Borrowing a line from Yogi Berra, it looks like deja vu all over again for the San Diego Unified Port District. A second acclaimed artist has radically revised his contest-winning proposal for the district's still-controversial public arts program in response to a barrage of public criticism.
Vito Acconci, a Brooklyn-based sculptor of national renown, volunteered last September to make the changes after a Port Commission meeting during which his proposal was both lambasted and praised. His model for a bayside site near Lindbergh Field reminded some observers of a crash scene and a graveyard.
This month Acconci delivered a model of his revised proposal to the Port Commissioners. It retains the boat and airplane images that were essential ingredients of the artist's first proposal, but no longer contains those forms that reminded some of crashing airplanes.
"At first I thought that something was being exaggerated," Acconci said of the crash site interpretations of his proposal. He later changed his mind: "Since I'm an outsider, I don't know the customs, habits and memories of the area. I didn't want the piece to be a joke about plane crashes. But, if this is such a clear reading of the piece, then it becomes a joke about a plane crash."
(In September, 1978, a small private plane collided with a PSA airliner over San Diego, killing 149 people in what was then the worst air disaster in U.S. history.)
In some ways the furor over Acconci reads like a replay of what happened nearly three years ago. Ellsworth Kelly, another nationally acclaimed artist--following a public outcry over the minimalist nature of his art--first halved his proposal in an effort at appeasement, and then withdrew entirely from the fray after the commissioners gave their approval.
The Port Commission has not approved a single piece of modern art since then. Indeed, the commission has approved only one contemporary public artwork since its inception in 1984. That was "Conoids" by Carlsbad artist Kenneth Capps that was installed at Chula Vista's Bay Park.
Acconci, who won a national contest to design an artwork budgeted at $325,000 for the tip of the Spanish Landing park, said over the telephone that he "was affected by a lot of comments that I, as an outsider, may not know about" during the September public hearing.
Three port commissioners, who have seen his latest model, praised the changes but split over the worthiness of the artwork.
"I think Mr. Acconci listened very carefully to San Diego when he came here," Raymond Burk, the commission's chairman said in a telephone interview. "He realized for the first time that his initial offering brought considerable controversy" because of the elements that recalled crashed airplanes.
Burk feels that the piece's various elements take up too much open space. Although Burk views the latest offering as an improvement, he said, "it doesn't necessarily mean that I can or will support this as a piece of public art."
Commissioner Louis Wolfsheimer called the new proposal "very exciting . . . a piece of participatory art that will be used, climbed over and dipped into. It's something kids will be playing in from the first day it is constructed."
Commissioner William Rick agreed with Wolfsheimer's analysis of the new proposal. He noted similarities between the proposed artwork and "Ira's Fountain," a large modern art sculpture in downtown Portland, Ore., where on hot days dozens of lunchtime office workers shed their shoes for a cooling splash.
Rick said Acconci's proposal "is not a stand-off and admire piece. It looks to me as if it would be a fun place to romp and play and have 'let's pretend' for kids."
Rick acknowledged that modern art is tough to deal with.
"Art at any given time is difficult," he said. "The people involved aren't thinking conventionally. They're looking forward."
Rick and Wolfsheimer comprise the Port Commission's ad hoc subcommittee on public arts. This week they are writing their recommendations regarding Acconci's revision and another artwork, Roberto Salas' "Victory Palm."
Salas' 18-foot blue concrete palm tree and fountain won a contest among local artists for a Harbor Island site at the same time as the national contest won by Acconci. The full commission is expected to consider both artworks within 30 to 45 days. Ultimately, Rick believes, the final vote will come down to the commissioners' taste in art.
What offended many in Acconci's original proposal was his response to the commercial airliners that take off and land near the art site. He included what he considered playful airplane forms--actually observation towers--rising from and diving into the earth. Those have been jettisoned from the new proposal, along with 40 rowboat-shaped indentations in the earth for seating, and dozens of palm trees that were to be planted in patches shaped like airplanes.
"I started thinking," Acconci said. "The first (proposal) filled the entire field. With the second one I thought to keep the open field."
Instead of taking every available space, he has planned five airplane-shaped figures reminiscent of the shadows of the ubiquitous aircraft that daily crisscross the skies above San Diego. Three of the planes will be shallow fountains--one recessed in the earth, one raised above the plane of the field, and one that incorporates an inclined plane for a waterfall effect.
The two other airplane shapes also play metaphorically with the idea of a plane, offering children a space recessed in the ground and a mounded promontory, both designed in the shape of an airplane.
In conceiving his new design, Acconci also responded to another criticism that the field was too crowded. His new model incorporates only 12 rowboat shapes, a few clustered around each of the airplane figures. Their mast tops will contain lights to illuminate the airplane shapes to provide security at night.
Another general criticism of Acconci is that for conservative San Diego he is inappropriately progressive. This spring Acconci's art, including his original model for the Port District, is the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Gerald Hirshberg, who chairs the Port District's volunteer Arts Advisory Committee, said the committee members are attempting through their recommendations to "reach a balance between the amount of contemporary versus conventional art in the city that the port has already established with its extremely conservative statuary that it is placing around the port lands currently."
Over the past two years the Port Commission has authorized the placement of statues commemorating local commercial fishermen and aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Because five of the six advisory committee members are art professionals versed in contemporary art, they are seen by some as not representative of San Diego. Conservatives have lobbied the commissioners to remain "traditional and conservative."
Although Burk acknowledges that most of the vocal criticism comes from factions within the art community rather than the general public, he is in favor of putting the port's public art program on hold.
"As a program it has produced nothing but controversy," Burk said. "People say public art is going to get some controversy, and I understand that."
By taking a moratorium, the commissioners would have time to consider alternatives to the present arts advisory committee. Hirshberg disagreed with Burk's assessment that the program has produced only controversy.
"It's been fine with the sole exception that I think the commissioners need to take their foot off the brakes now," Hirshberg said. "The one thing the program has not done so far is give anybody in San Diego the opportunity to realize how much less intimidating art is when it is in place, in its site, than what it imports to be in its scale model form."
Wolfsheimer concurred: "It's very difficult to tell what the final piece is going to look like. But the final piece will be 10,000 times better than the model."