After a three-year lull, a new work of outdoor sculpture has been added to the Stuart Collection on the campus of UC San Diego. Jackie Ferrara's "Terrace" is the ninth commissioned, site-specific work to enter the collection, which has blossomed into a wondrous model for public-private collaboration and new approaches to public art in this country.
The lull between new works is somewhat deceiving, because five other projects have long been in gestation and at least three of them are scheduled for completion in 1992. They include a seating area and drinking fountain designed by Michael Asher and a long, sinuous "Snake Path" fashioned in tile by Alexis Smith. In addition, Maria Nordman will create a sunken, black granite seating area near the university's main library, Jenny Holzer will inscribe her characteristically pithy texts on one or two large tables, and George Trakas will design bridges and paths for a canyon on university property.
Budgets for the Stuart Collection projects have ranged from $70,000 to $420,000. All have been funded by the Stuart Foundation--launched in 1982 with a gift of more than $1 million from local art patron James DeSilva--along with some funds from various public and private sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts.
Now that the Stuart Foundation's start-up money has nearly been depleted, Stuart Collection director Mary Beebe is searching for another donor to match DeSilva's gift and thus propel the remarkable collection into its next phase of growth. After the next five works are installed, however, Beebe expects future commissions to be smaller in scope and expense.
An element of surprise, a refreshing awakening of the senses, distinguishes each of the collection's outdoor sculptures, and gives the group an intelligence and integrity absent from most "art park"-type sculpture installations. Robert Irwin's tall, zigzagging blue fence, for instance, meanders casually through a eucalyptus grove, a bold or elusive stripe depending on the quality of natural light.
Ian Hamilton Finlay's five limestone blocks quietly compose a poem on a grassy playing field overlooking the ocean. Bruce Nauman's flashing neon pairs of words appear harmless yet can have a startling impact if viewers accept the artist's challenge to define themselves in relationship to the vices and virtues he spells out. And Terry Allen's lead-covered eucalyptus trees sneak up on the unsuspecting passer-by with their recorded songs and stories.
While all of the artists have integrated their designs with the natural or built environment of the campus, the New York-based Ferrara has done so to such a degree that her work approaches invisibility. "Terrace" doesn't announce itself as a distinct work of sculpture, but instead blends seamlessly with the new Cellular and Molecular Medicine Building it adjoins. Where the architecture of Moore Rubell Yudell ends and Ferrara's vision begins is a line impossible to draw.
This in itself is neither an automatic flaw nor an inherent virtue of the work, but simply an increasingly common attribute of public art commissions. Ferrara participated in the design process of the building from its early stages in 1986, collaborating with the facility's architectural team and landscape architect Andrew Spurlock to meld their individual visions. Such unified efforts do tend to be more promising than the traditional, after-the-fact plop-art approach, but not necessarily. In the case of "Terrace," the results are attractive but innocuous.
"Terrace" actually consists of two strolling and seating areas joined by a flight of stairs. Both are basically rectangular in shape, with gray and red slate tile paths running through the gravel floor, between rows of raw maple benches and young willow trees. The tile paths, one of walkable width, the other much narrower and serving more as a decorative echo, bear geometric patterns of stripes and checkerboards.
At present, the terraces are bordered on one side by the new School of Medicine building and on the other by a broad, grassy hill and a grove of eucalyptus. In a few years, however, another building will be constructed to mirror the existing one, and Ferrara's terraces will provide the only breathing space between them.
The environment Ferrara has created does have a tranquil quality about it, for both terraces are bordered by walls on three sides. They serve not as passageways from one place to another but as alcoves, restful destinations for conversation or contemplation.
Though Ferrara's work has far less of a sculptural presence than the other works in the Stuart Collection, and it prompts fewer evocative questions than the others, it suits its space well and serves its function gracefully. Such understatement stretches the parameters of the collection into a new direction--not a particularly exciting one, but one that nevertheless adds to the diversity and breadth of the collection as a whole.