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Saving Paul Conrad’s ‘Chain Reaction’

Posted on Aug 27, 2013
Wikimedia Commons/Cbl62 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For the past 22 years, the city of Santa Monica has had one of the most significant public political artworks in the nation, installed adjacent to the Santa Monica Civic Center in the tourism hub of this beachside town. This 26-foot tall sculpture by the late renowned artist and cartoonist Paul Conrad depicts a chain-linked mushroom cloud and serves as a powerful warning about the continuing dangers of nuclear war. As a public artwork, the sculpture invites discourse and commentary and is available to thousands of viewers who might pass by. Officially designated a landmark, the sculpture needs repair and conservation—a reality for all public artworks, but one with special challenges for a large three-dimensional work like this.

For whatever reason, Santa Monica has placed the burden for the costs of these repairs on private donors, setting a deadline of Feb 1, 2014. Fundraising and political efforts are underway to save the sculpture and many people, including prominent artists, journalists and political leaders, have lined up in support. Many residents from Santa Monica and neighboring communities have noted their passionate desire to save “Chain Reaction.” 

There are many reasons why this sculpture must be preserved in its present location. The Save Chain Reaction Project has brought many of these reasons to public attention and as the February deadline looms closer, the controversy will inevitably become more visible throughout Southern California and even throughout the nation. A key argument is the art historical case for preservation, which links “Chain Reaction” to the broader tradition of public political artwork in America and locates the reputation of Paul Conrad as a major figure of late 20th and early 21th century contemporary art.

The U.S. (and the world) has an extensive tradition of public political sculptures. Many are commemorative works that invite audiences to reflect on tragic and traumatic episodes and events. Common themes are slavery and emancipation, the Holocaust, war and peace, the Armenian genocide, the Hollywood blacklist, and the gay and lesbian struggle. Many three dimensional works also commemorate specific atrocities such as the Amistad Slave Rebellion in 1839, the Haymarket martyrs execution in 1887, the 1941 Japanese Pearl Harbor bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Other progressive sculptures bring public attention to major public figures whose lives were spent working for social justice. Works about icons such as Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, A. Philip Randolph and Medgar Evers, often created by acclaimed artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Ed Hamilton, Tina Allen, Judy Baca and Charles Dickson, have graced American public spaces. 

Four especially accomplished public sculptors provide the specific art historical context for a fuller understanding of Conrad’s strikingly provocative work in Santa Monica. Their political visions, their willingness to provoke public controversy, their dedication to resist conservative opposition to their efforts, and their exceptionally high artistic standards make them stand out among their contemporaries. One of the early 20th century “peace” artists was San Francisco-based Beniamino (Benny) Bufano (c.1890-1970). Like Conrad, Bufano was always politically contentious, using his artwork as a force for social criticism and change. Having lived through the bloodiest wars of the 20th century, he used his art to call attention to the pressing need to end war, especially in the nuclear age.

Two of his public sculptural works are direct art history predecessors to “Chain Reaction.” For almost 40 years, “Peace” stood at the entrance to the San Francisco International Airport, where millions of people could see it, at least briefly. It is now located at Brotherhood Way, near several places of worship. At its base, “Peace” has an inscription that reinforces its central message: “Presented to the Citizens of San Francisco by the San Francisco Chronicle. Dedicated to the Brotherhood of Man and the Ideal of Peace Among all the Peoples of the World.”

In 1968, Bufano created “St. Francis of the Guns,” a large figure of the Catholic saint decorated with the heads of four assassinated leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, revealing the dangers of the American cult of guns and violence. As part of his materials, Bufano used melted metal from a San Francisco voluntary gun turn-in program.

George Segal (1924-2000) also produced powerful public sculptures that help provide the art historical background for Conrad’s Santa Monica effort. “Abraham and Isaac” commemorated the students who were injured and killed at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard in 1970 when they protested American military involvement in Southeast Asia. Kent State rejected the work, but Princeton University accepted it and contemporary audiences there could reflect on the continuing implications of government repression against political dissenters in America through this brilliant artwork.

Segal’s most provocative public sculpture was “Gay Liberation,” the first major artwork to commemorate that struggle. Its depiction of gay male and female couples caused considerable controversy. It was regularly vandalized after it was installed on the Stanford University campus. It was moved to Madison, Wis., and finally across the street from the Stonewall Inn in New York, the site of the famous gay rebellion in 1969. Segal’s sculpture invites audiences to consider deeper issues of human dignity and sexual orientation. In the process, like Conrad, he used his art to bring a major and controversial social issue to public attention.


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