In 1965, a university professor at Cal State Long Beach teamed up with an Israeli artist to organize a symposium that paired artists with industry (such as the local Bethlehem Steel works) to create a series of monumental pieces that would reside on the university’s campus. Nine artists participated, producing massive abstract pieces made from concrete, earth and steel -- works that dot the campus to this day.
But half a century is a long time, and some of the pieces are starting to show their age with peeling paint, structural issues and problems with moisture (from the sea air and lawn watering). To mark the 50th anniversary of the sculpture symposium, the University Art Museum has teamed up with the Getty Conservation Institute to survey and help conserve the collection.
“For us, it provides an opportunity to have practical case studies that exemplify the challenges of working with outdoor sculptures,” said Rachel Rivenc, a scientist at the institute. “These are quite different to objects than you find in a museum: There’s the scale and the fact that they’re outdoors and prone to damage from sun and rain and the ocean, which is very close.”
The partnership also resurrects an interesting slice of Southern California art history -- one that sits at the intersection of art, technology and global politics.
The California International Sculpture Symposium was co-organized by Cal State Long Beach sculpture professor Kenneth Glenn and Israeli artist Kosso Eloul (best known for producing the eternal-flame sculpture at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel). It was part of an international series of symposiums launched in Europe in 1959, and was the first held in the U.S.
“It was this response to the war and to the politics of the era,” said Brian Trimble, the University Art Museum’s interim director. “It was artists wanting to show that we as human beings could work together and be civil and not engage in destructive wars.”
The symposium, which lasted for 12 weeks, brought together artists from Japan, Poland, the Netherlands, Canada, Israel and the U.S., among other places. Artists were then connected to local industry representatives, who allowed the artists to dip into the region’s cutting-edge industrial technology. (Interestingly, one of the curators on the project was Maurice Tuchman, who would go on to found the Art and Technology program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the late 1960s.)
Piotr Kowalksi of Poland, for example, worked with North American Aviation Corp. in Orange County on a sculpture that was created using underwater explosion technology. The bulbous form of his resulting piece, titled “Now,” looks like an explosion that’s been frozen in stainless steel.
Likewise, Canadian sculptor Robert Murray teamed up with the Bethlehem Steel plant in San Pedro to produce a playing card arrangement of steel panels that pay tribute to Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith.
His sculpture, “Duet (Homage to David Smith),” is one of the first to be treated by conservators at the Getty. Over time, the piece has suffered damage and changed colors as the epoxy paints that Murray used, though revolutionary in the 1960s, turned out to be unstable. Once a light, peachy orange, the sculpture has grown darker over the years as subsequent paint jobs have tried to correct problems with fading.
“We took a cross-section of the paint and it has 14 different layers,” Rivenc said. “Our goal has been to get as close as possible to the original light orange, but with a stable paint system. It’s been an interesting case. We’ve looked at archival photographs and studied a range of other clues.”
Interestingly, the placement of the final pieces around the 320-acre campus involved another important Southern California figure: architect Edward Killingsworth.
“Killingsworth was one of the Case Study architects,” Trimble said. “He sited all of the works around the campus to tie in with the Modernist architecture. And he had a relationship to Arts & Architecture magazine, so two years after the symposium, the magazine featured the artists and the works.”
The combined effort, Rivenc said, “was very pioneering, very forward-thinking.”
It also served as the basis of the University Art Museum’s effort to commission and collect monumental outdoor sculpture and showcase it on the campus. The university now has almost two dozen works in its collection -- including an architectural piece by renowned installation artist Robert Irwin.
The museum is to mark the anniversary of the symposium with a related exhibition in September, featuring prints by the original artists. In addition, the institution is collaborating with the Getty Conservation Institute and the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach to host a three-day conference in October about creating and conserving art in public places, titled “Far Sited.”
The Cal State Long Beach Sculpture Park can be viewed during daytime hours seven days a week. See the downloadable PDF map for a self-guided tour. 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, csulb.edu/explore/museum.
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