointed relationship to its setting.
It's a metaphor for the current state of justice, which in many people's minds is as tipsy as the ladder.
Prof. Robert Benson, who oversees the school's art and architecture projects, put it more academically in a prepared statement: "The Oldenburg-Van Bruggen sculpture can be seen as an uncannily accurate expression of the dominant 20th-Century philosophy called legal realism, in which justice is thought to be as much a matter of mundane facts, irony and chance as it is of abstract realism."
On the site, Benson commented, "We need all the crazy creativity we can get in a conservative Catholic law school." He said the concept initially met heated resistance from part of the student body and faculty but that attitudes generally have turned around, to the point that students are planning a celebratory welcoming party for the new work. However, there are still those who consider the piece entirely "too whimsical" for the institution, Benson noted.
Oldenburg himself has several interpretations for "Toppling Ladder," and seems to welcome new ones that arrive almost as quickly as curious onlookers. "It's about shifting planes," he said of the sculpture's formal arrangement, noting that the links look different from every aspect.
He also views the dynamic piece as a figure--perhaps a student who is late to class--"running around the corner of the building."
Asked if his concept indicated a cynical attitude about the current state of justice, Oldenburg responded, "No, though it would be easy to feel that way. The ladder is not a direct comment on our legal system."
Instead, the art is suitably equivocal, asking questions rather than making a firm moral judgment. "It refers to the balancing act of theory and practice," Van Bruggen added. "Inside the buildings, students learn about the law. Outside, confronted by the ladder and paint can, they realize that reality is quite a different thing."
No matter how it's interpreted, "Toppling Ladder" will be a surprising addition to a law school campus. It's part of an unusual art program that has developed in concert with Gehry's inventive architectural additions to the campus, at 1441 W. Olympic Blvd.
Working with art consultant Ellie Blankfort, the school has gained an exhibition program in the student lounge (where a show called "West/Art and the Law" continues through Oct. 25), a commissioned mural by Kent Twitchell and Jim Morphesis, a stained-glass window by sculptor Michael Todd and purchases of art for a permanent collection.
Oldenburg's sculpture was funded by a $60,000 grant from the Times Mirror Foundation. The artists have appraised the piece at about three times that price, agreeing to deliver the sculpture for about the cost of materials and fabrication.
"Toppling Ladder" will be dedicated Friday evening in a private celebration. The public is invited to take a first look at the sculpture on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oldenburg and Van Bruggen will be on hand to answer questions from 11 a.m. to noon.