Abe Lincoln's head is bouncing around downtown, and it's not the first time. The bronze bust of America's 16th president by the late sculptor Merrell Gage has left its current home at 1st Street and Grand Avenue in front of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse pending improvements to widen sidewalks along Grand Avenue. ''The bust is in storage while construction is underway,'' says Judy Hammond, director of public affairs for Los Angeles County.
The hiatus is just the latest in the comings and goings of sculptural Lincolns at the Civic Center. The 564-pound piece succeeded an earlier Lincoln bust given to the county by its sculptor, Dr. Emil Seletz, a Beverly Hills neurosurgeon. That Lincoln was removed from the County Courthouse in 1959 amid complaints about favor-currying references to the bust by lawyers using Seletz as an expert witness in personal injury cases. A plaster-cast Lincoln bust by Gage did stand-in duty until 1961, when the current bronze bust was installed in the building's Hill Street lobby. A gift from the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., the work depicts a clean-shaven Abe in contrast to Gage's bearded temporary plaster Abe. The bronze enjoyed a second unveiling in 1989 after moving to its outdoor location.
It gets weirder: Lincoln had clones. Many, many clones. Today Gage, who died in 1981, is known mainly for creating some of L.A.'s most captivating Art Deco landmarks, including the magnificent limestone bas-relief panels above One Bunker Hill, formerly the Edison Building; the three panels above 1st Street on the facade of the Los Angeles Times building; and sculpture for the electric fountain at Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. But Gage had another specialty: The Kansas-born artist and head of the sculpture department at USC produced literally hundreds of Lincoln busts and statues during his lifetime. To make ends meet, Gage gave demonstrations to women's clubs. ''He'd wear a smock my mother made him and within 40 minutes make the bust of Lincoln,'' says his daughter Jean Gage, who runs an art gallery and teaches voice in Bethesda, Md. ''He became familiar with every inch of Lincoln's face. It interested him how Lincoln evolved from lawyer to president.''
Gage also performed the feat for classes at USC. ''The Face of Lincoln,'' a short film by USC students in which Gage sculpted Lincoln's head at different times in his life from one mass of clay, won an Academy Award for best short subject in 1955. Gage made a bust for Lincoln Junior High School in Santa Monica and seated Lincolns at Lincoln College in Lincoln, Ill., and at the state Capitol in Topeka, Kan.
Gage worked in the backyard studio at his Santa Monica Canyon home for 55 of his 88 years. The artist collected works on Lincoln's life and had a style reminiscent of the Gettysburg orator. ''He was the last person to be showy or grandstanding,'' Jean Gage says of her father. ''He was self-contained.''
The Lincoln bust also will stay true to its roots, it seems. Sure, a January letter to the editor from a Times reader deplored the work as ''large and ill-positioned,'' adding that ''the base upon which it is mounted is ugly, as well.'' But at this point there are no face-lifts in the works. Once things have settled down at 1st and Grand, Hammond says, Lincoln ''will be returned to the same general area--with a small pocket park for jurors to enjoy during jury selection.''