Before there was "Urban Light," there was "Space Sculpture."
Erected as a dramatic plaza centerpiece when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art first opened on Wilshire Boulevard 50 years ago, "Space Sculpture" stumbled through a less-than-splendid existence. Like a movie star unable to make the transition from silent pictures to talkies, it shot from center stage to oblivion.
"Urban Light," Chris Burden's classical Greco-Roman temple assembled from 202 obsolete city streetlights, is what greets museum visitors today. It's a sculpture that has launched a million selfies. The illuminated shrine to our automotive past became LACMA's unofficial emblem after being installed on the entry plaza seven years ago. It even evolved into a virtual civic symbol.
"Space Sculpture" had no such luck.
Artistically, it seems rather corny in retrospect — more "modernistic" than modern. But on LACMA's golden anniversary, it is worth remembering. "Space Sculpture" and its legacy bring back an important time.
It began life as an explosive tower of welded stainless steel rods, stacked up on a pedestal standing in a fountain.
In 1967, two years after it went up, a museum conservator told The Times that the stainless steel was beginning to corrode under the biting onslaught of L.A.'s then-notorious smog. Hardly an intransigent problem, the touch of decay was a harbinger of things to come.
The work was temporarily removed to make way for construction of the hulking Anderson Building for Modern Art, now home to the Art of the Americas galleries, which gobbled up the original entry plaza. The new wing opened with great fanfare in 1986, but the sculpture never came back.
Few seemed to notice.
Yet, when "Space Sculpture" first went on display in 1965, it was as conspicuous as it could be, given pride of place smack in the center of LACMA's entryway. A futuristic fantasy filled with shimmering optimism glistened in the Southern California sunlight. The sculpture was the spindle around which the new museum's three marble-clad pavilions revolved.
Welcome to art's Tomorrowland, the gleaming stainless steel monument implied. Visually it spoke of an upstart museum's unalloyed ambitions.
At the behest of LACMA Director Richard Fargo Brown, wealthy electronics industrialist David E. Bright donated the money for "Space Sculpture." Bright was so enthusiastic about new art that he sponsored an international prize at the venerable Venice Biennale — the only American to do so.
An avid Modern art collector, among the most ardent in L.A., he was treasurer of LACMA's board of trustees and chairman of its building committee, which got the new museum constructed.
Bright's own collection featured School of Paris titans. There was a mournful Blue Period Picasso and a large and wiry Surrealist abstraction by Joan Miro. Fernand Leger's muscular construction of brightly colored shapes, "The Disks," is visually as strong and cacophonous as an urban crowd.
There were New York School masters too — first-rate examples of veiled clouds of color by Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb's sprawling pictographic landscape and Franz Kline's painted construction of powerful black vectors slashed across a frothy sea of white. A robust 1951 black-and-white Jackson Pollock was precariously poised between calculation and chance.
"Space Sculpture" was nowhere near as august. Amid Bright's luminous roster of Modern European and American artists, the name of German sculptor Norbert Kricke does not stand out.
Kricke, born in Duesseldorf and trained in Berlin, was 44 when his sculpture was chosen to grace the LACMA plaza. (He died in 1984.) Not well known today, especially outside Germany, he was among a large number of mostly younger international artists on the radar in the 1950s and early 1960s. Striving to match the power of recent painting, they shared an interest in fusing the rational order of technology with spontaneous construction techniques.
The result was dynamic, open-form sculpture, often in metal. Kricke welded stainless steel rods in impromptu compositions, stacking them into serrated pillars of interlocking planes.
But barely a year after LACMA threw open its doors with "Space Sculpture" as its welcoming gesture, a landmark exhibition called "Primary Structures" opened at the Jewish Museum in New York. Radically new sculptures dominated the buzz, among them works by six L.A. artists, including Larry Bell and John McCracken. Their often modular, impersonally crafted, machine-fabricated forms swept away the fussiness of what Kricke and his cohort were doing. Minimalist sculpture had arrived, clearing the field and propelling art in a new direction.
And that was that. Suddenly, Kricke's jazzy, ad hoc LACMA sculpture made Tomorrowland look like Yesterdayville.
As years went by, the perceived gap only widened. Industrialist Norton Simon even made the work's removal a condition of the possible donation of his spectacular art collection, which didn't come to pass.
When "Space Sculpture" was dismantled to make way for LACMA's Anderson Building expansion during the directorship of Earl A. Powell III (now the longtime head of Washington's National Gallery of Art), the museum sent it on a 10-year loan to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Prominent collector Marcia Weisman had been assembling a contemporary art collection there on a shoestring budget.
The sculpture was last seen rising from the median strip on Alden Drive.
Once the loan period was up, LACMA quietly decided to sell it, leaving a big, unfortunate hole in its collecting history. Best practices for deaccessioning museum art dictate the engagement of an auction house for greatest public transparency or, in rare instances, a private dealer with specialized knowledge. LACMA took a different route.
A spokesman said "the museum entertained several competitive offers," finally selling the sculpture in Germany in 1988. LACMA declined to reveal the buyer or sale price, and whether it subsequently changed hands is unknown. So is the work's current whereabouts.
What did David E. Bright, the generous donor, think of all this? We'll never know.
Twelve days after the public first began streaming across the plaza and past "Space Sculpture" to check out L.A.'s aspiring new museum, Bright died from a cerebral hemorrhage in his room at New York's Sherry-Netherland hotel. He was 57.
His wife, Dolly, who died two years ago at 98, was at his side. It was she who gave LACMA the cream of his Modern art collection in 1967. The gift ranked as the largest, most important bequest of art — of any kind — that the young museum had yet received.