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Creativity on a Grand Scale

Joe Young's murals, sculptures and stained glass can be found at public sites around California. The Platt Gallery stages a retrospective.


Rarely has Joe Young created gallery-sized art.

His most famous pieces--the Triforium above the Los Angeles Mall, the Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park--are themselves bigger than most galleries. That hasn't stopped the University of Judaism from mounting a retrospective of the 76-year-old artist's work.

The show in the university's Platt Gallery is a combination of stained glass, mosaics and paintings, plus studies, models and photographs of his larger work. The result is a sort of map of the indelible marks Young has made on the landscape, especially in California. He's done mosaics at Parker Center and the UCLA math building. He designed a bas-relief mural for the County Hall of Records. His stained glass adorns dozens of churches and synagogues.

"Wherever people meet, that's where I work. And the idea is to give them a sense of pride about living in this time," Young said. "If you're going to be recognized for what you're doing in the present, you have to understand the past. And you can't be afraid of the future."

But in America, creating public art can try men's souls. Standing in the gallery in front of a sketch of the Triforium, Young bemoaned the difficulties of art by committee: Pleasing everyone results in lowest-common-denominator art and blurs the artist's vision. And then there's the American public, which has dubious pride of ownership.

Young has paddled upstream stylistically throughout his 50-year career. He does not create monuments in the general-on-a-horse mode. Nor does his work reflect personal interior landscapes, like so much 20th century art. Young's work is defiantly epic.

Along one wall of the gallery are photographs of 16 stained-glass windows he created for the Congregation of Beth Sholom in San Francisco in 1966. They chronicle Jews' roles in the development of human rights. Among those depicted are the legendary Golem, who guarded the gates of the Prague ghetto; persecuted French soldier Alfred Dreyfus; and the patriarch of the Maccabees, who revolted against the Syrians in 175 BC.

A visitor to the gallery spotted Young explaining another painting and asked about the stained-glass windows. "I don't understand," he said. "This is in a temple?" Orthodox Jews consider human representations in a temple graven images, a violation of the second of the Ten Commandments. Young briefly explained that the windows were in a reform temple that didn't have such strict rules. "Oh," said the man. "I get it. Cafeteria Judaism. Take what you want."

Young--himself the son of Orthodox Jewish parents--shrugged off the comment. His work often evokes strong opinions, part of the curse of working in such public arenas.

No piece has drawn so much hostility--much of it from columnists at The Times--as the Triforium. When it was constructed 20 years ago, Young and the City Council hoped it would be a new symbol for the city, a sort of Statue of Liberty for Los Angeles. The 60-foot sculpture is a metaphor for democracy, its three sides representing the different branches of government. It is centered in a reflecting pool, with a three-pronged bridge that allows pedestrians to walk through it, touch it, participate in it. "And if it works right," said Young, "it sings." Music, either recorded or played on an organ-like keyboard, was processed by a computer, which triggered rows of colored lights around the top of the sculpture.

Young saw the Triforium as a prototype for a new instrument, one where music could be viewed as well as heard. Critics derided it as a million-dollar jukebox. Either way, it never fulfilled its mission. The '70s-era computers were fragile and eventually broke down. The musicians union even complained that the free music was depriving their members of work.

Now the reflecting pool is dry. The three white arches are dingy from smog and pigeon droppings. The huge oval-shaped speakers are typically silent. Young hopes that someday the city will breathe new life into the Triforium, learn to at least care for it if not appreciate it.

"I get very upset when I see it," Young said. "It's like a baby who was never born."

Young's artistic life started by happenstance. During his childhood in Aliquippa, Pa., his elementary school class took a field trip into Pittsburgh. They were supposed to go to the Heinz pickle factory, but by mistake wound up at the Carnegie Museum of Art. With no time to get across town, the teacher took the students through the museum. Young lagged behind, mesmerized by the paintings. Later he would discover that this was one of Picasso's first shows to tour the United States.

He played violin at his mother's urging and wanted to go to West Point, until doctors discovered he didn't see properly through his right eye. That didn't keep him from getting drafted after college, and he wound up designing sets for Army shows on Broadway. After the war, he enrolled at the Boston Museum School of Art.

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