February 26, 2020

Sculpture in San Diego sun

Downtown San Diego is home to plenty of famous attractions — including the San Diego Zoo and The Old Globe Theatre — but, for art lovers, the city also boasts an impressive collection of post-World War II works by internationally recognized Jewish artists like Sol LeWitt, Louise Nevelson and Richard Serra. 

Beyond pleasing the eye, these works tell multilayered stories of Jewish artists’ roles in shaping contemporary American art movements, narrating the immigrant experience and expressing a sense of in-your-face, post-Holocaust survival.

Where to begin? 

“Two of the great works by prominent Jewish artists in San Diego are sculptures: Louise Nevelson’s monumental work in San Diego Museum of Art’s Sculpture Court Café, and Sol LeWitt’s large open-cube sculpture in the main entry of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Downtown,” suggested University of San Diego art history professor Derrick Cartwright.  

Al fresco art makes sense in this seaside city — especially in the summer — so off I went to the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA, sdmart.org), located in beautiful Balboa Park and home to a wide-ranging permanent collection that includes works representative of the Italian Renaissance, Post-Impressionism and pre-20th century America, among others. 

Nevelson’s welded, Cor-Ten steel work “Night Presence II,” of 1976, presides over the hubbub of the museum’s tented-courtyard café. The 13-foot-tall, rust-colored piece, referencing architectural forms like columns and finials, appears as an oversized Cubist collage sprung to 3-D life.  

Amy Galpin, the museum’s associate curator for art of the Americas, described “Night Presence II” as an homage to Manhattan, where Nevelson lived and worked as an artist for 50 years.  

Born in 1899 in Czarist Russia, Nevelson immigrated to Maine with her family in 1905. She learned English in school and spoke Yiddish at home. A strong, independent woman, she left her wealthy shipping magnate husband in 1933 to pursue her art. Calling herself “the original recycler,” Nevelson was at the forefront of using found objects — furniture legs, chair backs, architectural ornaments — to create monumental pieces of art. 

“The rise of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s pushed Nevelson to the forefront as one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century. Her work is in museum and private collections all over the world,” Galpin said. 

“Night Presence II” incorporates a figurative representation of a bird. As I sat in the sun-drenched SDMA café sipping an aranciata, I imagined Nevelson as that bird flying from the old country to the New World, and from the conventions of suburban married life to her identity as a world-renowned, bohemian artist (who had a brief affair with Diego Rivera). 

Tearing myself away, I eventually headed two miles southwest to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s (MCASD, mcasd.org) downtown location. (MCASD also has a stunning, oceanfront branch in La Jolla.) The downtown space, dedicated to works created after 1950 across a spectrum of media and genres, straddles Kettner Boulevard, with one space right next door to San Diego’s historic Santa Fe train depot. That building once served as the train station’s baggage storeroom. Famed minimalist architect Richard Gluckman elegantly repurposed the storeroom as a showcase for contemporary art by retaining the large, Spanish-style arched window frames and using bare concrete floors to create an airy, open space, with loads of natural light and no visual distractions.

Being adjacent to the terminus of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner makes the museum easily accessible by train from downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station. 

LeWitt’s sculpture “Six-Part Modular Cube” (1976) looks perfectly at home in MCASD’s minimalist space. The gleaming white, open cube structure, prominently displayed in the museum’s foyer, invites the visitor in to view art free from preconceived restraints of what art “should” be. Constructed of aluminum, each cube sits at eye level – enabling the viewer to interact with the piece on a human scale. 

LeWitt was born in 1928 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in Hartford, Conn., and is considered a founding father of both the conceptual art movement — in which the idea is the most important part of the work — and minimalism. Minimalist art sets out to expose the essence of a subject by eliminating all nonessential forms. LeWitt’s cubes demonstrate this, allowing natural light and open space to define their essence. 

“He often referenced how his Jewish cultural background influenced his work and gave him a mystical sense of connection to the larger world,” said Kathryn Kanjo, MCASD’s chief curator. The clean lines of LeWitt’s “Six-Part Modular Cube” might evoke a sense of spiritual purification and possibility for redemption.

Located just outside the museum’s wall-length, glass-paneled back doors is Serra’s monumental, site-specific sculpture installation, “Santa Fe Depot.” The world-famous artist was born in 1939 to a Russian-Jewish mother who emigrated from Odessa to San Francisco. 

When MCASD commissioned the work in 2004 with a generous gift from longtime patrons, it gave California native Serra the freedom to decide where to install it. He chose to place the sculpture, consisting of six individual blocks of forged weatherproof steel, just yards away from the train tracks. Each of the six blocks weighs 25 tons. 

As I approached the blocks, lined in two rows, I asked Kanjo, “Am I allowed to touch them?” 

“Oh, yes — they are solid and see a lot of action,” she said, laughing.

Serra’s works — like “T.E.U.C.L.A.,” in the plaza of UCLA’s Broad Art Center, the mammoth “Snake” at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and “Sequence,” which was on view for three years at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — encourage movement around them. “Santa Fe Depot” exemplifies Serra’s in-your-face work. Passengers must move around and between the blocks to catch a trolley or train. 

“Serra’s blocks suggest a kind of repetition and inevitability — like the comings and goings of train after train,” Kanjo said.

When contemplating Serra’s installation in a Jewish context, his choice of location struck me. Those 25-ton steel cubes sited alongside railroad tracks just outside a train station, considered in light of Holocaust concentration camp transports, suggest permanence, immovability, solidity and survival. 

While I gazed out the museum window, I saw a man waiting for a trolley deposit a plastic grocery bag full of trash on top of one of the cubes. A city janitor came by a minute later, picked it up with a trash-grabber and put it in his garbage bag. Again, the survival analogy came to mind: “Sure, you can dump garbage on us, but we’ll find a way to carry on.” 

This really moved me. I’m not sure if Serra intended anything close to this type of reaction, but art can be what we make of it, right? Go, and see for yourself.