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Tying up a sizable loose end

'Collar and Bow,' set to be installed next summer, is designed to embrace Disney Hall's fluid form while having fun with its function.

June 20, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco has its giant bow and arrow; Chicago, its baseball bat; Las Vegas, its flashlight. In Europe, Milan has its colossal needle and thread; Cologne, its upside-down ice cream cone; Eindhoven, Netherlands, its bowling pins.

And come next summer, Los Angeles will have its own eye-catching, thought-provoking, whimsical monument designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. "Collar and Bow," a 65-foot-tall metal and fiberglass sculpture in the shape of a dress shirt collar and bow tie, will be installed outside the entrance of Walt Disney Concert Hall, at 1st Street and Grand Avenue.

Not that Oldenburg and Van Bruggen -- partners in art and marriage since 1977 -- have been invisible in Southern California. Working with Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry, the artists created "Binoculars, Chiat/Day Building," a landmark structure in Venice, and "Toppling Ladder With Spilling Paint," a sculpture at Loyola Law School. Their "Knife/Ship II," a motorized version of a Swiss Army knife, belongs to the Museum of Contemporary Art and periodically does its kinetic thing on the museum's plaza. And an exhibition of their drawings is on view at Pepperdine University's Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art.

But "Collar and Bow" is "the big one," Oldenburg says. And he isn't talking about dimensions. He and Van Bruggen have made larger sculptures, but none that measure up to this in terms of technical difficulty or architectural context.

"This is the most complicated work we have done, in detail, engineering and form," Van Bruggen says. "And then there's the dialogue between the sculpture and the building."

The goal, she says, was to respond to the building's free-flowing, sail-like volumes in a merger of imagination and physicality that would transform bits of concertgoers' attire into pure form in motion. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Music Center patrons Richard and Geri Brawerman are paying most of the cost, which has not been disclosed.

In the best of circumstances, conceptualizing and designing "Collar and Bow" and bringing it to fruition would have been daunting. The difficulty of funding the concert hall and getting it off the drawing boards extended the artists' process to more than a decade.

As Van Bruggen tells the story, the sculpture was born in 1991, when she was writing a book about Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, he was working on the facade of the concert hall, and "Binoculars, Chiat/Day Building" was being constructed. Friends since 1981, the artists and the architect spent a lot of time together, and the notion of joining forces in Gehry's new Los Angeles project evolved naturally.

"Frank made a large model of the concert hall around 1993," Oldenburg recalls. "Coosje suggested the subject, a collar and bow tie, which we had been toying with for a while. We made a model, put it on Frank's model, and it stood there for several years."

When work on the concert hall finally moved forward, the artists adjusted and refined their idea, producing a final version of the model in wire, canvas and resin. They scanned that three-dimensional image and fed it into a computer at Carlson & Co., a San Fernando Valley firm that would fabricate the sculpture with close supervision by the artists.

"The model was quite a few steps away from a bow tie and collar," Oldenburg says. "We don't imitate things. We transform them."

And the sculpture under construction bears little resemblance to the model, the artists say. Oldenburg, whom his wife calls "the master of contours," defined the sculpture's shapes after the model was scanned. Then Van Bruggen worked with a computer technician at Carlson to create a much more dynamic artwork. A Dutch art historian and artist who was a dancer and a speed skater in her youth, she claims a special understanding of movement and delights in using it.

Both Gehry's architecture and the artists' sculpture have become much more baroque since they stationed a giant set of binoculars in the center of a static, rectangular building in Venice. As Gehry has dreamed up buildings with sweeping curves and flamboyant contours, Oldenburg and Van Bruggen have turned out a towering needle with looping thread for a Milan train station and a set of airborne bowling pins for an Eindhoven green space along a highway.

"In urban surroundings where you have a lot of traffic and movement, you have to intensify everything to get any attention," Van Bruggen says. In "Collar and Bow," that meant accentuating the precision of contours, the contrast of colors and the implied speed of visual motion. "We exaggerated the collar wings by 10% and made the tabs flat because they are the directional force within the collar," she says. "The bow just rolls out. That's the vaudeville thing, the crazy part."

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