FAR-SITED: CSULB Looks Back 50 Years to a Groundbreaking Intersection of Art and Technology

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Image of J.J. Beljon's Homage to Simon Rodia, 1965. Archival images courtesy of the University Art Museum. All other photos by Asia Morris. 

Before Cal State Long Beach was Cal State Long Beach (CSULB), when it was still a small, barely 16-year-old land grant institution, a sculpture professor by the name of Kenn Glenn was abroad on sabbatical and also on a quest to find collaborative partners from other art schools to create international learning opportunities for his students.

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“That part of his trip wasn’t that successful, but he ended up meeting [Russian-born] artist Kosso Eloul in Israel and ended up staying in Israel for seven months [while] working there,” said Brian Trimble, the University Art Museum’s (UAM) Interim Director. “And he learned about the sculpture symposium movement from Eloul and came up with the idea to do one here in Southern California. That’s how it all started.”

Far-Sited: California International Sculpture Symposium 1965/2015 is in its last month at the UAM. It’s an archival exhibition that celebrates both the 50th anniversary of the California International Sculpture Symposium, a major feat to come to fruition in the modern public art world, and explores the behind-the-scenes process of how the nine monumental modernist works, which you can find throughout campus, were created during one historic summer. Additionally, it delves into how these works influenced the international art world thereafter.

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The exhibition is set to run through Sunday, December 13.

Realizing this major exhibition has been a three-year project for the UAM, said Trimble.

“It’s been a really interesting and great process and it was great to be able to do something that’s so connected to the campus and the community and yet it really has this international significance," he said. “The most important thing about the symposium is it was really one of the first large-scale initiatives to connect the artist with industry to explore new technology and new materials.”

The symposium was featured in The New York Times, The National Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and Arts & Architecture, among other notable publications.

Pulled from the UAM’s initial exhibition announcement released in September, Dr. Sarah Schrank, author of Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles called the exhibition "important" in understanding the history of modernist art. 

“It is important to understand that it was within [the] context of social upheaval, urban growth, demographic shift, political activism, and violence that artistic experimentation took place here, and it was a type of art that sucked in all the resources, attributes, and dearth of its environment and then, in turn, generated structures that reproduced the region’s elements in its barest form: three-dimensional space and raw industrial material," Schrank said. 

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Installation view of Far-Sited (on Rita Letendre).

Eight artists, Kengiro Azuma (Japan), J.J. Beljon (Holland), André Bloc (France), Kosso Eloul (Israel), Claire Falkenstein (US), Gabriel Kohn (US), Piotr Kowalski (France/Poland) and Robert Murray (Canada), convened on campus in 1965 to create site-specific works through partnerships with companies including Bethlehem Steel, Fellows and Stewart Shipyard, North American Aviation and Flex Coat Corporation, giving each sculptor an unimaginable-at-the-time amount of material and technology to work with.

Trimble noted Piotr Kowalski’s sculpture, Now, 1965, located next to the University Student Union, whose individual pieces were formed at North American Aviation’s experimental explosion-forming site, where the sculptor and the company tested out new ways to form stainless steel using dynamite.

Displayed in Far-Sited are three of the pieces that were formed at the site during the extensive testing process, before the pieces for the actual sculpture were made. Trimble had to do a little detective work to find them, at first scouring the Internet, which led him to a documentary posted on YouTube by Kowalski’s son, which helped him discover that at some point during the late '60s and early '70s, the artist had left a few of the experimental pieces on campus and needed a place to store them. They were found in artist Sarah Holt’s mother’s backyard in Pasadena and brought to the UAM on loan.

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Piotr Kowalski, Dynamic Explosion Forms, 1965. Collection of Virginia Holt.

Trimble pointed to the third sheet of warped metal on the wall (turned around to show its backside), a work of art in itself, with the dynamite’s marks left as reminders of new technologies and history in the making.

“In the documentary, he talks about [this] piece was the final test piece that allowed them to move forward to finish the sculpture and it’s literally this,” Trimble said admiringly. “We didn’t even know it existed before we started looking for things like that. We had several of those things happen to us in the process of developing the exhibition.”

“Dealing with the family who loaned us [the pieces], we really learned so much more about Kowalski as a person, because they were all very good friends with him and speaking with the whole family we were really able to get a sense of who he was and really just how contagious his excitement was over these forms and processes,” said Maria Coltharp, UAM curator. “So having that personal connection was really important.”

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Brian Trimble discussing Piotr Kowalski’s Dynamic Explosion Form (trial), 1965. Collection of Virginia Holt.

Through original artworks by the symposium artists, significant pieces from the archives of the University Art Museum and CSULB Library Special Collections, including early sketches and maquettes, photographs, newspapers and journals, personal letters, post-symposium publications and other ephemera, Far-Sited is an exhibition not to be missed, whether you’re an artist yourself, a history buff, interested in technology of any sort or if you simply live in the area.

“Honestly, the sculpture collection is the legacy of one of the most important undertakings in art in the country, and is such a gem for the campus,” said UAM Public Relations and Marketing Coordinator Shefali Mistry.

Mistry added that Far-Sited was not only carefully curated, but exquisitely designed to show Los Angeles, and especially Long Beach, at the forefront of art and technology within mid-century art and design.

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Piotr Kowalski experiments with dynamite explosions to form the pieces of his sculpture, Now, at North American Aviation facilities in El Toro, CA.

Thanks to the symposium, the CSULB Outdoor Sculpture Collection would grow to include 21 works, including artworks by Robert Irwin, Bryan Hunt and Terry Schoonhoven, according to the UAM. As the first international sculpture symposium to be held in the United States and the first to be held on a college campus, the historic undertaking would precede Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) in 1966 and inspire the 1967-71 Art & Technology Initiative at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), but not without a few hiccups along the way.

“There were some major issues,” said Trimble. “If you think about it, here’s this 16-year-old regional college [...] that wasn’t even fully built on the border between LA and Orange County and they’re taking on a project of this size. At some level they did bite off more than they could chew.”

While the artists had all kinds of materials to use at their fingertips, one of the things they didn’t have was bronze. Two of the participating artists, Azuma and Italian artist Gio Pomodoro, both requested it. Azuma was talked into using industrial aluminum instead, while Pomodoro quit the symposium altogether, leaving his student assistants and a “lost piece” behind.

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Kenn Glenn, Sinai Campaign, 1964. Collection of Joan Glenn Casares and Family. 

“He worked through the summer and he created this huge piece; it was seven feet tall and 19 feet long, but he wanted it cast in bronze and the campus didn’t have the money,” explained Trimble. “It would have been $20,000 in 1965, which is a huge amount of money.”

According to Trimble, Glenn attempted to assure the artist that he would try to find the bronze or the funding to cast the piece, but Pomodoro refused to wait and flew back to Italy. The “lost piece” had apparently been swallowed by campus storage, when a woman who had worked as Pomodoro’s translator at the symposium, picked it up and had it finished with fiberglass, contracting the skills of a famous surfboard shaper. When she passed in 1999, it was donated to the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles, where UAM found it intact.

It was not uncommon for an artist to quit the symposium (one British artist came and left within the first week) or not be able to make it, however in one case, nothing was lost, but a great deal gained. Those who know Falkenstein’s work might assume she was a progressive first pick as the only woman to be officially involved with the symposium in ‘65. (Her writhing symposium sculpture, “U” as a Set, stands next to CSULB’s Theater Arts building, while Claire’s, the restaurant at the Long Beach Museum of Art, is named after the fountain it surrounds, Falkenstein’s Structure and Flow.) However, the only reason she was included was because an Italian artist endured a car accident right before the symposium began, according to Trimble.

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Installation view of Far-Sited, section on Andre Bloc, including maquette for Carlson/Bloc Tower, 1965.

“She was local, she was here, Kenn Glenn knew her and invited her to come down,” he said. “We’re glad she was because I think [“U” as a Set] is one of the great sculptures on campus.”

Of course, one of the most significant outcomes of the symposium was co-organizer Kosso Eloul’s sculpture, Hardfact, 1965, where he was given the opportunity to work with Leo Gatzek, a scientist and consultant for the Apollo and Saturn lunar vehicles at North American Aviation in Downey. In the process of creating the piece, Gatzek and Eloul were able to figure out how to bond steel to concrete without causing the steel to warp, an unresolved issue at the time.

“That technology is definitely still used today,” said Coltharp. “In construction, in art, across all these fields. Which was so exciting about the project, really, was how interdisciplinary it was.”

Far-Sited is just one of the ways the UAM is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the sculpture symposium. The museum has partnered with the Getty Conservation Institute and RLA Conservation of Art and Architecture to conserve the original symposium artworks. Robert Murray’s Duet (Homage to David Smith), 1965, which was constructed in the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in San Pedro, was the first to be treated. Thirteen layers of paint were excavated to restore the piece to its original color.

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Robert Murray, Model for Duet. Courtesy of the artist.

“This is our collective history,” said Coltharp. “This was something that was truly local. It encompasses a global theme. We got people from all over the world to come here to Long Beach specifically to work on these [sculptures] together, and I think that it’s a point of pride for students at Cal State Long Beach and Long Beach residents that we had this very important art historical event in our community.”

Visitors can see Far-Sited up until Sunday, December 13. The UAM will be closed during Fall Break and Thanksgiving, from November 26th through the 29th, but otherwise is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 12:00PM to 5:00PM and Wednesdays from 12:00PM to 8:00PM. For more information about UAM, click here. For the most up-to-date info on surrounding events, click here.

The UAM is located at 1250 North Bellflower Boulevard.

 



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