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Talk About a Worldview

'The Universe' involves eight Pasadena-area institutions and various media to cover 1,200 years of creation.

February 04, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

What do you do after you've pulled off a surprisingly successful public event that pooled the resources of five Pasadena arts institutions? Organize an even bigger collaboration and add a scientific component.

That's the impulse behind "The Universe: A Convergence of Art, Music and Science," a multimedia exploration of the cosmos presented by eight cultural institutions in Pasadena and San Marino. Including exhibitions of art and science, films, concerts, lectures and workshops, the eclectic program surveys artists' and scientists' interpretations of the universe over 1,200 years.

Inevitably a bit unwieldy, the project couldn't be perfectly coordinated. "Star Struck: One Thousand Years of the Art and Science of Astronomy," a show of rare books, antique maps and celestial globes at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, opened in December; "The Future of the Universe," a science-fiction film festival at Caltech, began in January; "Music of the Spheres," a series of concerts presented by Southwest Chamber Music at the Norton Simon Museum and the Colburn School of Performing Arts (in Los Angeles), started in September.

But most of the exhibitions open today. The lineup of new attractions:

* "Contemporary Art and the Cosmos," a compilation of drawings, paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures by Dorothea Rockburne, Rockne Krebs, Vija Celmins, Robert Rauschenberg and other well-known artists, is at the Armory Center for the Arts.

* "Russell Crotty: The Universe From My Backyard," an installation of drawings on paper-covered Lucite spheres--inspired by the night sky, as seen by the artist through a telescope mounted atop a shed in Malibu--is at Art Center College of Design.

* "Creation, Constellations and the Cosmos," a comparison of Asian and European artists' approach to the universe--including a huge (roughly 23-by-15-foot) Tibetan silk applique made in the late 18th century by the eighth Dalai Lama as a tribute to his teacher--is at the Norton Simon Museum.

* "Constructing the Cosmos in the Religious Arts of Asia," an exploration of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Taoist perceptions of the universe in paintings, sculptures, textiles, ceramics and metalworks, is at the Pacific Asia Museum.

* "Contemporary Science and Popular Culture," an outdoor exhibition of space photographs reproduced on mesh banners, and a Saturday series of educational programs offering opportunities to view the planets through telescopes, is at One Colorado, a commercial district in Old Pasadena.

*

The project began almost two years ago, at a celebratory breakfast for leaders of the previous collaboration, "Radical Past: Contemporary Art & Music in Pasadena, 1960-1974," says Jay Belloli, who directs the Armory's gallery programs and served as the sparkplug for both "Radical Past" and "The Universe."

"We were all so pleased and amazed by the response to 'Radical Past' that we said, 'What do we do next?' A bunch of ideas were put forward, but nothing really caught our imaginations. Then Jeff von der Schmidt, artistic director of Southwest Chamber Music, asked about a space photography show that I wanted to do many years ago, and everybody's eyes lit up. We started talking about the idea of the universe, and that was pretty much it."

Von Der Schmidt was referring to a photographic history of the universe that Belloli had hoped to present in the late 1980s with Stephen Nowlin, gallery director at Art Center. But funding dried up when military and industrial companies that were expected to sponsor the show suffered an economic downturn. His exhibition subsequently appeared at India's National Science Center in New Delhi, under the auspices of a joint U.S. and Indian sub-commission for education and culture, but it never came to Pasadena.

Belloli and Nowlin organized several other projects in the 1990s, however. Their association led the Armory and Art Center to join forces with the Norton Simon Museum, Southwest Chamber Music and One Colorado in 1999 to explore the golden age of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in "Radical Past." The current collaboration not only adds Caltech, the Huntington and the Pacific Asia Museum to the "Radical Past" roster, but also celebrates Pasadena's importance in the field of science.

"Taking on 'The Universe' felt like turning from one part of Pasadena history to another, which involves Mt. Wilson Observatory, Caltech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory," Belloli says. "It's exciting to touch on that aspect of history."

The project's marriage of art and science is "an idiosyncratic Pasadena view of the universe," Nowlin says. "I don't think you would put these points of view together if you were doing it just anywhere, but that's what is nice about it--that these institutions exist in this one community and that they work well together."

Still, developing the components of the program was a challenge.

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