Caltech rejects Serra’s massive wall sculpture

Times Staff Writer

Caltech President David Baltimore sent an e-mail to members of his Pasadena campus community on Friday morning to say that the school will not accept artist Richard Serra’s hotly debated design for a massive sculpture.

“This is not a judgment about the quality of the proposal, but rather a judgment about the needs of the campus,” Baltimore wrote.

Debate over the proposed 80-ton zigzagging steel wall planned for a lawn in front of the school’s biological sciences buildings began months earlier. Students protested the divisive nature of the monumental artwork and the lack of procedures for them to air their views. Baltimore was not available for comment about his decision.


The artist’s wife, Clara, e-mailed a statement to The Times on Friday regarding the rejection of the design. It says that Baltimore “has decided not to build a Richard Serra landscape sculpture that Caltech had asked the artist to propose....” It also said that among the reasons Baltimore cited for the rejection were “student protests, pressure from faculty members, and the risk that his decision to go ahead with the sculpture might undermine his authority on campus.”

Serra said Baltimore also cited a “health issue” in relation to “educating the future leaders of America.” But the Serra statement adds that for the sculptor, “the fear of further controversy is insufficient reason not to build the sculpture....”

Hall Daily, Caltech assistant vice president for government and community relations, said the debate over the Serra piece had ultimately been a good thing for the school, in that it had “led to an incredibly healthy debate on this campus. It shows that this university, which is renowned for scientific and engineering debate -- for research and discovery at the very edges of human knowledge -- also has a very spirited interest in ... modern art and, in particular, monumental art.” Daily also said that “one of the results of this experience has been to add student representatives to the campus arts committee.”

The decision not to accept Serra’s design, Daily added, means that the arts committee will work with the city to find a different project to fulfill the city requirement for public art.