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Santa Monica bid to remove Paul Conrad's 'Chain Reaction' nonsensical

Critic's Notebook: Paul Conrad's 'Chain Reaction' remains a vital message and safety concerns have been debunked, so why is Santa Monica determined to dismantle the sculpture?

September 19, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Paul Conrad's "Chain Reaction."
Paul Conrad's "Chain Reaction." (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

When the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago launched a magazine in 1947, its editors turned to artist Martyl Schweig Langsdorf for some cover ideas.

The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh, and the imminent Cold War arms race was heating up.

Langsdorf, an abstract painter of some note, had never before done a graphic design (and she never did another). But she knew something about the subject: She was married to physicist Alexander Langsdorf Jr., who had worked on the Manhattan Project, designing the atom bomb.

The artist conceived the famous Doomsday Clock. On the June 1947 cover, it was seven minutes to midnight. When she died at 96 in March, the clock had ticked ahead to 11:55 p.m. An immediately comprehensible graphic design showed how near the world was to blowing itself to smithereens in a global nuclear war. The threat analysis recorded in the Doomsday Clock now includes global climate change, but potential nuclear catastrophe remains at its core.

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All of which is to say: Those who believe that a controversial Santa Monica sculpture of a monumental mushroom cloud has lost its relevance might want to think again.

A misguided — and perhaps underhanded — move is afoot to dismantle Paul Conrad's "Chain Reaction," a 26-foot-tall sculpture that has stood in place in the Santa Monica Civic Center since 1991.

Why remove the sculpture? Not because of defensible safety concerns.

A scary-looking fence with red "Danger" signs rings the sculpture, but the structural engineer hired last year by Santa Monica officials to evaluate the work declared in no uncertain terms that he is "of the opinion that the sculpture is not an imminent hazard nor should it be considered dangerous."

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In fact, his report continued, relatively minor maintenance is all that's required for at least another decade.

The sculpture shows a giant nuclear cloud composed from massive links of forged copper tubing. It carries the same degree of graphic punch as Langsdorf's clock. That's unsurprising, given the artist.

Conrad was The Times' editorial cartoonist for 29 years — he died at 86 in 2010 — and he won three Pulitzer Prizes for his incisive and often brilliant drawings. Economy of means is essential to the success of a one- or two-panel cartoon, which is charged with commenting on complex social and political issues. He was as masterful at it as legendary predecessors such as Thomas Nast and colleagues like Herbert Block.

For the sculpture, Conrad merged blunt visual form with a characteristically layered resonance.

The massive pile of links of course refers to the spreading process of neutron fission that makes a powerful atomic bomb so devastating. Another kind of chain reaction comes from the scattering social conversation sparked by editorializing political art, as one person talks to another in agitated, excited or bemused response. Finally, the mushroom cloud's heavy, constricting chain connotes bondage.

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The sculpture evokes the ironic subjugation in which life in a nuclear world is lived. We are chained to an anxiety-producing doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) as the surest guarantee of peace.

The incongruous doctrine of peace-through-trepidation virtually defined the second half of the 20th century, as the United States and then the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and perhaps others acquired nuclear weapons. No other work of art I know encapsulates MAD so well. With vast nuclear stockpiles still in place — if not also possibly on the loose — yoking fear and tranquillity hasn't gone away.

The danger is real. And danger is also cited as a motive by those who say that Conrad's "Chain Reaction" should be dismantled.

City officials claim that the 51/2 -ton sculpture, built on an armature of stainless steel and fiberglass embedded in concrete and exposed to the elements for 20 years, is not safe. Children, they told The Times when the fence went up more than two years ago, like to climb on it.

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That worry is an apparent nod in the direction of what's called "attractive nuisance law." Sensitivity is demanded for potentially dangerous conditions that are likely to attract children.

Why the worry might apply to "Chain Reaction" but not to, say, Eugene Morahan's larger-than-life, eminently scalable 1934 sculpture of St. Monica in Palisades Park is difficult to fathom. But the attractive nuisance law is often wielded against public art that someone simply doesn't like.

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