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ART / Cathy Curtis : Sugarman’s Sculpture Looks Like a G-Rated Playground for Adults

On Orange County’s fledgling public-art front, every new entry inevitably invites comparison to “California Scenario,” the sculpture garden by Isamu Noguchi in South Coast Plaza Town Center.

Well, it looks like Town Center developer Henry Segerstrom can rest on his laurels for the time being. New York sculptor George Sugarman’s cluster of painted steel pieces in the North sector of Koll Center Irvine, installed earlier this month, is more like a G-rated playground for adults than the kind of major work of art that people drive out of their way to see.

Still, the 75-by-100-foot Sugarman sculpture plaza has undeniable charms as a lunchtime oasis for employees of the mixed-use commercial center, and as a welcoming fanfare for clients. Approaching the outdoor parking lot in front of Koll Center’s looming landmark--a pair of 12-story towers rising in horizontal slices of glass and red granite--you can’t help but notice the visual clamor the piece sets up.

Massed together along the outer rim of the plaza in a careful way that respects the geometric divisions of the flagstone walkway, the eight sculptural groups--composed of curving abstract forms that sometimes resemble figures or animals--sing out like a musical-comedy chorus.

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But the most rewarding aspect of these pieces is their ability to welcome the casual stroller with amusing cut-out views of sky and buildings, variegated plays of light and shadow, and a variety of comfortable places to sit.

The tallest sculpture (22 feet at its apex) presides from a central “upstage” position, looking very much like a huge, cut-paper construction. Viewed from the front, curved white ribbon-like pieces appear to anchor a big yellow central section pierced by a trio of large openings that let in the sky. As you walk around the piece, its forms can be read as simply as a child’s primer. Yet they also afford a kaleidoscope of hide-and-seek views of the surrounding area.

Directly “downstage,” Sugarman has placed a pair of identical pieces. With their horizontal, undulating “bodies” capped by showy, free-form “heads,” these sculptures--one in pale apricot, the other in bright purple--could be latter-day cousins of the ceremonial dragon shapes that appear in Chinese New Year parades.

Elsewhere on the plaza, vertical elements in purple, turquoise, sky blue and leaf green cluster into two groups like conversing figures. (Sugarman has said, however, that he thinks of these pieces as “my abstract trees.”) Slightly angled, as if bending from the waist, and unfolding in a flower-like way, these nearly identical pieces huddle in coveys of three and four.

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The other elements of the scheme are benches and chairs that incorporate the same flowing lines and shouting colors of the non-functional pieces. One bench “grows” out of three petal-like tiers in turquoise, green and maroon. Another bench, in sky blue and orange, incorporates a decorative hood-like element that provides protection from the sun’s rays. Still another bench, with a curved back that mimics the arch of the tall yellow piece, rests on faintly humorous flat, wide “feet.”

Sitting on these pieces, you can hear the dull roar of traffic and the splashing sound of the fountain in front of the plaza, which spurts up in a genteel, close-to-the-vest way and then runs into a big pool. The play of water and sun and color (happily related to the turquoise trim of the terraced gardens and window trim on the buildings) creates a genuinely pleasing ambiance.

Sugarman, 76, has come in for criticism over the years for his “vulgar” use of bright color. Vulgarity, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. As the artist has pointed out in his own defense, the ancient Greeks painted their statues in bright colors.

What matters is that color is not tooting its horn at the expense of form. Besides, if ever there were an appropriate place to use assertive color, a sunny, aggressive Southern California business park would be have to be high on the list.

The Sugarman sculpture plaza doesn’t appear to embody any deep ideas or elaborate agenda as does the Noguchi sculpture garden, nor does it break new formal ground. Any group of art professionals could come up with many names of artists more likely to make a more ambitious and forward-looking statement.

But, to its credit, the piece is neither a pious blue-chip monument or (as is so often the case) a blandly innocuous little ornament plopped in front of a building. And it is genuinely user-friendly.

Koll Co. officials won’t say what Sugarman’s work cost, but it will be surprising if they don’t feel they’ve recouped their investment when the two towers--which opened in late 1987 and late 1988--are fully leased. (Koll Center’s north parcel, to be completed in 1990, will include two more towers, a movie theater and a sports club, as well as retail stores and restaurants.)

The plaza is likely to be a popular gathering spot--not a small thing in the featureless city of Irvine. Perhaps the Sugarman piece also will serve as one of several possible models for the city’s Art in Public Places program, whose notions of how to choose and locate public sculpture so often seem to be nascent and confused.

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George Sugarman’s sculpture plaza is in the north sector of Koll Center Irvine, bounded by MacArthur Boulevard, Von Karman Avenue, the San Diego Freeway and Main Street.


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