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Art creates an uproar in a world where science rules

A proposed Serra sculpture is causing yelps of protest from an unlikely source -- students and faculty members at Caltech.

November 15, 2002|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

Biologist Marianne Bronner-Fraser likes what she sees when she looks out her Caltech office window. It is grass, green and simple. It is often adorned with students tossing Frisbees and scientific theorems around. Bronner-Fraser says she can envision a sculpture on the lawn -- a work of soaring excellence that would equal in creativity the innovation for which Caltech is so well-known.

But she can't imagine the sculpture that has actually been designed and proposed for the spot, and has caused months of growing agitation in the Caltech community. It is an 80-ton, zig-zagging wall of steel by artist Richard Serra that would bisect the lawn like a parade barrier. The hot new rumor on campus this week is that the sculpture will not, after all, be built.

This bit of possibly inaccurate news caused joy among those who oppose the monumental artwork but who've had few signs thus far that their prolonged protests matter.

The protests themselves are unusual on this campus of brainiacs, traditionally not an activist bunch. Most are so totally immersed in scientific investigations and computations that they can be counted on to ignore issues unrelated to their esoteric areas of expertise. That non-activist tradition changed suddenly a few months back, when Caltech President David Baltimore somewhat casually informed the school community that Serra had been chosen to design a sculpture for the grass in front of the two biological sciences buildings.

After students and faculty got a look at the proposed work, they drew battle lines, signed petitions, even constructed a comical effigy of the proposed piece, which mysteriously appeared on the lawn last month where the real thing is slated to sit. Meetings were held, at which Baltimore tried to engage dissenters in open discussion -- to no avail.

A decision on whether to sign a binding contract for the sculpture was originally scheduled for July. It has been repeatedly postponed by administrators, for whom it has apparently become a diplomatic and artistic hot potato. Caltech officials said again this week that they've made no decision, and had no comment on new rumors that the sculpture would be too heavy for the site, would damage underground equipment installations, and so will be rejected.

Students and faculty have called the proposed art piece unattractive, inappropriate, spatially divisive and visually disruptive. "It is aesthetically unpleasing and artistically insignificant," said Susannnah Barbee, a doctoral candidate in biology. "I would love a Serra piece on the site, maybe one of his beautiful buoyant rounded ones -- but not that particular piece. The symbolism of a wall is ill-suited to the nature of this beautiful campus. It speaks of isolation and separation, and what's wanted is exactly the opposite."

Bronner-Fraser, chair of faculty at Caltech, likes the idea of bringing great art to this campus. "I applaud David Baltimore for what he is trying to do. That said, I don't like this piece for this space. To my mind, it's divisive."

By opposing the massive art work, dissenters are squaring off against Eli Broad, L.A.'s most ubiquitous philanthropist-about-town. Broad has offered to provide principal funding for the $2-million art piece, which would sit in front of the Beckman Institute and the new $50-million Broad biological sciences building, an architectural gem for which the benefactor also provided principal funding.

It would be the first major public sculpture by a celebrated artist to be placed on campus. It would also bisect the lawn students use for Frisbee games and as a shortcut to housing across the street. The work consists of four steel plates, each 3 inches thick and 60 feet long, with the tallest one rising to 9 feet.

On a small, highly focused campus like Caltech, where many of the great scientific breakthroughs of modern civilization have taken place, school officials admit surprise at the amount of passion generated by the proposed art gift, which has spurred discussion that ranges far beyond the sculpture itself. What kind of art belongs on campus, should students and faculty have a voice in the process (they have none at present), and why should so much money be spent on art at a time when essentials like health benefits may have to be cut back?

Broad wants the sculpture to be approved, he said by phone from his office. "I think Serra is the world's most important living sculptor. I know that David Baltimore likewise has a very high regard for him. As the Broad Center was being built, David and I always talked about having a great piece of sculpture on the lawn in front if it. I offered to be the major contributor if Serra would allow himself to be commissioned."

Serra was selected from a short list of five artists developed by the 12-member Caltech arts committee, which advises the school president, who apparently made the final decision.

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