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PRINT October 1965

Homage to Sam: Tribute to Simon Rodia

Simon Rodia died in Martinez, California on July 16, 1965. Shortly before his death Miss Kat Steinitz, the archivist of the Watts Towers Committee asked Mr, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for his impressions of the Towers, which Mr. Barr had visited on a trip to Los Angeles. The letter reproduced below contains his response.

The answer to the questions asked by Mr. Barr in his postscript is still, “No, nothing.”

Greensboro, Vermont July 20, 1965

Dear Kate Steinitz:

I SPENT FIVE EXHAUSTING AND WONDER-FULL DAYS in Los Angeles: enthusiastic collectors with more Braques than Bengstons, the disquieting moralities of Conner and Kienholz, the ebullient new art museum, the sense of wealth, generosity, energy, uncertain pride and certain confidence.

For me the two most unforgettable things I saw in Los Angeles were shrines. One was a step from the art museum and, in a way, a refuge from it. There was no other pilgrim when I was there. Under the dome was a circular pit. As my eyes recovered from the sunlight outside I could see, looking down over the railing, blackness first and then black inchoate forms, some of which gradually took shape as apparitional bones, bones of smilodon, perhaps, or elephas imperator. As I gazed at these evocative relics my meditation was interrupted by the sinister plop of a gas bubble bursting in the tar of the Dantesque pit of La Brea.

My pilgrimage to the other shrine was longer. It was, of course, Simon Rodia’s Towers. Reckless of their own time and convenience, the Lorser Feitelsons drove Dorothy Miller and me out through a flat, forlorn and endless cityscape in which the area called Watts could be distinguished only on a map. I shan’t attempt to write more than a word or two about the Towers; Bill Seitz has eloquently described them in his book, The Art of Assemblage. I was deeply moved by them, by their beauty, yes, but also by the sense of innocence that pervades them, and of faith.

Faith inspires faith. Seitz writes of your magnificent defensive campaign against the philistines: “If it were not for the Committee’s persistent and dedicated battle against municipal callousness . . . the Towers would have been intentionally and completely destroyed in the name of civic improvement.”

Rodia wrote: “I wanted to do something for the United States because there are nice people in this country.” He worked thirty-three years on the Towers and then sought peace in obscurity elsewhere.

When I returned to New York I read again Rodia’s statement which your Committee published and which our Museum later republished in Seitz’s book. Would it be too far-fetched to compare Simon Rodia’s account of his lonely ordeal with the final testament of another idealistic Italian immigrant, Bartolomeo Vanzetti? Both great-hearted men, a poor tile-setter and a poor fish peddler, wrote with simplicity and noble passion. Their agony was their triumph, the one in death, the other in his Towers, his marvelous evidence of things unseen.

Sincerely,
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Director Of The Museum Collections
Museum Of Modern Art
New York, N.Y.

P.S. Between the time I scribbled this letter and had it typed I read in The New York Times index a reference to Rodia’s death. But when I turned to the obituary page there was no obituary. The obituary appeared, unindexed, two days later––and perfunctory at that. Will Los Angeles, the great new cultural center of the West Coast, give Simon Rodia a public funeral, with an adequate cortege? I hope so!