In a surprise move that shocked his supporters, New York artist Ellsworth Kelly has refused to proceed with his controversial sculpture, commissioned in July by the San Diego Unified Port District.
The slim, 65-foot stainless steel spire was to have been the largest piece to date for Kelly, an internationally acclaimed minimalist from New York.
But Kelly, described as an extremely sensitive artist, could not bring himself to sign the Port District contract because of previous controversy over the project, according to individuals who had tried to talk him into reconsidering his decision. Kelly could not be reached Monday and was reportedly on vacation.
Kelly made his decision two weeks ago, informing the Port District in a letter dated Sept. 17.
Gerald Hirshberg, who had fought many battles to see the Kelly sculpture go up, characterized the news as like “hitting a home run and deciding to stop at second base.”
“There was no leading up to this,” Hirshberg said. “I am disappointed and very surprised.”
Hirshberg is chairman of the Port District’s art advisory board, which had advocated the choice of Kelly. Hirshberg and others on the advisory board had sought for a week to reverse Kelly’s decision.
In his letter to William Rick, chairman of the Port District board of commissioners, Kelly stated that he felt “unable to proceed with the commission for the Port of San Diego. The change in the original site has caused me to rethink the sculpture. I now find that the single sculpture is technically out of my control, and I do not feel comfortable in my ability to provide for the City of San Diego exactly what they want and deserve.”
On Monday, Rick wrote a letter to his fellow commissioners making Kelly’s decision public. “Mr. Kelly’s statement is somewhat vague, so we can only infer that the controversy surrounding modern public art, typified by the (Richard) Serra work in New York, has brought Mr. Kelly to his decision,” Rick wrote.
Asked the effect that Kelly’s decision might have on public art in San Diego, Rick said Monday, “That’s an artist of national scope. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I was a little less than happy. I put more than a year of my life into this.”
Hirshberg vowed that the Port District art commissions would continue.
“If the site and the artist and the opportunity exist, I think more artists will be willing to jump in,” he said. “The momentary effect is a pause to reflect. Kelly, I think, was a sensitive plant who didn’t want his work in this kind of environment. Fortunately, it will not stop the process. That’s the good news.”
Hirshberg said he doubted, however, that the Port District would immediately push for another large art project on the site for which the Kelly proposal had been approved. “My instinct is to leave that site alone. It would be difficult to unemotionally assess what else could go on that site.”
On July 23, in a 5-1 vote, the Port Commission approved the $325,000 sculpture proposed by Kelly. It would have been built in Embarcadero Park, near Seaport Village.
Kelly’s decision has been attributed both to his sensitivity and to the controversy generated when citizens complained that his design was sterile and failed to represent San Diego.
“The committee was surprised by the response of San Diego, and Ellsworth was shaken,” said Mary Beebe, director of the UC San Diego Stuart Sculpture Collection and one of the port’s advisory board members.
Beebe talked to Kelly during the past week but could not dissuade him.
“We tried to change his mind,” she said. “A lot of people tried to rally him. The whole thing made him very uncomfortable. He thinks he made a mistake in getting into this in the first place.”
Hirshberg said that no one would have been too surprised had Kelly’s decision come during the height of the controversy.
Kelly was first asked to submit a proposal more than a year and a half ago. Early this year, he submitted a design for a two-part sculpture, a monolith of stainless steel and a prow-like arc of concrete. The pieces would have been on either side of the entrance to the marina at the Hotel Inter-Continental.
When critics said his proposal was too abstract, Kelly agreed to scale back his design to include only the monolith.
The port paid Kelly $15,000 for the design.
Commissioner Daniel Larsen suggested that Kelly’s age might have had an effect on his decision.
“I didn’t know until today that he was 65 years old,” Larsen said. “I can understand that a man that age might want to live out his life in peace.”