Monumental: The Underrated History of Public Art at CSULB (And the Facelift Its Rightfully Getting)

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Katie Rispoli is the Executive Director of Long Beach-based nonprofit We Are the Next, dedicated to social justice and youth development programs to teens and young adults. Our programs center around the people and places that have shaped our communities.

Additional reporting by Brian Addison.

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.

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.

Brian Trimble, Associate 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,” Trimble said, “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.

“His idea predates Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology and LACMA’s Art and Technology program,” said Ken Glenn, who put forward the idea for the symposium and wanted to use artists and incorporate new technologies. “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, famed architect of the CSULB Master Plan (along with other works throughout the city). 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.

“This event is a part of why this university has a national reputation for the arts,” Trimble said. “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.”

“These sculptures are part of our campus, 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, just as it does with sports and everything else. This just adds to the importance of what this campus is.” —Brian Trimble

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.

The decades of overlooking CSULB are coming to a close as appreciation for Killingsworth’s career and Mid-Century and Late Modern design finally come into their own. A book outlining his work has been published by two Long Beach authors and sold for the past several years while sites like Curbed begin to analyze and herald his work (especially when it goes up for sale).

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.”

Trimble, long before the restoration of these pertinent structures happened, had been ready for 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 in 2015 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 years ago, the Getty provided funding to assist with the restoration of Robert Murray’s Duet (Homage to David Smith), 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 [pictured below], 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.

“We knew this would be a snowball effect,” said Dr. Rachel Rivenc of the Getty Conservation Institute. “It is a beautiful sculpture park. It is unique and very historically significant.”

That snowball effect included the restoration of three additional sculptures: Kosso Eloul’s Hardfact (1965), Guy Dill’s In Irons (1974), and Michael Davis’ The Building, The Port, and the Island (1983).

For Rivenc, working in Long Beach had been eye-opening when her team helped to organize Far-Sited: Creating & Conserving Art in Public Places, a weekend-long conference that celebrated the 50 years since the ’65 symposium in 2015.

“Through the prism of collaboration working on this project I have gained a huge appreciation [for Long Beach],” Rivenc said. “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 when it debuted.”

Now, the UAM is celebrating its sixth sculpture restoration, Robert Irwin’s Window Wall (1975). That leaves 14 more sculptures to tackle for restoration to complete the collection.

The conservation will be take place in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Irwin: Site Determined, opening at the end of January 2018 at UAM.

“The Irwin sculpture on our campus is Irwin’s first site specific work,” Trimble said.” The exhibition is curated by CSULB professor of Art History, Matthew Simms, who is considered one of the top Irwin scholars in the country. The show will travel nationally and will travel to Pratt Institute of Architecture in New York after its debut in Long Beach. Prestel has picked up and is publishing the book.”


The 2015 Far-Sited exhibition at CSULB.

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 perfectly okay. And Angelenos, you may think CSULB is just another college campus somewhere along the border of Orange County. You can carry on with that assumption. 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.

“These sculptures are a part of our campus, part of our history,” Trimble said. “I want the campus to be able to have that kind of pride in the culture here and see these as cultural assets, just as it does with sports and everything else. This just adds to the importance of what this campus is.”

Just like Long Beach itself, I do believe CSULB 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.

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