The O'Melveny & Myers Building, designed by Welton Becket, neither relates to the orientation of the nearby office buildings nor relates to the alignment of the bordering streets. Its open spaces, set apart from the surrounding city by walls and stairs, are self-contained with one exception. At the corner of Fourth and Hope, a small forecourt spills into the public realm, linking the space to broad vistas in and around Bunker Hill. Here in the most physically accessible part of this office project, "Ulysses" struggles against being overwelmed by the surrounding office towers.
Olympic & York and the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers, the developers of the building, were required by the Community Redevelopment Agency to allocate one percent of the construction cost to public art. The initial art plan, written in 1982, envisioned a 20' to 30' high sculpture.(1) However, a panel composed of Richard Koshalek, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Earl Powell III, who at the time was the Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director and is now Director of the National Gallery in Washington, and Fred Wight could not agree on an artist.(2) Rather than leaving the area empty, the following year the developers installed "Amaryllis", a sculpture much smaller than what was originally planned.(3)
During the 1970s and 1980s, well-known artists usually working in New York were often commissioned to execute signature pieces for generic corporate plazas. This public art was criticized by urban planners, scholars and art critics, who labeled the sculpture "plop art" or described it as "a turd in the plaza." "Amaryllis" by Tony Smith, was small, dark and turd-like. After receiving many derisive comments, the developers of the building removed the sculpture, (a cast of "Amaryllis", however, can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) and initiated a new selection process for another artist and a new work.(4)
Approximately one hundred artists including Alexander Liberman, Willem de Koonig, Ellsworth Kelly and Auguste Rodin were considered by a new artist selection committee assembled by the developers.(5) The Community Redevelopment Agency submitted a second list with 13 artists.(6) The committee, which included Earl Powell III, studied the plot plan and visited the site. They concluded that the site required a monumental piece and after reviewing major works by important American sculptors, invited Alexander Liberman to submit a design.(7) After Liberman created several maquettes representing different color schemes and designs, the committee selected "the purer one."(8) His work is dramatically different from "Amaryllis": rather than small, his is monumental; rather than dark, his is light; and rather than a simple design, his is complex. According to Powell, the committee felt that Liberman's large work would respond to Alexander Calder's "Four Arches," at 333 S. Hope and would be visible to people going down Hope.
Before installation, the work needed the approval of the Community Redevelopment Agency. When Liberman's design was presented to the Agency's Art Advisory Committee, the members criticized it for being "dated," for not being "responsive to the site" and for being incompatible with the scale of the surroundings. The committee was also miffed that Liberman did not visit the site before designing the piece, thereby violating one of the cardinal principles of the CRA's public art policy that the artist should visit the site to insure the art is site specific.(9) After Powell explained the committee's reasons for selecting the work and the developers reported that Liberman was unable to schedule a visit to the site because his wife was ill,(10) the CRA reluctantly gave their approval on June 8, 1987.(11) After several delays caused by design changes to make the $266,000 sculpture more structurally stable, and rainy weather that prevented the fabricator in Connecticut from working on the piece outdoors,(12) "Ulysses" was finally dedicated on October 27, 1988.(13)
In contrast to the architecture of the surrounding buildings, which conform to the dictum of Mies van der Rohe that "less is more," Liberman executed a lively and interesting piece that expresses his view that "more is more."(14) "Ulysses" is composed of a diverse collection of ovals, circles and ellipses integrated with a series of helical shaped ribbons swirling around the lower half of a unifying central column. This rich variety of details and patterns evoke a sense of movement, energize the space and underscore the purpose of the stark plaza as both a portal for a pedestrian alley between Hope and Grand and as a passageway for visitors entering and leaving the building.
From a distance, the exuberant outburst of the sensual undulating streams and the solid white color of the piece, stand out in bold relief against the harsh rationality of the O'Melveny & Myers Building's dark facade. The tilting pillar complements the soaring height of downtown's skyscrapers, creating a prominent focal point that anchors the plaza.
When standing underneath "Ulysses", one views its flowing curves and neutral white color linking the forms and colors of the nearby buildings into a coherent picture, bringing a welcome sense of visual unity to Bunker Hill.
Liberman's work is more than an aesthetic statement: it is also a religious work, partially filling a spiritual void left by the demolition of numerous downtown churches. The thrusting column, as seen from the Hope Street entrance to the plaza, draws attention upward. A magical effect and an awesome feeling is created as it visually ties the O'Melveny & Myers Building to the south tower of the Wells Fargo Center across Fourth Street, and then transforms their austere corporate facades into cathedral-like walls framing the heavens. This poignant spirituality placed in an area zoned for the earthly pursuit of wealth, power and prestige is equally as important as the sculpture's aesthetic and functional impact on the design of Bunker Hill.
In an age when the quality of "site specific" public art is often measured by the fidelity to a process involving interaction between the artist and architect on one hand and artist and site on the other, "Ulysses" is a troubling work. Its effectiveness raises important questions whether "artist-architect collaboration" and site visits must always be among the basic criteria for assuring that contemporary public art will be site specific. Installed years after the building and plaza were completed, "Ulysses" could not be the result of a collaborative process involving Liberman and the architects. Requiring the artist to visit a site is based on the belief that all sites are different. Unfortunately, most open spaces designed around office towers during the 1970s and 1980s were similar. With sites lacking unique features that might impact the design of sculpture, there was no compelling need for the artist to visit them. The resulting monumental works that now fill these barren open spaces are site specific by virtue of their large size. And if in the end the art looks fundamentally the same, it is because their settings invite uniformity.
Without consulting the architects or visiting Bunker Hill, Liberman (who perhaps did not need to do either because of his architectural training at l'Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture), nevertheless executed a stunning work that is sensitive to the surrounding buildings and open spaces. Working with only a video, slides and a model of the site, he has given Los Angeles an imposing landmark that succeeds in doing what public art traditionally has always done well: serve as architectural ornament and embellishment, evoke a sense of place, bring visual coherence to the urban landscape and humanize the impersonal city.
Footnotes:1 Letter from Marvin J. Richman, President, Olympic & York California Equities Corp. To F. Michael Francis, Deputy Administrator, Community Redevelopment Agency,re: Parcel P-2, Bunker Hill Project, February 5, 1982.
2 Handwritten memo re: meeting with Richard Volpert, Gary Williamson, Carol Goldstein, June 3, 1985.
3 Memorandum from John Spalding to Edward Helfeld, Donald Cosgrove, Michael Francis, Bill Lewis, re: O'Melveny and Myers Art Program, June 10, 1985.
4 Letter from Gregg Oppenheimer, Olympic & York/O'M&M Associates, to Marc Pally, Community Redevelopment Agency, re: 400 South Hope Street Fine Arts Requirements, May 27, 1987.
5 Letter from Marvin J. Richman, President, Olympia & York California Equities Corp. To Marc Palley, Community Redevelopment Agency, August 12, 1985.
6 Letter from Marc Palley to Marvin Richman, Olympia & York, September 25, 1985.
7 Letter from Earl A. Powell, III, Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to Richard Sherwood, O'Melveny & Myers, April 27, 1987.
8 Interview of Alexander Liberman by Michael Several, October 11, 1988.
9 Minutes, CRA Downtown Arts Advisory Committee, February 2, 1987, March 2, 1987, June 8, 1987.
10 Letter from Gregg Oppenheimer, O'Melveny & Myers, to Alan Sieroty re: Arts Advisory Committee; 400 South hoope Street Fine Arts Proposal, June 11, 1987.
11 Memorandum from John J. Tuite, Administrator, to Agency Commissioners, re: Final Fine Art Plan and Certificate of Completion for the 400 South Hope Street Building, July 8, 1987.
12 Letter from Gregg Oppenheimer, Olympia & York/O'M&M Associates, to Ms. Sabine Bestier, Community Redevelopment Agency, re: 400 South Hope Street Fine Arts Program: Alexander Liberman Sculpture, May 26, 1988.
13 Invitation to Dedication, no date.
14 Interview of Alexander Liberman, op. cit.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, January 1999.
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