With the stroke of a knife, an undistinguished block in West Hollywood has gained a distinctive monument. Claes Oldenburg, who gave Las Vegas its giant flashlight, Chicago its towering baseball bat and Loyola Law School its "Toppling Ladder With Spilling Paint," has engineered "Knife Slicing Through Wall" at the Margo Leavin Gallery.
The sculpture, a permanent installation at 817 N. Hilldale Ave., is a 6x12-foot stainless-steel blade that appears to cut through the top of the gallery. Slicing from the roof, the blade cuts about 12 feet down through the center of the facade, curling back sheets of stucco on both sides and stopping high above street level.
"I thought I'd turn the gallery into a cake for the opening," Oldenburg joked. In his view, stucco is rather like a crust on a confection. There's so much stucco in Los Angeles that he tends to see the city as a pastry shop.
Unlike many artists who recoil from what-does-it-mean questions about their art, Oldenburg has a litany of possible answers and he delights in thinking of new ones. Some are whimsical flashes of inspiration, but most are rather intricately reasoned. Although he is known as a Pop artist, the 60-year-old artist is more of a Pop conceptualist. When he turns ordinary objects into monuments he doesn't make random selections; the objects often have a history in his \o7 oeuvre.
\f7 The knife idea goes back to 1966, when Oldenburg proposed a monumental knife slicing into a building at Oxford and Regent streets in London. He thought of the project as a cross-section of an intersection, he said during an interview at the gallery. The London proposal never became a reality, but in later years he and Coosje van Bruggen, his wife and artistic partner, have worked with sculptural pickaxes, razor blades and scissors, choosing these cutting implements for their symbolic overtones. In 1983 they proposed a Swiss army knife as a monument for Basel, but it was never built.
The blade that permanently crowns the Margo Leavin Gallery was born in 1985 in Venice, Italy, where Oldenburg and Van Bruggen staged an elaborate performance, called "The Course of the Knife," in collaboration with architect Frank Gehry. At what Oldenburg described as "a cataclysmic moment" in the performance, the Alps came to Venice for their vacation and all hell broke loose. A giant knife blade shot through a building, an "earthquake" set props to shaking and a gondola in the shape of Swiss army knife appeared on a canal. (One version of that "Knife Ship" is now part of the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art.)
Van Bruggen said she proposed the knife as a central image and prop for the performance and that Gehry thought it a perfect tool for symbolically uniting architecture, art and performance.
"The idea of art glued to building or arbitrarily plopped down in front of it has a bad connotation," Van Bruggen said. "Here the blade is like an architectural fragment. It fuses art and architecture."
"The knife can be seen as an aggressive object," Oldenburg said, then suggested a more benign option: "The blade transforms the building into a cake, so that it softens architecture."
A similar blade was installed inside the same gallery in January, 1988, for an exhibition of props and drawings from the Venice performance. The effect was so striking that Leavin decided to install a blade outside the building, but it wasn't easy. She had to have a section added to the facade and built higher than the building so that the "cut" would go through a false front.
Oldenburg thinks the knife is right for Los Angeles, a city of facades, billboards and Tail o' the Pup-style buildings.
"People in Los Angeles are accustomed to shifting perspectives. They drive around in their cars and look up," he said.
The Leavin knife continues an Oldenburg tradition of building objects so big that they can't fit into buildings.
"I put in as much as will fit," Oldenburg said. "The rest is to be imagined."