The first time I visited California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) was the day of my student orientation. On a tour, I couldn’t help but take note of the campus design. Not imposing or overly sprawled… from the north to south end the campus seemed overwhelmingly large, but walking through it the distance from building to building, concentration to concentration, was negligible.
On our group’s tour our student guide told us stories of why buildings were built in certain ways, and threw in fun facts about the sculptures and works of art strewn throughout the campus, including a story of how a metal sculpture near the University Student Union was designed to resemble the form of a whale.
Brian Trimble, Executive Director of the University Art Museum at CSULB, understands the roles assigned to these works of art, created for the 1965 International Sculpture Symposium. “I think… why we get these different interpretations is that as humans we’re always trying to understand our environment and we want to make meaning out of something. So if you have this abstract or nonobjective art which is ‘art for art’s sake’ you will have people who are just trying to make meaning out of it.”
So yeah, we could go ahead and continue think Piotr Kowalski’s Now (1965) is intended to be a whale, or we could understand it for what it is – A work of art used to showcase the role of industry forging ahead in the Space Race of the 1960s. In Trimble’s words, “the real story is so much more interesting, with Kowalski working with North American Aviation and doing these experimental explosion forms. [North American Aviation was] leading the Space Race in 1965. Having them involved on campus in multiple works is incredible.
Ken Glenn, who put forward the idea for the symposium, wanted to use artists and incorporate new technologies. His idea… predates Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology and LACMA’s Art and Technology program. It was really one of the first major initiatives to connect artists with industry and explore new technology.”
And somehow, despite the diverse backgrounds of the artists who contributed to the symposium and their partners in creating these works of art, each piece blends seamlessly with the campus’ landscape design and architectural integrity in a way I’ve never seen matched. In large part, this continuity is due to the involvement of Edward A. Killingsworth, FAIA, architect of the CSULB Master Plan. Working with each artist participating in the 1965 symposium, Killingsworth determined the appropriate location for installation and aided contributors in finding a balance between the campus, its landscape, and their artistic intentions.
The formation and installation of these sculptures on our turf is not something to overlook. For Brian Trimble, this event is a part of “why this university has a national reputation for the arts. This is something that happened in 1965 when this was a sixteen-year-old regional college on the border of Los Angeles County and Orange County, and yet they were bringing these international artists from around the world to build these pieces on this campus. It was getting press in Paris, it was getting press all over the country, and really it was a feat that they pulled off. It was unbelievable.”
Like Long Beach itself, CSULB seems to fly under the radar. Tourists are shocked at the beauty of the campus on their first visit, and students grow to love Long Beach in droves once coming to attend the university. The university’s academic achievements and reputation in the arts is nothing to scoff at, and its architecture has been heralded as an incredible work of Mid-Century Modern design by regional architects including Killingsworth and Hugh Gibbs. In the midst of it all, the sculptures from the 1965 symposium and the eleven others which followed after are nestled away. They seem to be so perfectly integrated that they’re often hard to notice.
But the decades of overlooking California State University, Long Beach are coming to a close as appreciation for Killingsworth’s career and Mid-Century and Late Modern design finally come into their own.
Typically, a building, structure, or work of art is considered ‘historical’ once it’s reached fifty years of age. After fifty, these works often become eligible for protection and treatment, if they aren’t already. And as the saying goes, we’re now in the decade where ‘the sixties turn fifty.’ Brian Trimble has been ready for the last five years. Witnessing the state of the sculptures and taking a personal interest in their history, Trimble has explored their value and collected a team of experts to aide in reinvigorating them so that they may continue to hold their place at CSULB.
Since 2012, the Getty Conservation Institute and Rosa Lowinger & Associates (RLA) have been working with the CSULB University Art Museum in a partnership to carry out the restoration of the sculptures from the 1965 symposium (as well as an additional sculpture by Robert Irwin completed in 1975.)
To kickstart the process, the Getty provided funding to assist with the restoration of Robert Murray’s Duet, hoping that an initial investment would validate the project and prompt interest in continuing. Correct in their assumption, work on Duet triggered subsequent work on J.J. Beljon’s Homage to Simon Rodia, a sculpture created to honor the creative mind behind the Watts Towers in 1965.
The collection of sculptures on the campus was surveyed by RLA, and work on the pieces has been completed by University Facilities Management under supervision of RLA and with direction from the Getty Conservation Institute. To date the team has completed work on two sculptures, is beginning work on two additional pieces, and continues to seek funding to carry out restoration processes on the remaining five.
In the words of the Getty Conservation Institute’s Dr. Rachel Rivenc, “We hope this is a snowball effect. It is a beautiful sculpture park. It is unique and very historically significant.” For Rivenc, working in Long Beach has been eye-opening. Her team helped to organize Far-Sited: Creating & Conserving Art in Public Places (http://web.csulb.edu/org/uam/EVENTSfar-sited.html), a weekend-long conference held in October to celebrate public art and discuss the work completed and anticipated on campus at CSULB. As she became further involved in the Long Beach community, Rivenc was pleasantly surprised.
“Through the prism of collaboration working on this project I have gained a huge appreciation [for Long Beach]. There is so much history… and the historical significance of the symposium is not something you associate with a small town. It was a magnificent thing. [Far-Sited] attracted not only a diverse local audience, but a wide-reaching audience from across the country.”
So students, you may think the pieces of metal so carefully molded and arranged adjacent to the Student Union resemble a whale, and that’s fine. And Angelinos, you may think CSULB is just another college campus somewhere along the border of Orange County. Carry on. But millions of dollars invested in rehabilitating iconic mid-century buildings and artfully restoring outdoor sculptural works by reputable artists and industrialists don’t lie.
For Brian Trimble, “This is part of our campus. This is part of our history… I want the campus to be able to have that kind of pride in the culture here and see these as cultural assets, along with sports and everything else. This just adds to the importance of what this campus is.”
Just like Long Beach itself, I do believe California State University, Long Beach will continue to fly under the radar. Not because no one knows it’s there, but because we’re the best kept secret in Southern California. Anyone who takes the time to visit can see with their own eyes the harmony and beauty in its design, and reap their own reward.
In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of this monumental symposium held at CSULB in 1965, the University Art Museum is holding its current exhibition, FAR-SITED, which features additional sculptures by the artists, photographs, video, and other documentation of their work at the university. The exhibition is active now and runs through December 13th.