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The Stuart Collection at UCSD celebrates 40 years with an exhibition at the Athenaeum

Tim Hawkinson's Bear (2005) for the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

The Atheneum exhibition showcases various ephemera from Stuart Collection artists

It’s interesting to hear Jane Zwerneman describe the Stuart Collection as a “40-year-long research project.”

On the surface, there’s nothing that feels particularly academic about the University of California, San Diego’s iconic public art collection, which now includes work from over 22 world-renowned artists and is spread throughout the campus.

Rather, in the 40 years since the commission of Niki de Saint Phalle’s beloved “Sun God” sculpture, the collection has served more as an artistic respite. Whether it’s a singular piece that a student or faculty member passes by every day, or it’s a visitor taking a tour of all the works , the Stuart Collection has become one of the most world-renowned assemblages of public art in the entire world.

And the people behind it know this.

“It’s always that experience, there’s always at least one, if not a dozen people who go, ‘wow, I didn’t realize that the ‘Sun God’ is the same artist that did the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris,” says Zwerneman, the Assistant Director of the Stuart Collection since 2001. “Every single time somebody has a lightbulb moment ... this is why we do it.”

Humble beginnings

Mary Livingstone Beebe is the founding and only director of UC San Diego's Stuart Art Collection.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Mary Livingstone Beebe has served as the sole director of the Stuart Collection since its inception in 1981. To hear her tell it, she was running a contemporary art space in Portland, Oregon and wasn’t looking for a job. One day, however, she received a call from a colleague telling her that James Stuart DeSilva and his eponymous foundation was looking for a full-time director to oversee a public art project on the UC San Diego (UCSD) campus.

“I immediately thought, this could be real, but I had envisioned a lot of super-rich, super-ego people involved,” Beebe recalls, adding that wasn’t the case at all. “When they offered me the job, I agonized for a bit and then thought I’d be a fool not to try this.”

Try it she did. Along with Operations Manager Mathieu Gregoire, who Beebe knew from Portland, they immediately began to get to work. After the installation of the “Sun God” piece in 1983, the two immediately began commissioning artists, including local and regional artists such as Robert Irwin and, later, John Baldessari, to produce site-specific works that, as the mission statement read, “enrich the cultural, intellectual and scholarly life” of the UCSD campus. According to Gregoire, what he had to offer was not so much “knowledge or experience, but a sense of adventure.”

And while they certainly had the support of chancellors, deans and the Stuart Foundation, Beebe says it was sometimes difficult to get the word out about the important work they were doing.

“In the beginning nobody quite knew what we were doing and we didn’t care,” Beebe says, somewhat jokingly.

“We’re not a museum and we don’t do big openings every month or events,” Beebe continues. “It’s just a question of keeping at it.”

A beneficial partnership

Erika Torri has been the executive director of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library since 1989. In that time, she’s watched the Stuart Collection become an integral addition to not only the UCSD campus, but to La Jolla as well.

So when the 20th anniversary of the collection was approaching in the late ’90s, Torri, along with Beebe, Gregoire and a few others, began to think it might be beneficial to team up to bring attention to both the collection and to the Athenaeum.

“Of course the Stuart Collection is fabulous and the Athenaeum is the oldest cultural institution in La Jolla, but I felt the two of us were not well known so I suggested that we should have an outside exhibition at the Athenaeum,” Torri recalls. “That way we could bring in more people to both.”

That logic has remained roughly the same over the years even as the Stuart Collection has increased. Even today, some might think that the collection is something reserved solely for students when, in fact, the university provides a handy map on its website (stuartcollection.ucsd.edu) and encourages the public to come and tour the campus.

So every ten years, the Atheneum staff curates an exhibition showcasing various ephemera from the artists that have pieces in the collection. This was a little easier for the 20th anniversary exhibition, but as the 40th approaches and the number of artists in the collection has increased, there will obviously be more things to display.

“Things like drawings, photographs, watercolors, blueprints,” Torri says. “With each year, of course, we had more artists to talk about.”

The spirit of those initial anniversary exhibitions lives on in the current show, “40 Years of the Stuart Collection,” which opens Saturdayat the Athenaeum. Torri and Stephanie Scanga, who works as an installation consultant for the Athenaeum, plan to display proposal models, drawings, letters, blueprints, photographs and video clips, as well as the Athenaeum’s extensive collection of books by and about the artists.

“The Stuart Collection is very personal to its audience and to the people who are using it or around it,” says Scanga, who has worked for the Athenaeum since the early 1990s. “It starts with their personal relationships with the pieces, and that is what we can try to pull out and convey from the materials we have.”

“It’s exciting because the Athenaeum is an intimate space so we’ve chosen to focus on some of the more intimate aspects of the collection,” adds Zwerneman. “The collection itself is a public collection so it’s outdoors and very big and not very intimate, so this will be a closer look.”

A lasting legacy

It was recently announced, after 40 years working together, that both Beebe and Gregoire would be retiring at the end of the year. Together, and along with the collection’s staff and volunteers, they leave behind an artistic legacy and have created a distinguished public art collection that is internationally recognized.

“It has changed the campus, your experience of the campus,” says Zwerneman. “So for students, faculty and visitors, everybody, it’s more of a place of discovery.”

Even as she has overseen the multi-faceted “Murals of La Jolla” collection, Torri doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to declaring the Stuart Collection “the most important collection of public art in San Diego.”

“It is known all over the world,” says Torri. “I absolutely adore what they’ve done. What we’ve all done.”

Same Old Paradise, 1987 by Alexis Smith for the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Earlier this year, the collection unveiled its 21st piece, “Same Old Paradise,” a gargantuan desert mural originally painted by artist Alexis Smith in 1987. Smith now has the distinction of being the only artist with two pieces in the collection (her “Snake Path” piece, which was inspired by “Same Old Paradise,” was installed in 1992).

And while Beebe will officially retire before the unveiling of the 22nd piece, Ann Hamilton’s “concordance” walkway — a series of interactive swings and a 400-foot pathway leading into campus — Beebe has promised the artist that she will come back for the official unveiling and “skip down the whole thing with her.”

“It’s really been and adventure and fun. I do believe that you have to enjoy what you do,” says Beebe, adding that she’s confident that whoever replaces her and Gregoire will continue to preserve and grow the Stuart Collection.

“That’s always been my feeling all along. That I wanted it to continue. That it would become an ongoing exploration.”

The must-see pieces of the Stuart Collection

Torri has seen the Stuart Collection grow and expand over the years, but she’ll be the first to tell someone that it’s a lot to take in.

“You can be out on your own and it’s so huge now that you might not be able to do it all in one day,” says Torri.

While all of the 22 works in the collection are worth a visit, here are some of the more iconic pieces from the past 40 years.

Nikki de Saint Phalle’s “Sun God” (1983)

Sun God, 1983 by Niki de Saint Phalle for the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

One of Gregoire’s first tasks as operations manager was to find a spot on campus for Saint Phalle’s transcendent bird sculpture, the first piece commissioned by the collection. After seeing a woman with a parrot on her shoulder in a grassy area near the Mandeville Auditorium , he knew he’d found the spot. Influenced by indigenous deities and perched atop a concrete arch, the 14-foot bird now has a campus festival named after it and is often dressed up by students. “It was looked at in a very curious way at first, but today it’s the mascot for the students,” Zwerneman says.

Terry Allen’s “Trees” (1986) and John Baldessari’s “READ/WRITE/THINK/DREAM” (2001)

Terry Allen's public sculpture "Trees."
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann/UCSD)

Zwerneman recently encountered two students who, like many before them, wondered where the singing was coming from. “They were looking up and wondering where the music was coming from,” Zwerneman says, referring to Terry Allen’s “Trees” — lead-encased tree sculptures, which are located in the eucalyptus grove just near the Geisel Library. An authoritative statement on the loss of the natural environment, Allen’s trees emit music, poetry and, with the third one, silence. At the main entrance of the library itself, homegrown artist John Baldessari transformed a once plain entrance and foyer into a conceptual masterpiece complete with melding colored glass panes and nearly translucent images of students.

READ/WRITE/THINK/DREAM, 2001 by John Baldessari for the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Tim Hawkinson’s “Bear” (2005)

Everyone seems to agree that Hawkinson’s massive 23-foot, 180-ton granite sculpture, fashioned to look like a teddy bear, is “amazing” and even “cute,” but the fact that it’s nestled in a courtyard in between three engineering buildings is no coincidence. Made from locally-sourced granite stones, “Bear” took five years to complete (“they had to be out for years just to find the right boulders,” says Torri) and has become a favorite of visiting children. Even today, how the giant rocks stay in place is something of a mystery.

Do Ho Suh’s “Fallen Star” (2012)

Fallen Star, 2012 by Do Ho Suh for the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Torri describes the piece as easily the “most scary” and “incredible” installation of all the ones she’s witnessed over the years. A grand statement on displacement and the longing for home, the piece is actually a cottage that appears to have been dropped and hangs over the edge of the Jacobs Hall building. “We made him excruciatingly happy because he thought no one would ever approve his proposal,” Beebe recalls. “He didn’t think anyone would ever do the house. It was just too sensational.”

Bruce Nauman’s “Vices and Virtues” (1988) and Mark Bradford’s “What Hath God Wrought” (2018)

Vices and Virtues, 1988 by Bruce Nauman for the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.
(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Those touring the Stuart Collection should stay until the evening to take in these two pieces. Nauman’s neon words, seven italic vices and seven vertical font virtues, flash intermittently and connect over one another around the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory building. The result is an illusory, transfixing statement on the interconnectedness of purity and sinfulness. Across campus near Revelle Plaza, Bradford’s 199-foot steel pole-like sculpture is topped with a bright light that flashes “What Hath God Wrought” in Morse Code. What is really conveyed, however abstractly, is an assertion on the changing ways in which humans choose to communicate.

Landmarks: 40 Years of the Stuart Collection

When: On view Nov. 6 through Dec. 31. Opening reception is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 19.

Where: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla

Phone: (858) 454-5872

Online: ljathenaeum.org


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