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Moonstruck : Artist Considers Leaving Work in Beverly Hills, but Does the City Want It?


Five rusty metal buoys, two old window mullions and a winch: The unveiling of George Herms' "Moon Dial" sculpture set off an outcry that made Beverly Hills officials think twice about public art.

Now they may have to think again. As the loan period for "Moon Dial" nears an end, Herms says he is thinking about leaving it where it is. Permanently.

So far, city officials are managing to contain their enthusiasm.

"If and when he does make the offer, we'll have to look at it," said Councilwoman Vicki Reynolds, who was a member of the City Council committee that asked Herms to move the artwork shortly after it was installed in a park along Santa Monica Boulevard last year. He refused, and the city agreed to leave it in place for 18 months.

Now that the 18 months are nearly over, said Ellen Byrens, chair of the city's Fine Arts Committee, it's time for "Moon Dial" to go. "It's like renting a car or any other contract," she said. "When the period is over, you return it. You can have my assurance that . . . the piece will be removed."

The City Council, Reynolds said, is about to take another look at the whole question of art in public places. When it does, she said, "Moon Dial," which is much more widely known among city officials and residents by the nickname "Rusty Balls," will have to be considered like any other work.

"A lot of people wanted to keep the gardens free of art entirely," she added.

Some neighbors would settle for simply keeping the gardens free of "Moon Dial."

"It's ugly," said Arlene Cohen, who lives just over the city line in Los Angeles and often passes the sculpture on her walks. "I think it should be moved to the garbage dump."

Her husband, Jack, added that when he first saw the work, "I thought some vandals had dumped it there."

Herms, 54, a West Los Angeles artist whose work has been the subject of more than 30 one-man shows and more than 50 group shows, designed "Moon Dial" at the request of the Fine Arts Committee.

He won the commission's approval for his model, drawings and photos of the materials he would use. After "Moon Dial" was unveiled, new rules were adopted requiring that an artwork be completed before it can be considered for public display, with the final decision up to the City Council.

There is no date yet for the "clipping and dumping," as one city employee put it, of "Moon Dial," but a decision is expected when the Fine Arts Committee meets Wednesday.

Installation of the artwork took two trucks, a forklift, an arc welder and seven workers. Herms said removing it would be just as big a challenge, "sort of like the Normandy invasion in reverse."

Herms said he found the window grates at a junkyard in El Monte and the marine equipment at a salvage shop in Wilmington. The sculpture, he said, was designed expressly for the Santa Monica Boulevard site, and he doesn't have anyplace else to put it.

Selling the piece to a private buyer is out. "That's almost like censorship, putting in the bedroom of a rich collector," he said.

And "Moon Dial" just wouldn't be the same anywhere else. If another site could be found, there might be "Son of Moon Dial," but Herms said he was not ready to even think about moving the sculpture from its current spot.

"It sits between a magnolia tree and a coral tree, and there's a lot of relationships that developed there," Herms said.

"Moon Dial" is about the inevitability of decay, Herms said. He calls it his "salute to the Beverly Hills I know," a glittering city where rust is unacceptable.

"It's an issue that has to do with permanence," he said. "We feel that something that's shiny and polished can be kept shiny and polished, whereas rust represents a flow of time and a gradual erosion. . . . What I like in my work is for it to be at that crossroad where our civilization has made its impression on organic materials, such as steel, but now (the materials are) beginning to turn and go back."

Designed to look like a device that ancients might have used to track the transit of the moon, the assemblage occupies a lawn near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Boulevard and Palm Drive, where an average of 35,000 cars a day pass by.

"If you're sitting there waiting for the light to change, you may spend more time in front of the 'Moon Dial' than many people do in front of a picture in a museum," said Herms, a lecturer on sculpture and photography at UCLA.

He said he is thinking of donating the work to the city as a memorial to the late George Schlaff, a former mayor who wrote a letter defending "Moon Dial" when it came under attack in April, 1988.

But Alfred J. Hyman, who lives nearby, finds the very thought horrific.

He was moved to doggerel when "Moon Dial" first appeared: "The city fathers / Should be more cautious / And avoid such art / That makes one nauseous."

That was printed in a local newspaper last April, but the muse has not abandoned Hyman, a real estate broker, and time has not blunted his criticism. Now, he says, "Everyone with common sense must know / That hideous artwork certainly must go."

"I can't imagine them accepting it," Hyman said in a more prosaic vein. "I've walked by there every morning for years, and once that appeared I had to close my eyes every morning--and sometimes I'd walk into a tree."

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