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Art Review

A stunning vision 20 years in the making, UC San Diego's Stuart Collection is public art done right.

October 31, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — In art today, is anything more difficult than commissioning new sculpture for a public setting?

It's hard enough just to buy a significant outdoor sculpture that already exists and then site it well. Starting the process from scratch, on the other hand, with only an advisory committee and a gifted artist and vague idea of location in mind, creates a wide margin for error. A casual survey of public art projects in American cities from coast to coast shows that what can go wrong often does.

Given this degree of difficulty, the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego is nothing short of miraculous. At least 10 of the 15 sculptures commissioned for sites around the sprawling campus in La Jolla are nothing short of first-rate. Eight even deserve to be included among the best extant works by their respective artists. Sculpture parks and gardens of assorted types and various degrees of success will be found elsewhere; but there is simply nothing comparable, anywhere in the nation, to this exceptional assembly of commissioned works.

This weekend, the Stuart Collection celebrates its 20th anniversary with a series of receptions, a panel discussion and the publication of a handsome, highly informative new book that chronicles its development. "Landmarks: Sculpture Commissions for the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego" (Rizzoli International, 264 pages, $65) includes illuminating essays by Stuart director Mary Livingstone Beebe and Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr, along with perceptive artist-interviews by independent writer Joan Simon. It lays out the working process that brought into being superlative works by artists Robert Irwin, Terry Allen, Bruce Nauman, William Wegman, Michael Asher, Alexis Smith, Kiki Smith, John Baldessari and others.

Averaging the debut of one new work every 16 months, the Stuart Collection has a remarkable record of achievement. At the start, though, the project looked rather shaky. Its success was anything but preordained. Three inaugural projects were completed in fairly quick succession, and only one turned out to be artistically exceptional.

First came "Sun God" (1983), a monumental, brightly painted mythic bird perched atop a vine-covered archway by Franco-American sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle. Since the unveiling it has become, for students, a landmark of the "meet me at the ... " variety.

Next came Robert Irwin's "Two Running Violet V Forms" (1983), a sky-borne, zigzag fence constructed from chain link coated in bluish-purple vinyl and stretched atop stainless-steel poles. The angled planes of transparent color hover nine feet above the ground in a eucalyptus grove, subtly revealing the orderly rows in which the silvery gray-green trees were planted a century ago. Beneath the fence, flowering ice plant adds a seasonal range of earthbound color to the shifting palette of Irwin's environmental sculpture.

Finally, Richard Fleischner completed "La Jolla Project" (1984), an assembly of pink and gray granite posts, lintels, columns, doorways and other mostly rectilinear architectural forms arrayed across a gently rolling lawn. A kind of "Minimalist Stonehenge," although absent any ritualistic functions, the sculptural arrangement subtly establishes sight lines and viewpoints for locating oneself in the organic landscape.

Of these three initial projects, only Irwin's represents a major achievement. "Sun God" and "La Jolla Project" are conventional examples of public sculpture in general, and their respective artists' work in particular.

"Two Running Violet V Forms," by contrast, represents a significant expansion of Irwin's challenging art. His fence transforms a conventional barrier into a device to emancipate discernment. Together with another chain-link-and-trees project in Seattle, also finished in 1983, the Stuart Collection environment shows Irwin melding the natural landscape and the perceptual landscape in unexpected ways--a process that would later culminate in his remarkable garden for the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

The most distinctive works in the Stuart Collection share this expansive, boundary-pushing quality. The collection is at its best when it's not just business as usual.

Performance artist and painter Terry Allen never even liked outdoor sculpture. But his resistance to the genre proved salutary in the production of three lead-covered eucalyptus trees, two of which are wired for sound. Sited along campus pathways, the "memorial vegetation" spontaneously seems to speak poetry and sing songs to passersby.

William Wegman is a painter and photographer famous for his fusion of humor and pathos in pictures and videos of Weimaraner dogs. For the Stuart Collection he unexpectedly made a sculpture based on roadside tourist stops for taking in the vista--although his bluff-side viewing stand turns its back on the magnificent Pacific Ocean. You gaze eastward instead, overlooking the exploding suburban sprawl of North San Diego County.

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