Pigeons Acquire Philosophy and The Public Abandons Philosophy

Background Information

1990, David Gilhooly (artist) and Robert Mezy (poet). 6"h x 2'l x 1'10"d (Pigeons Acquire Philosophy) and 6"h x 1'10"l x 1'10"d (The Public Abandons Philosophy). 725 S. Figueroa Street (Poet's Walk)
The 1980s are memorialized by public art of monumental size. Perhaps no installation in downtown represents an opposing trend that distinguishes the 1990s than these two small bronzes, sitting on opposite sides of the pavilion between the two office towers of what originally was called Citicorp Plaza. Among the city's smallest public art pieces, they are the only sculpture representations of food in downtown.

Gilhooly, who has incorporated images of food in his work since 1982, neither portrays natural foods like fruits and vegetables, nor evokes memories of the rich sumptuous appearance and savory smells of fine cuisine. Instead, he depicts processed food, such as pizzas and submarine sandwiches as the waste, the leftovers, of a lunch-time feast. Food is linked to newspapers, both of which are presented as having lost their freshness. No longer attractive or useful to humans, the food and newspapers are nourishing only to pigeons.

The pigeon is an urban bird, whose world-wide distribution evokes ambiguous feelings. On one hand, they animate public squares and plazas, and bring a welcomed dash of color to drab urban settings. They can be a source of delight, perhaps nowhere more than in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, where they swarm and rest on your head, shoulders and arms while being fed. On the other hand, pigeons are intrusive pests, always trying to snatch crumbs away while you attempt to have a quiet lunch. While they bring an element of nature to cities, they are also an environmental hazard by incessantly attacking buildings and public monuments with their acidic guano. Gihooly's attempt to humanize them by the title "Pigeons Acquire Philosophy" is balanced by his portrait of pigeons in more of the role of pest than delight.

After being invited in the summer of 1989 to participate in the Poets Walk by Kathy Lucoff-Saunders, Gilhooly and Robert Mezey met at the site in September, 1989.(1) They chose the places for their installation and discussed themes and images to be presented. Though the property managers try to sanitize the plaza and retail area, Gilhooly wanted to connect it to the dark side of the surrounding city. He considered incorporating threatening images, like a gun, or images evocative of decay, like dead fish wrapped in paper, but decided to relate his sculpture to the garbage that is left behind at lunch. Mezey then began writing verse for the installation. His early drafts contained references to political and social issues, such as feeding the homeless, and to women's legs and shoes. Mezey was particularly fond of a quatrain that was not used in the final installation:

On the road a single shoe,
Pointless, and pathetic too.
Unnamed sources all agree
It pertains to you, to me.(2)
Gilhooly's initial proposal was for a single work depicting "found objects"--a sandwich, a pizza carton and a newspaper.(3) The project quickly expanded, however, and became two pieces.(4) He initially planned to put the verse on the pizza box, but because of technical and design problems, he removed the carton from the design and placed the poetry on the newspapers. In an early version of his revised design, which Gilhooly titled "Pigeons contemplating life, death, infinity," pigeons were depicted reading an unfolded newspaper.

Gilhooly made a clay mold of a pigeon, which the foundry used to cast an edition of six bronzes by the lost wax method. Gilhooly then made different versions of the pigeons by altering the wings. The pizza was cast from a clay mold, but the submarine sandwich was cast from a mold fashioned from real French bread. The final design was sent to the foundry in June 1990, and the work was installed in October 1990.

Each sculpture has three poems. The first is a quatrain, the second is a couplet framed by two horizontal lines, and the third is either a quatrain or a triplet. Each is succinct and complements the sculptures' ambiguity. "Pigeons Acquire Philosophy," located on the north side of the plaza, depicts two pigeons pecking at a broken egg oozing off a pile of newspapers containing verse, while another pigeon looks on. Mezey's poems in the newspaper reads:

All of time's productions must
Wither soon and turn to dusk.
Art appears the one exception--
Seers and scientist nonplused
Maybe legal, hardly tender,
Mutters one repeat offender.
Let there be light
But not to much
We do our best
Work in the dark

"The Public Abandons Philosophy," on the south side, depicts two leftover sandwiches and a slice of anchovy pizza resting on top of a stack of newspapers. The line "Hard rain to fall on U.S.A." in the couplet was a newspaper headline:

Bargains, odds and ends for sale--
Double breasted suit of mail.
Half a sandwich, slightly stale.
Unused crucifixion nail.
Hard rain to fall on U.S.A.
Shortly, headless farmers say.
Man and woman
Beast and human
All to common


1 This entry is largely based on a November 21, 1991 interview of David Gilhooly by Michael Several.

2 Letters from Robert Mezey to David Gilhooly, December 7, 1989 and January 31, 1990.

3 Minutes, Community Redevelopment Agency Arts Advisory Committee Meeting, December 4, 1989.

4 Letter from Kathy Lucoff-Saunders to David Gilhooly, January 24, 1990.

Text provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, September 1999.

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