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Work not etched in stone

Caltech's putting in a new building, which is nice. To make way for it, Lloyd Hamrol's sculpture bites the dust. Not so nice.

July 23, 2007|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

Public art leads an iffy existence -- subject to weather, vandalism, bureaucratic whimsy or a "public" that greets it with tear-it-down hostility.

The demolition of Los Angeles sculptor Lloyd Hamrol's "Moore's Stone Volute," a fixture on the Caltech campus in Pasadena for 12 years, was deliberate ... but carried out with Caltech's regrets.

Hamrol's outdoor sculpture -- sweeping curves of sloping stonework measuring 6 feet by 48 feet by 55 feet, in a setting of green lawn and trees -- met the wrecking ball Saturday to make way for the university's new Warren and Katharine Schlinger Laboratory for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, which will begin construction later this year. Hamrol, a respected and prolific creator of art for public spaces across the nation, was notified about the new building "early in the planning process," said Hall Daily, Caltech's assistant vice president for government and community relations. "We brought him in quickly to find out how he felt about it and if he felt we could relocate it."

Hamrol determined that because of its method of construction, the sculpture couldn't be moved without sacrificing its integrity. He didn't consider re-creating it.

"It's kind of like my dog died and I gotta go out and get a new one."

The artist has made his peace with the sculpture's demise, he said, despite an "emotional meltdown" during a last visit a few weeks ago. "It certainly wakes one up to the fragile nature of things that seem permanent in public spaces."

Hamrol has agreed to do a new sculpture "a stone's throw" from the original site, he said. To formulate his design, he'll work with the landscape architect (as yet unnamed) and building architects, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of Pittsburgh.

Other Hamrol works have been lost or altered, he said, because of neglect or because "some well-intentioned person wants to re-landscape, when the original landscape is integral to the piece." The latter befell his "Rock Walls" installation at Washington's Gallaudet University. Plantings that had been added were removed after Hamrol pointed out that they effectively altered his work -- a breach of contract, he said. "You have to draw a line."

Many artists have faced similar hazards. Martin Puryear's 45-foot-tall open-framework sculpture, "That Profile," commissioned by the Getty Trust, was installed on the Getty Center plaza where the landscape vista was an essential part of the design. The institution added an elevator tower to the space; the unhappy artist was reportedly not consulted. (The Getty was unavailable for comment.)

Years of arguments for and against the removal of Richard Serra's epic sculpture, "Tilting Arc," from downtown Manhattan's Federal Plaza went to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1984. The pro-"Arc" side lost.

"Work in public spaces," Hamrol said, "doesn't come with the sense of inviolacy that you see in museums or in private collections -- 'Don't go past this railing. Don't get too close.' But you have to kind of take your lumps in this area because the work is about being involved physically, kinesthetically, tactilely. In a certain way, that diminishes it. It's no longer precious, it's in your space -- 'If we can walk on it, sit on it, why not plant flowers around it?' So it's a slippery slope."

Hamrol's willingness to create a new piece for Caltech is due in no small part to the fact that his sculpture was treated with respect, he said. "It was never vandalized. It looked as good three weeks ago as it did 12 years ago when it was installed."

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