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ART REVIEW : Finding Solace in 'Sculptor's Landscape'

April 05, 1993|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

This troubled town currently is not territory one thinks of as a bower of Arcadian bliss, but there are sylvan places here and it is a good time to find solace in them. Take UCLA's Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden.

Anyone clever enough to negotiate the Byzantine ordeal of getting a space in one of the Westwood campus's parking structures will likely feel sufficiently harassed to need some relaxation. The garden does the trick. Students drape themselves over Henry Moore's "Two-Piece Reclining Figure" or sit lotus-fashion in the shade of Gaston Lachaise's Amazon earth-mother "Standing Woman."

This is a particularly good moment to visit the garden because the bordering Wight art gallery just opened an exhibition called "In the Sculptor's Landscape," organized by UCLA curators Elizabeth Shepard and Cynthia Burlingham. It celebrates the 25th anniversary of the idyllic greensward and acts as the finale of a 20-month series of cultural events celebrating the 75th birthday of its founder.

People who knew the campus before 1967 recall that what is now the garden was a dirt parking lot, which, during the rainy season, turned into a kind of mud bath for cars. Murphy, then UCLA's chancellor, loves Italy and the way its public plazas and piazzas mix sculpture casually with the daily life of its cities. He decided to transform the sow's wallow into a silk purse. It was an act that fairly well encapsulates his contribution to culture in this town.

The designer was UCLA's longtime landscape architect Ralph D. Cornell. He transformed a difficult site into an unobtrusively Edenic setting while still taking care of the primary business of moving foot traffic through a spot that basically functions as a pedestrian freeway interchange. It is testament to his success that one never notices the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the garden, just trees, shade, sky and sculpture.

Institutional exhibitions in homage to patrons, founders and the like are, on their face, a trifle off-putting. The idea seems parochial and self-congratulatory. But not only is this one well deserved, it is a honey of a show, cleanly installed, reassuringly humanistic and it comes with a nice catalogue.

Humanism is at the core of the garden and its collection. Today, its seven acres embrace 72 pieces. It was launched with just 15 works, most notably Henri Matisse's "Bas Relief I," a summary 20th-Century series representing four versions of a nude female back, each progressively more abstract and simplified. The work addresses modernism's goal of being at once passionate and analytical.

The exhibition includes 17 of the garden's artists through nearly 100 works, including maquettes, drawings and sculpture, beginning chronologically with Auguste Rodin. We're accustomed to seeing the great romantic in his operatic, larger-than-life-sized works that are so impressive that we sometimes overlook the sureness and vigor of his touch. That element is clearer here in smaller versions of such works as "St. John Baptist." The show is so well-selected even the recent Rodin casts look good and the maquette for "Walking Man" has the gnarled vigor of a tree trunk.

Sculpture's timeless fascination with memorializing the human figure concentrated on the male in classical times. Today, the celebratory model has long since reverted to the most ancient prototype, the Venus of Willendorf. The change certainly has something to do with shifts in religious belief that have elided from associating the life-principle with the aggressive male to hoping it has something to do with the nurturing female.

She is very much in evidence in statues by everyone from Aristide Maillol to Robert Graham. Some of the exhibition's most off-beat artists are represented by female nudes. Eric Gill's is a strange combination of barnyard and visionary. Henri Laurens combined rococo eroticism with Picassoid anxiety. Gerhardt Marcks classicized German Expressionism and made it a bit sentimental. Francisco Zuniga's women often look overblown. Here, his "Reclining Nude" finds him at his best capturing both consoling earthiness and animal vigor.

As sculpture becomes more abstract, tension grows between content and configuration. Henry Moore's representational leanings sometimes seem redundant to his sure sense of pure form. Jacques Lipchitz's early sculpture such as the "Bathers" on view was an important investigation of Cubism in three dimensions. Later Expressionist works such as "Song of Songs" became overwrought.

The virtues of pure abstraction begin to clarify themselves in a very keen group of works by Hans (Jean) Arp. His surreal biomorphs sometimes look slick and neoclassical. The selection here plays up abstraction's ability to work both sides of the street. "Tree of Bowls" exists somewhere between our memories of Brancusi's pure "Endless Column" and Rene Magritte's sculpture of nesting nude female torsos.

David Smith's welded stainless steel "Cubi XX" nails down the efficacy of abstraction combining architectonic solidity with a sense of delicate floating. The ever under-rated George Rickey furthers understanding.

The garden is ecumenical, taking in sculptors as diverse as Italy's Alberto Burri and Californians such as Claire Falkenstein and Fletcher Benton.

Like any garden, it has some forgettable things but it keeps growing. Among recent loans and gifts is an installation by local Tom Otterness. His figures, looking harmless as something in a claymation commercial, make mordant social commentary. His "Dodo" shows the Earth as an extinct and not very bright bird. "Nero Apartment House" makes us laugh at our Humpty-Dumpty economy while experiencing an unpleasant pang of fear.

Eight statues by Robert Graham will soon have their own space in a courtyard near the garden.

* The UCLA Wight Art Gallery, through May 9, closed Mondays . (310) 835-9345 .

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