UCSD’s Stuart Collection aims to add a new work to its acclaimed assemblage of art by ‘the best and the brightest’

A rendering shows Do-Ho Suh's "Fallen Star," a house to be built and perched over the edge of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs School of Engineering Building at UCSD.

A rendering shows Do-Ho Suh’s “Fallen Star,” a house to be built and perched over the edge of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs School of Engineering Building at UCSD.

Mary Beebe, who has been director of the internationally acclaimed Stuart Collection at UCSD almost since its inception, recalls why she decided to take the position back in 1981:

“I thought: this is a job where there is no excuse to fail. It was a job where anything was possible.”

Even a house built on top of a building.

Looking toward the 30th anniversary of the collection next year, Beebe is raising money and awareness to install Korean-American Do-Ho Suh’s “Fallen Star” as the collection’s 18th work. It would consist of a modest suburban-style home with landscaping on the rooftop of a parapet that is part of a building in the campus’s engineering school. Suh is on campus this week to work on details of the proposal and speak to an invited audience at UCSD’s faculty club.

When Beebe began her tenure nearly 30 years ago, the prevailing idea for a predominantly outdoor university collection, much like elsewhere, was the sculpture garden. Lots of museums have them; UCLA has a major one. But the concept at UCSD was to commission original works of art, not acquire existing ones. And that meant Beebe, with the help of an accomplished advisory board, could do something new: invite artists and let them imagine what they would do, in response to chosen locales on campus.

Of course, none of this would have transpired without James Stuart DeSilva, an art collector who shared his idea of a public collection with the assistant chancellor, the late Patrick Ledden, in 1979. He helped DeSilva bring the idea to Chancellor Richard Atkinson, with the help of artist and faculty member Newton Harrison, and the rest is fortunate history. The collection was officially established in 1981. (DeSilva passed away in 2002.)

Beebe and the advisory board had a relatively straightforward criteria for choosing artists.

“We wanted artists who are the best and the brightest, just as in every other field at the university — though, of course, not all of the best and brightest necessarily were a fit with working in this way.”

Still, the university has proved to be accepting and fertile ground for an impressive range of artists who fit this billing, from William Wegman, best known for his witty videos and photographs starring a succession of Weimaraners, to Tim Hawkinson, whose sculptures often involve mechanically ingenious components.

Of course, creativity exercised in public has its limits. When Bruce Nauman conceived what is arguably one of the great works in the collection, “Vices and Virtues” (1988), he thought of its 7-foot-high letters in neon sitting atop the La Jolla Playhouse. But when residents of nearby homes objected to the site, the piece was relocated to a different building on the interior of the campus.

A change of structure, thankfully, didn’t diminish the sheer audacity of the piece. And audaciousness is a quality one can associate with other works in the Stuart Collection, such as Alexis Smith’s “Snake Path” (1992), with its 560-foot-long tile path to and from the Geisel Library, and Hawkinson’s “Bear” (2005), standing nearly 24 feet high and consisting of boulders weighing 360,000 pounds.

The word “audacious” can also be applied to “Fallen Star.” The house, an archetypical middle-class suburban-style home, would extend outward from the edge of the structure, giving it the appearance of something that landed on the roof. Visitors will have access to the rooftop garden and the house itself, which will be furnished with the exacting eye for detail that is characteristic of the artist’s work.

Beebe first saw Suh’s work a decade ago, at the Long Island City showcase “P.S. 1.” He had created a life-size version in silk of the home his father had built during the artist’s youth.

“I was simply blown away by what he was doing,” says Beebe.

Since then, his reputation has grown considerably. Earlier this year, he was part of a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea,” represented by a one-fifth-scale version of the apartment house in Providence, R.I., where he lived while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Suh was one of four artists invited to submit a proposal, and the advisory board liked his idea best. This was about four years ago, around the time that Hawkinson’s monumental “Bear” was completed. In 2008, the collection added a slightly less-labor-intensive work by Barbara Kruger, “Another,” which is integrated into the Price Center East.

Beebe has already raised about $600,000 of the funds needed for Suh’s $1 million project and feels optimistic that construction can begin sometime in the spring.

Funds for individual works have to be raised one by one, which makes the pace of additions to the collection slow but steady. In the early years of the collection, DeSilva provided a financial gift of $1.5 million that paid for some of the seminal examples.

“He felt that art had changed his life and he wanted to make new work available to anyone,” Beebe says.

DeSilva always preferred that the attention be on the collection, not the patron. Using his middle name as the moniker for the collection was one telling indicator of his penchant for modesty. Another was his insistence that the collection was not about his taste, but making art by leading artists of our time available to students, faculty and everyone else who used the campus.

This idea finds an echo in Beebe’s philosophical take on the collection.

“It’s not about taste,” she says. “It’s not about decorating the campus. These are works to think about, if you so choose. We hope they engage people and produce a deeper understanding of art and whatever subject the artist is confronting.”

Working with her on all of the 18 projects, from conception to realization, has been Matthieu Gregoire, an artist in his own right. They have a long history together: He worked with Beebe on projects at the Portland Center for the Visual Arts, where Beebe was director before coming to San Diego.

She is adamant about the notion that these works wouldn’t have happened without his talents for facilitating an eclectic range of demands: from finding the right stone for Wegman’s “La Jolla Vista View” to searching for the multi-ton stones for Hawkinson’s “Bear” and finding a way to install them.

Technically, the university is under contract to support the existence of the collection only through 2013. But Beebe can’t imagine that things won’t continue as they have since its beginning, given the wide acclaim for the collection and its intimate connection to the identity of the campus itself.

One measure of the significance of its individual works is the inclusion of a replica of Nauman’s neon sculpture for the 2009 Venice Biennale, on the outside of the American pavilion where his exhibition was being presented.

And the places for new projects seem inexhaustible.

“Who would have thought about the corner of a building as a great location for a work,” she says of Suh’s project.

Works in the Stuart Collection

Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Sun God” (1983) — The collection’s inaugural work is a daffy deity with gilded headpiece standing on a high cement arch, which has become something of an informal logo for the campus and the catalyst for an annual festival.

Robert Irwin’s “Two Running Violet V-Forms” (1983) — The high-flung blue-violet fences never display quite the same color twice and look quite right among the eucalyptus trees.

Richard Fleischner’s “La Jolla Project” (1984) — Its 71 blocks of pink and gray granite are like sculptural building blocks that are stacked and isolated, suggesting columns, arches, doorways and nearly every other element of architecture through the ages.

Terry Allen’s “Trees” (1986) — The three lead-skinned trees blend with their surroundings, and two of them make themselves known by broadcasting poetry, story and song.

Nam June Paik’s “Something Pacific” (1986) — The father of video art created something interactive and mischievously witty, with a bank of screens that the viewer can manipulate (in the campus’ Media Center) and ruined TVs in the landscape, some accompanied by a Buddha figure or a tiny version of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “UNDA” (1987) — Five limestone blocks, looking both classical and contemporary, take the Latin word for “wave” and vary its letters across their handsome surfaces.

William Wegman’s “La Jolla Vista View” (1988) — There isn’t a single allusion to his famous Weimaraner photographs at the site, which incisively and drolly parodies a tourist roadside stop (complete with telescope).

Bruce Nauman’s “Vices and Virtues” (1988) — Must be seen at twilight or later, as its complex configuration of seven pairs of words in 7-foot-high neon letters, like FAITH/LUST and HOPE/ENVY, flash on and off from the top of the Charles Lee Powell Structure Systems Laboratory.

Jackie Ferrara’s “Terrace” (1991) — Actually, it’s a trio of functional terraces with subtle patterns in tile and stone that aim to blend with the building they complement: the Cellular and Molecular Medicine Facility.

Michael Asher’s “Untitled” (1991) — You can simply quench your thirst at this granite drinking fountain or, knowing the artist’s conceptual outlook, see it as the sly substitution of a banal object for a grand public monument and know that its specific site implies social commentary about the university’s history.

Alexis Smith’s “Snake Path” (1992) — The 560-foot-long, 10-foot-wide path in stone is beautiful as well as functional, and along its route are other symbolic sights associated with Eden and other paradises: a small garden with inscribed bench and a monumental “copy” of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in granite.

Jenny Holzer’s “Green Table” (1992) — It’s a quiet spot for sitting and studying, but sooner or later you’re destined to start reading the table itself, chiseled with the sort of aphoristic writings for which Holzer is known, like “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”

Elizabeth Murray’s “Red Shoe” (1996) — Bright and bulbous, like shapes in the artist’s paintings, the much-oversized shoe in wood is something of a fantastical sight, resting among trees like an escaped icon from Mother Goose tales.

Kiki Smith’s “Standing” (1998) — The figure of the woman is small and seems to beckon to the viewer to think about essential things like life, death and rebirth, from her lofty position at the top of a sculptural tree trunk set in a pool of water.

John Baldessari’s “Read/Write/Think/Dream” (2001) — The words hover above doors of the Geisel Library, photographic images of students are imprinted on the glass panels that flank the entrance and inside are a few other elements that extol the virtues of study and thought.

Tim Hawkinson’s “Bear” (2005) — More than 300 tons of boulders (the body alone is 100 tons) comprise this nearly 24-foot-tall sculpture that is both monumental and delightful.

Barbara Kruger’s “Another” (2008) — Vintage Kruger in style, with its grainy imagery and overlaid text (Another Day, Another Time, Another Loss, Another Dollar …), though less pointed than many of her works.

Brochures with detailed maps are available at information/parking kiosks on campus and on the collection’s Web site: stuartcollection.ucsd.edu/.

By Robert L. Pincus, UNION-TRIBUNE ART CRITIC

Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 12:01 a.m.

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