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Commissioned works lend drama to the opening of a San Diego train facility remade as museum space.

January 20, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

San Diego — COMMISSIONED public sculpture by Richard Serra has been proliferating in Southern California, and in a manner that is coming to represent a virtual anthology of his extraordinary forms.

The 42-ton torqued ellipse made from massive plates of curling, enveloping steel at UCLA's Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center was unveiled in September. Next came the campanile-like tower, some 66 feet high, made from a twisting pentagram of rust-colored steel plates that crowns a plaza at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

Now, for the downtown expansion of this city's Museum of Contemporary Art into a historic railroad station, opening Sunday, six mammoth blocks of forged steel are lined up beneath a Mission Revival arcade adjacent to the new exhibition galleries. Each identical block measures 52 by 58 by 64 inches, and they alternate along a center line -- three on the left and three on the right. Framed by the arcade's arches, each block rests on a different face.

Walking around the sculpture, the effect is remarkable. The 6-inch differences among the height, width and depth of the humanly scaled blocks are just large enough to allow a viewer to figure out the composition's orderly structure. Not quite cubes, the steel tonnage seems to tumble freely along the covered arcade, flipping nimbly onto all six sides. It's as if the uber-industrial material were lighter than air.

The physically formidable sculpture, weighing in at a staggering 156 tons, looks visually effortless. Mind melds with matter, while chugging locomotives, clanging trolleys and luggage-toting passengers busily come and go at the train station. These dead-weight steel hunks become a powerful emblem of productive human capacity.

Serra's masterful "Santa Fe Depot," completed last summer and opening as part of the museum's long-gestating expansion, was made by arguably America's greatest sculptor. It is also a symbol of the care and thoughtful consideration that have gone into the larger museum project, initiated seven years ago. Embedded in its gritty site, Serra's postindustrial work of art puts the emphasis on work. So does the new museum.

The $25-million expansion includes handsome new construction -- the three-story, nearly 16,000-square-foot Copley Building. But it also includes the Jacobs Building, an elegant adaptive reuse of the 1915 Santa Fe Depot baggage building, across Kettner Boulevard from the MCASD's existing downtown outpost. (The museum's main facility is in La Jolla.) New York architect Richard Gluckman designed them both. What's interesting is the way the museum chose to divide the spaces.

The sleek new construction is entirely devoted to offices and program-support services, including an auditorium and a carpentry shop. By contrast, the refurbished historic building houses the galleries. There are four exhibition spaces, totaling slightly more than 10,000 square feet.

Building new art galleries from scratch is a fraught proposition -- especially for contemporary art, whose future forms cannot be anticipated. New construction entails risk, but adaptive reuse seems almost guaranteed to succeed as gallery space -- and it certainly does here.

Why? In the former baggage hall, the high, wood-trussed ceilings, gruff concrete floors and wood-framed windows that let in abundant natural light have been brought back to life. The past is being reborn, albeit in a new guise. The depot has the aura of a working building, in other words, rather than a precious vitrine. Active rather than passive, it fits new art. A small studio for an artist-in-residence has even been included, tucked off to one side. (The venerable Robert Irwin, who will show several site-specific Light and Space installations in the downtown spaces next fall, is the first guest.) The MCASD leitmotif is "artists at work," underscored by the building and the exhibition program.

The Geffen Contemporary, the much-loved Little Tokyo warehouse renovated two decades ago for L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, is the obvious American model for its new San Diego sibling. Oddly, though, that's where the Los Angeles connection ends. The building debut features new work by artists from San Diego, New York, Europe and Latin America, charting an expansive course. But leaving out L.A. artists seems a tad provincial, even though it's surely difficult for San Diego to be perceived as a mere satellite to a major art center just up the 5 Freeway.

The largest gallery features a newly commissioned installation by Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto, which was still being assembled during a preview visit. Neto is suspending an enormous Lycra "net" from the rafters to nearly fill the 4,600-square-foot room. Sewn into the net are pendulous sacks, filled with hundreds of pounds of aromatic spices, such as pepper, cumin and turmeric.

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