Tour the Garden: Values sculpture garden reflects may not align with UCLA’s culture anymore
(Isabella Lee/Daily Bruin)
By David Egan
Feb. 25, 2022 9:02 p.m.
As chancellor from 1960 to 1968, Franklin D. Murphy conceived of and curated UCLA’s Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden. The bucolic hills and surrounding pathways, completed by architect Ralph Cornell in 1967, serve as a community hangout and the backdrop for some of the finest sculptures of the 20th century. Follow columnist David Egan as he explores the world of the sculpture garden and leads a tour of five artistic gems on North Campus.
The sculpture garden collection has not changed since the ’60s – but cultural and political values have.
Artist Suzanne Lacy, for example, stated in 1990 that her performance piece “The Dark Madonna” was a critique of the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden as a display case for European white male artists. “The Dark Madonna,” co-sponsored by UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women in 1985, featured women standing on pedestals among the modernist sculptures. For graduate urban planning student Andrés Ramirez, “The Dark Madonna” exemplifies an ideal model of engagement with the garden, as he advocates for interpretive, artistic efforts to compare and contrast the sculptures’ modernist context with present-day values.
“(Lacy) made a piece about gender and race in the garden without disrupting any of the existing pieces but instigating a conversation that was very engaged with the context-specific issues of Los Angeles,” Ramirez said. “There’s a missed opportunity in how we can creatively activate these sculptures.”
Ramirez, who studies public space and public art, said the sculpture garden is designed in a European modernist fashion and entangled with problematic histories of stolen land, a colonialist logic of space and environmental concerns. Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy conceived the garden with the belief that beauty helps educate – an outdated view of pedagogy, Ramirez said. While Ramirez appreciates the garden, its sculptures do not speak to the present day or serve Murphy’s goals of edifying students, he said.
But art history professor George Baker said there are ways, even in the modernist collection, that resistant narratives can be told. For instance, Barbara Hepworth is a key figure in considering the feminist implications of the sculptures, he said. Hepworth’s 1966 bronze sculpture Elegy III (Hollow Form with Color), which features a hollowed-out cavity, has been associated with ideas of childbearing, the female body and the womb, Baker said. There are progressive and conservative modernisms in sculpture, and some works in the garden are not only conservative but problematically so, he said.
“Questions about representation, about the body, about feminism … are questions that the sculpture garden raises even when it raises them poorly or raises them in ways that are problematic since the 1960s, since the moment of the rise of feminist questions for the field,” Baker said.
There are 10 female nudes in the sculpture garden – a statistic that alumnus Regina Napolitano contrasted in a 2016 FEM article with the fact that only six of the garden’s 72 sculptures are made by four individual woman artists. Baker said the garden’s nudes are conventional, despite modernists’ attempts to veer from classicism and the classical nude as a language for art. Second-year art student Ming Chen said students today tend to reclaim the body in their work, pushing back against the objectification of the body as a passive object to be depicted.
“I get the importance of studying female nudes and recognizing where the so-called canon comes from,” Chen said. “But to put those in the sculpture garden just seems like it’s not recognizing the history but almost celebrating it.”
Chen said she sees this pattern in works such as William Zoarch’s Victory, a female nude that she said evokes ideas of the female body as a trophy. In a painting class last quarter, Chen said students painted nude figures, one male and one female – but for the purposes of technical training and learning body proportions rather than idealizing the human form. While she prefers the playful sculptures of Yayoi Kusama and Niki de Saint Phalle to many works in the garden, she said adding contemporary works would likely distract from the balance of sculptures and landscape.
This balance of works has been set in stone since the ’60s – while the garden is missing decades of contemporary art, Baker said its status as a closed collection means it can provide insight into a specific historical moment and the intensity with which UCLA supported modernism. Still, Ramirez said public art must serve the public first and foremost, and the sculpture garden is no exception. Regardless of the sculpture garden’s status, Baker said UCLA can still engage with contemporary art on campus.
“Should there be another drive to create an institution like the sculpture garden, beyond the Hammer Museum, that engages the campus in the actual confrontation with contemporary art on campus?” Baker said. “I think that’s a really important question.”
Baker said UCLA is not leading universities in the display of public art the way it was half a century ago with the sculpture garden collection. As evidence of the garden’s historical importance, he said the only rival to the collection when it was built was the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ramirez said the garden is a beloved place that people enjoy and succeeds as an urban environment – but that the way people engage with it is not consistent with the academic culture of thoughtful dialogue at UCLA.
“It’s important that public art and public space is democratic and it is facilitating engagement, … that people are critically or deliberately engaging with, that they’re aware of it,” Ramirez said.