Portals to Poetry

Background Information

1989. George Herms (artist) and Charles Simic (poet). 12'h x 7'6"x 7'6"d. 725 S. Figueroa Street
JUNK: old iron, glass, paper, or other waste that may be used again in some form; second hand, worn, or discarded articles of little value.

--Webster's New College Dictionary

George Herms collects and stores junk. However, any image of him as a greasy junk man wearing dirty overalls is wide of the mark. He should rather be viewed as an environmentalist, recycling industrial waste, refuge and discards into works of fine art. Although his sculpture lacks the commonly accepted standard of refinement and polish, it retains a veneer of rustic beauty formed by the interaction of nature with man-made materials.

When invited in March 1988 to develop an installation for the "Poets' Walk" with poet Charles Simic, Herms found the small project both attractive and radical because it combined the physical world of sculpture with the non-physical world of poetry. Poetry is a cleansing, refreshing and rejuvenating experience, which he compares to taking "the waters" of a spa.(1) After corresponding with each other, Herms and Simic met at Citicorp Plaza, where they discussed the theme of their work and decided where to place it. They decided to mimic the rotating door on the nearby office tower with a stationary door that would both frame the poems and serve as a metaphor for the theme of the poetry. They wanted their work to be a symbolic entrance and exit to a formal passageway by standing at the top of the plaza's escalators. The Fire Department, however, objected to this location because they wanted the area clear in case of an emergency. "Portals of Poetry" was finally installed in a quiet area near a knoll along the south edge of the plaza.

Herms made a wood maquette of the work before assembling four seven foot high rusted steel door frames he acquired at a junk yard in Santa Monica. A rusted 2' diameter steel buoy crowns the assemblage. When viewed from above, the door frames form an "X", which refers back to the small X-shaped constructions Herms produced for his "Faithquake" exhibition in 1969. Steel cogs embedded in the cement mark the four corners of the door. The letters "L-O-V-E" (with the E printed backward)–Herms' trademark and a reminder that creating art are "labors and gifts of love"(2)--are stamped into the corners of the rust colored cement base. Engineers inspected the work after it was installed and determined it was able to withstand a high level of stress.

Two patinaed bronze plaques on each door are engraved with Simic's poems. A handwritten script was considered for the poems,(3) but was rejected for a font similar to what is used in plaques that warn people of possible eviction from private property.

The official title of the work, "Portals of Poetry," was Herms' working title. However, he preferred, Simic's title, "The Doors."(4) "Portals of Poetry" focuses on the frame while "The Doors" emphasizes the poetry. According to Herms, "The spectator will experience the static steel doors frames that go nowhere but which are now full of poetry that goes everywhere."(5)

Simic wrote several versions of each poem. The eight poems that were selected for the installation can be read in any order or they can be read in the following sequence as verses of a single poem Simic titled "The Doors".(6) Stanza 3 is similar one in Simic's Pulitzer Prize winning poem, "The World Doesn't End."

1. Step up to the door
Softly, softly
As if approaching
A house of cards.

2. Bare feet allowed.
Dogs allowed.
The sun and the moon and the evening
Wind allowed.

3. In the shadow of this door
You'll play in the smallest theaters
With a list of dark gravel
And a solitary white bread crumb.

4. The door that thinks
With your eyes
Thinks and thinks
Even while you're away.

5. If you can find a doorstep
Carry your bride over it
And leave your shoes behind
Alone with the night falling.

6. If you see a keyhole in this door,
Put your ear against it
And listen to the sounds of love
On the other side.

7. Don't try to open the door.
The child you were once
Will come out with eyes blindfolded
And lose itself in the crowd.

8. The door opens by itself
While you sleep.
All the keys you ever lost,
All the rusty keys
Lie behind it unused.
The door opens by itself.


1 Letter from George Herms to Kathy Lucoff-Saunders, August 6, 1988).

2 "The Art of George Herms: Options, Accomodations and Survival", by Thomas H. Carver, in "The Prometheus Archives: A Retrospective Exhibition of the Works of George Herms", 1989.

3 Minutes of the Arts Advisory Committee, Community Redevelopment Agency, October 3, 1988.

4 Interview with George Herms by Michael Several, April 17, 1990.

5 "Portals of Poetry: An Installation by George Herms and Charles Simic," Press Releases from the Seventh Street Associates, March 14, 1991, January 27, 1995.

6 Proposal by George Herms for a Sculpture Project at Citicorp Plaza, September 29, 1988.

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

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