BY Chandrea Miller
“Public art is a way of engaging all of our community in an aesthetic journey together –those who frequent museums and those who are just passing by on Exposition Boulevard’s iconic Museum Row,” said Selma Holo, executive director of USC Museums and Galleries. “The USC Fisher Museum of Art was the first museum in the city of Los Angeles and so we have engaged in public art before, but we feel a new energy under President Folt encouraging us to be even more energetic in this area of collecting and display.”
Holo has been at the forefront of curating public art for the university since she joined USC in 1981 and she was formidable force behind the installation of this latest sculpture that has been installed just outside the entrance of the USC Fisher Museum of Art.
The nearly 13-foot bronze sculpture, The Well, is by artist and USC faculty member Enrique Martinez Celaya. The Cuban-born artist was raised in Spain and Puerto Rico before making his way to Los Angeles and eventually USC. The artist and writer, with an advanced degree in physics, is a USC Provost Professor of Humanities and Arts and holds joint appointments at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Roski School of Art and Design.
Martinez Celaya one of the most important artists of our generation because of his unique approach to art. He engages across disciplines incorporating science, philosophy, psychology and physics in an effort to expand his life prospective and ask and find answers to his existential questions.
“Enrique Martinez Celaya is a modern Renaissance man and he brings his creativity, enthusiasms and concerns to his teaching, his writing and his art,” said USC Provost Charles F. Zukoski. “His international presence is derived from the breadth of his interests and their expression in his art. Our understanding of the world around us is vastly expanded by engaging with his creative works.”
The Well is part of a collection that Martinez Celaya began producing in 2011 called The Tears of Things. This group of works revolves around the concept of cleansing and bringing what is inside, outside while exploring displacement and exile and art’s capacity to reveal or create meaning.
“Even though the girl is crying, I look at this piece as a very sort of positive piece,” Martinez Celaya said. “Everything that we go through, as painful as it is, it’s an opportunity to reconsider what’s important.”
Martinez Celaya said the installment of the sculpture at USC was an effort by the community and for the community.
“This would not have happened without the work of a lot of people,” Martinez Celaya said. “This was a communal effort including my assistants, USC facilities workers and, of course, this would not have happened without Selma and her belief in my art.”
And a long-time USC donor and art collector who gifted the sculpture to the museum.
“I was planning to do a major exhibition for the artist, Enrique Martinez-Celaya, at Fisher this spring when one of our beloved major donors, Mei-Lee Ney, offered to give this important piece to Fisher,” Holo said. “It was a glorious surprise.”
But the sculpture’s journey to USC wasn’t an easy one.
Just days before the official unveiling, the sculpture had to make its way from the artist’s studio in Culver City to the USC campus in middle of Downtown Los Angeles.
“The sculpture came in on a flatbed truck and there’s not an intuitive path to get here,” said acting director of USC Museums and Galleries Bethany Montagano. “We had a couple of trial and errors to getting the sculpture off the forklift and hold it steady enough to move it.”
The sculpture is top-heavy, fragile and weighs more than one ton. Each maneuver from the flatbed truck, forklift, to the base outside Fisher Museum left the artist feeling understandably nervous.
“I was really concerned,” Martinez Celaya said. “We had a plan but with every tilt, move or strapping, the shell of the bronze could be damaged at any point and so I was concerned until the very end.”
It took over six hours to install the massive sculpture, but once in place, it marked a momentous occasion for the artist and USC faculty member.
“Our exhibition will be the first museum exhibition for the artist in Los Angeles,” Holo said. “The Well sculpture represents a seeker and that it is located in front of Fisher, at this time, speaks to the resilience of our university community–there has been suffering in our community but there is recovery,” Holo said. “This sculpture joins other major pieces of public art and makes the area it’s located into a real sculpture garden—a destination for contemplation and joy.”
Holo pointed to other notable public artworks featured in Harris Hall Sculpture Garden that include:
- Blacklist, (1999). A Public Work by Jenny Holzer. This work is a gift of The First Amendment/Blacklist Project Committee.
- Not Marble Nor Gilded Monument (1982). A Public Work by Charles Arnoldi. This artwork was previously on display at the museum 40 years ago during the Olympic Art Festival in the summer of 1984.
- Crouching Bather (1983, probably recast from a 1910 original) A Public Work by Antoine Bourdelle. (1861–1929) Gift of the Class of 1959 and placed in the Harris Hall fountain on the occasion of their 25th reunion.
However, Montagano says the The Well piece serves as the springboard to catapult USC’s public art into a new era.
“It represents a new era for USC departments working together and schools working together in order to bring the arts forward into the next phase,” Montagano said. “It’s a great thing to be able to illuminate through a workable art and sculpture that we’re here to work together and we’re here to put arts out first and we’re here to lead with our values.”
Kay Allen, the associate director at USC Fisher Museum of Art says this is all part of the museum’s mission to share a variety of art and exhibitions.
“Over the last 41 years of Selma’s tenure here as director we’ve had such a variety of exhibitions from our Old Master’s Collection to the very contemporary types of shows to printmaking and photography,” Allen said. “Fisher Museum has become known for having all types of exhibitions.”
Opening in spring 2022 Enrique Martínez Celaya’s exhibition Sea, Sky, and Land: Towards a Map of Everything at USC Fisher Museum of Art brings together some thirty large-format paintings and sculptures from 2005 to the present drawn primarily from Southern California collections.
While waiting for Martinez Celaya’s spring show, Montagano encourages USC students, faculty and staff to stop by the Fisher Museum and view the new sculpture that, like any good artwork, creates commentary and reflection on current times.
“The Well represents pain and sorrow and starting anew—phoenix rising from the ashes,” Montagano said. “I think it’s the perfect metaphor to start the school year and give everyone hope, that we are starting a new phase, we’re turning the page—this is the new chapter.”