Henry Segerstrom’s mall hosts exhibit on his public art patronage

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By definition, public art is a form that requires no throwing back of curtains.

But a behind-the-scenes look at the public art of one extremely busy Southern California neighborhood -– Costa Mesa’s South Coast Metro commercial and arts district -– is what’s being offered in an exhibition opening Wednesday at South Coast Plaza, the shopping center that led the district’s transformation from lima bean fields to the sort of place it makes sense to festoon with major pieces of sculpture.


“On Display in Orange County: Modern and Contemporary Sculpture” runs through Jan. 2 in a pop-up gallery at the South Coast Plaza Penthouse, a third-floor niche for luxe retailers.

The show includes photographs, preliminary artist renderings and models, videos and other archival items documenting the creation of 13 works. All but one was bought or commissioned by Henry T. Segerstrom, managing partner of the family firm that owns and operates South Coast Plaza and developed the surrounding properties. (The exception is a 1981 Henry Moore sculpture purchased in 1984 by Angels of the Arts, a support group of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.) One piece, Alexander Calder’s 1966 mobile, “Pekin,” will be part of the exhibition, having been temporarily relocated from its usual perch in the lobby of one of the district’s commercial buildings.

Doing good while doing well, the Segerstroms donated the acreage for the Segerstrom Center for the Arts -– a title that applies both specifically to the two-building performing arts center at its core (formerly known as the Orange County Performing Arts Center) and more generally to the overall arts district. That district also encompasses South Coast Repertory and a vacant parcel set aside for the Orange County Museum of Art, which faces the challenge of raising money so it can build there and eventually vacate its cramped quarters in Newport Beach.

Segerstrom’s public art patronage dates from 1973, when Los Angeles artist Marion Sampler -- then head of graphic design for shopping center architects Victor Gruen and Associates -- created the 7,200-piece, Tiffany-like stained glass dome in the ceiling of South Coast Plaza’s Jewel Court.
In 1982, two of Southern California’s more interactive artworks debuted as Segerstrom commissions.

Isamu Noguchi’s acclaimed “California Scenario,” a 1.6-acre garden planted among high-rise office buildings and a parking garage, is a popular destination for strollers who take in its evocation of the state’s geographic diversity of mountains, deserts, rivers and forests, including a 28-ton sculpture of fitted granite boulders (pictured) that Noguchi named “The Spirit of the Lima Bean” in honor of the Segerstrom family’s onetime standing as America’s leading grower of said legume. Nighttime visitors customarily use the garden’s ground-level lighting to play at shadow-making on its walls.

The show includes a cordial but firm letter from Segerstrom to Noguchi, dated December 1981, in which the savvy developer informs the great modernist in the nicest possible way that his request for additional payment can’t be fulfilled, because a contract is a contract. The exhibition’s curator, Bonnie Rychlak, is a Noguchi expert and a former curator at the Noguchi Museum in New York City.

Jim Huntington’s “Night Shift,” a big hunk of granite wedged with a stainless steel plate, stands near South Coast Repertory’s doorstep and is a magnet for children who, having sat more or less still through performances in its young-audiences series, delight in letting off steam by climbing all over it.

Other works chronicled in the show include “Reclining Figure,” one of Moore’s gigantic female sculptures, which rests in a walkway beside the performing arts center, Richard Lippold’s majestic 1986 “Fire Bird,” which juts through a façade of the arts center’s Segerstrom Hall, Joan Miro’s 1981 bronze “Oiseau,” which stands in an office building’s lobby, and Charles Owen Perry’s “The Ram” (pictured) -- which some may view as a reminder of the long-gone Los Angeles Rams professional football team that began making Orange County its home in 1980, the year after the piece was installed on an office building’s patio, opposite the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel.

The most recent -– and by far the biggest –- work documented in the show is Richard Serra’s 2006 “Connector,” the 66-foot-high, 360-ton steel echo chamber that adorns the plaza outside the performing arts center.

The exhibition isn’t comprehensive -- it omits, for example, the story behind “Storyteller,” “Upstage/Downstage” and “The Herald,” the theatrically themed 2006 sculptural triad by Jason Meadows that South Coast Repertory commissioned for its outdoor terrace.


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