In Beverly Hills, where public art has been a touchy topic since the installation of a cluster of rusty metal objects in a park last year, a debate is brewing over the offer of a 26-foot-tall sculpture of a mushroom cloud.
This time, politics is part of the debate.
The city’s Fine Arts Committee is scheduled to discuss the offer from Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad at its April meeting. But several letters from people angry about the proposal have appeared in local newspapers, and the city has received one letter objecting to the sculpture.
The criticism appears to be prompted as much by Conrad’s cartoons on the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation as by his vision of a nuclear holocaust, city art officials said.
Complaints From Residents
“Better that he set it near the sanitation department where it properly belongs, along with the rest of the garbage posing as art on Santa Monica Boulevard,” wrote David Levy of Beverly Hills in a letter to a local newspaper.
“As his cartoons have been outrageously vicious, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, he is hardly the one to receive fame as a peacemaker,” wrote Lillian Gilbert in another letter to a newspaper.
But Ellen Byrens, chairwoman of the Fine Arts Committee, said politics would not be a factor in deciding whether to accept the sculpture.
“The objection is to Mr. Conrad as an anti-Semite,” Byrens said. “I don’t know if Mr. Conrad is an anti-Semite or if he isn’t one. My own feeling is that that is not the basis for judging a work of art.”
Conrad said: “No, I’m not an anti-Semite. I could deny it for the rest of my years, but it wouldn’t do any good.
“If I’m an anti-Semite, so, too, are at least 50% of the Israelis who differ with the Shamir government,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
The protests, he said, are “based on cartoons I’ve done on the (Palestinian) uprising. The sculpture’s got nothing to do with that.”
Estimated to cost about $250,000, the work would be underwritten by an anonymous donor. But a suitable site has yet to be found in Beverly Hills or in Santa Monica, which also is interested in the sculpture and since early last year has been considering Conrad’s offer to place it there.
For now, “Chain Reaction,” the cartoonist’s dream of a memorial to the age of nuclear anxiety, is no more than a yard-high model on a wooden crate outside an office in the Beverly Hills Public Library.
And the artist is getting impatient.
“I’ve heard the political process was slow, but jiminy,” he said.
Conrad said he had hoped to have the piece finished by Aug. 6, the anniversary of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, but he won’t meet that deadline. He will not start the sculpture until a site is selected, and he estimates that the sculpting will take eight months.
“Around the base of it I want to put that this is a statement of peace and the phrase, ‘May it never be an epitaph,’ ” Conrad said. “I think it symbolizes the last 40 years.”
If built, “Chain Reaction” probably would loom high above a large, open space, perhaps Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills or Clover Park in Santa Monica, surrounded by trees whose leaves would be reflected in the greenish patina of 1 1/2-inch copper tubing fashioned into hundreds of chains.
“What I wanted was . . . the immensity of it,” Conrad said. “Twenty-six feet was as high practically as I could go.”
According to George Herms, one of the three artists who reviewed the piece for the city of Santa Monica, "(Conrad) is an editorial cartoonist, so we had to look at it and make sure it’s not just a one-liner (joke) in space.
“And it was more than just a one-liner in space. It would be very impressive. You look up at the sky through those links of chain, and (there is) the idea of the chains that bind us to this fragile thing called life. I think there’s a lot of poetry in it. I don’t think it’s just there for shock value.”
Herms knows about shock value. It was his work, “Moon Dial,” an assemblage of five rusted buoys, a rusted window frame and a winch, that detonated the debate over public art when the sculpture was placed in Beverly Gardens Park as a temporary exhibit last year.
After a flurry of complaints, the city asked Herms to remove the work before the end of its planned 18-month run, but he declined to take it down, arguing that it was “a salute to the Beverly Hills I know.”
Byrens said there is no intention of installing Conrad’s mushroom cloud in the same location. “Everything on Santa Monica Boulevard (the site of the Beverly Gardens Park exhibit) is on loan and temporary,” she said.
As for the Conrad piece, “we have not made any promises,” she said. “We have said that if a suitable place should ever be found, it might be considered. . . . Something of that size requires a gigantic space.”
Michael Cart, the city staff member assigned to the Fine Arts Committee, said that although the panel granted a conditional acceptance two months ago, no action is expected on Conrad’s offer before the next meeting, April 12, when its possible placement is likely to come up for debate.
Joan Agajanian Quinn, another member of the Beverly Hills Committee, said she thought that the mushroom cloud was beautiful, even if it did make some viewers think of death and destruction.
“That’s what people think. . . . But Mr. Conrad says it stands for peace, and I think that when it’s constructed and you stand underneath it and look at the sky and life around you, you get a very peaceful quality,” she said. “People get art confused with politics.”
Santa Monica’s art mavens agreed. “It’s not cartoon-like at all,” said Paul Leaf, chairman of the Santa Monica Arts Commission. “It’s very sculptural, it’s very dramatic, and its intent is obviously anti-nuclear explosion, or anti-war. And it’s a very beautiful piece.”
But despite the Santa Monica panel’s vote last summer to recommend acceptance of the sculpture, there has been little progress toward agreement on a site, which would be the next step before the Recreation and Parks Commission and the City Council consider the offer.
“Given the fact that this opportunity to have it in Santa Monica has been moving very slowly, we certainly wish him the best wherever he wishes to place it. But we’re still working on it,” said Henry Korn, arts administrator for Santa Monica.
Conrad, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, said he has not placed any of his sculptures on permanent public display. He has shown some bronze works in galleries and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, however.
In the unlikely event that both cities accept the offer, Conrad said, he would place the statue at the site that seemed best.