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Jack Smith

San Jose's 'Great Art' scandal, and some preliminary sketches for two of our own

April 06, 1987|Jack Smith

A wonderful story of civic scandal, public Philistinism and bureaucratic bungling in San Jose is told by Michelle Huneven in the April issue of California magazine.

The story is called "The Great San Jose Art Mystery."

The bare facts are that a 20-foot-high, 7,000-pound abstract steel sculpture simply vanished from its downtown site one day, and nobody noticed it was missing until seven months later.

Then, one day in April, 1986, the city's newly appointed art-in-public-places coordinator, David Allen, was walking to lunch and asked himself, "What's wrong with this picture?"

The sculpture--"Great Planes Study 7" by David Bottini--was missing from its base. Allen was not at first alarmed; the sculpture had stood among a screen of trees in a small park on which the new Fairmont Hotel was then being built. He assumed that the work of art had been temporarily removed during construction.

But what if someone asked him where it was? He ought to know. Allen asked around. The Fine Arts Commission didn't know. The San Jose Museum of Art didn't know. The Chamber of Commerce, whose offices were just across the street from the site, didn't know and didn't care. They had hated the piece, and it was they who had planted the trees around it to hide it from their view.

An inquiry was begun. Bill Versaci, the Redevelopment Agency's staff project manager, promised to present a full, written report on the mystery.

Months went by. The report was not forthcoming.

On Aug. 4 the story broke in the San Jose Mercury News. On Aug. 6 a brief appeared in The Times. It quoted Frank Taylor, executive director of redevelopment, as saying, "I feel awful about it, just awful."

Coordinator Allen philosophized: "Public art is controversial. Some pieces wear well and are accepted and loved, while others are neglected and sort of fade and disappear."

Sculptor Bottini, who had been paid $5,000 for the sculpture, threatened to sue.

Finally, late in August, Versaci submitted his report. It was a chronicle of comic error, confusion and ineptitude dating to July of the previous year, when the contractor first insisted that the sculpture be removed. The Redevelopment Agency had asked the museum to remove it.

The museum mistakenly removed another sculpture, "Zurich Space Eye" by Willi Gutmann. The contractor complained again. The museum said that, on second thought, it didn't own the Bottini sculpture. The public did. "In short," as Huneven put it, "the Bottini became an abstraction owned by an abstraction."

Versaci told the museum that he feared the contractor would not use caution in removing the piece; but no other contractor was found to take the job. On Sept. 5, 1985, the Fairmont contractor removed "Great Planes Study 7," evidently without a great deal of finesse.

The next day Versaci examined the piece, saw that it was "bent and scarred" beyond repair, and told the contractor to dispose of it.

Six months later, Allen noticed that it was missing.

Self-deprecating, Versaci wryly condemned himself as a "cultural terrorist." However, there seems to have been no great public uprising over this act of vandalism.

I wonder if there might be a few public works of art in Los Angeles that nobody would miss.

One that comes to mind is that strange-looking Triforium in Fletcher Bowron Square, by City Hall. To tell the truth, I'm not even sure it's still there. I have an idea that if it vanished overnight it might be months before anyone noticed.

Remember what they called it when it first appeared? The Million-Dollar Jukebox. The Million-Dollar Firefly. The Psychedelic Nickelodeon.

I described it at the time as looking something like a circle of "three six-story tuning forks . . . with a crown of red, orange, amber, green and blue junk jewelry. . . . No, on second thought, its three elements resemble something else more than tuning forks. Wishbones? Yes. Three wishbones in search of a turkey. Or have they already found their turkey?"

Still, it has been there all these years. Perhaps it is loved by now. Perhaps its disappearance would cause anguish and a great public uproar.

How about that sculpture on the terrace at the Music Center? I know it was done, on commission, by a famous sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz; also that it cost $250,000, and is supposed to be symbol of peace. But I have never liked it. To me it looks like a group of hermaphrodites playing King of the Mountain in the mud.

Maybe I'm like the San Jose construction workers of whom a California Arts Council member said, "Seeing something they don't understand makes them feel ignorant."

But I'd rather have had a sculpture of a graceful ballerina, something in the style of Degas. And if you wanted her to represent peace, you could have put a dove on her head. She'd probably have a pigeon on it most of the time anyway.

Oh, well, the public tends to accept, after a time, its public monuments. In the beginning, many French people hated the Eiffel Tower; they despised its size and its Erector Set geometry; now it is the symbol of Paris, instantly recognizable the world over.

It was also the setting for one of the great movie scenes of all time, in "Ninotchka," where Melvyn Douglas is showing Paris at night to Greta Garbo, the Soviet commissar, from one of the tower's levels. Looking out at the vast sea of lights, Garbo says, "What a waste of electricity!"

Maybe I'll learn to love the Lipchitz.

God knows I'd miss it if it wasn't there.

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