Los Angeles

Michael Todd

Salk Institute, La Jolla

Michael Todd, who has been on the faculty of the University of California at San Diego for the past year and a half, has been given the central courtyard of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla as an exhibition space for an indefinite period. It is a curious setting for sculpture. The building designed by Louis Kahn is “perfect” in its form and detail, a massive and calculated medievalism set on the bluffs above the Pacific. The two four-story blocks of offices and laboratories constructed of concrete and weathered teak fall upon an open court, paved with slabs of travertine, and within this highly ordered environment Todd has placed his sculpture.

One’s first impression upon entering this sequestered courtyard is of disappointment. The sculpture seems flat, thin and almost invisible on the travertine, the pieces cast about in defiance of the order which surrounds them. Only Tulip, a work formed of four identical half rounds of bent pieces of channel iron welded at the corners and inverted to form a square bowl, seems to have the axiality and solidity necessary to overcome the environment. The character of the remainder of the exhibition however becomes obvious only when one gets off the plane of the terrace itself and looks down at the work from one of the many stairways and balconies that form the access ways through the two office-lab blocks. One then realizes that the distributional character of the objects, and their emphasis on plane rather than mass is the only way in which the precision of intellect which shaped the Salk Institute could in any way be engaged. Todd, through calculated disorder, has resisted Kahn’s sensibilities, and I came finally to view the exhibition not as the endeavor of a single man, but rather as the focus of a conflict of formal ideas expressed in visible styles. Kahn, in a warm-hearted and humanist way, has provided for everything: every detail from door hardware to cast lead drain spouts, is perfect. One wants for nothing architectural there, except perhaps for some element which permits change, a bit of disorder, and in that way Todd’s pieces, especially White Rain and Steel Garden, are satisfying. White Rain, a group of a dozen white discs about a foot in diameter, two protractor-shaped forms—half discs about five feet across—and another larger rectangular sheet of metal rolled to form the arc of a cylinder, are scattered about on the travertine. Exhibiting their edge surfaces vertically and horizontally, their “thinness” is intensified by the density of concrete and teak mass surrounding them. The objects are scattered too (and regularly moved about by Todd) in a way which ignores the precise linear, geometric order of Kahn’s pavement plane.

Steel Garden is a dispersal of about a dozen larger circular steel shapes. The objects, pieces of pipe of various diameters cut to emphasize their length or breadth, steel channels bent into arcs, and several steel discs about 2 or 3 feet across are painted dark blue and scattered within an approximately thirty-foot area. It is a more structural piece in the sense that the individual objects have more structural depth. As such, it is less a subtle outgrowth of pavement and more of an impediment to movement across the plaza, and thus less successful, I feel.

In retrospect Tulip thus becomes, perhaps, the least satisfactory piece in the group, for it cannot successfully cope with the Kahn order, but the other works combine a structural presence with an ordered disorder and high planar visibility which assert themselves successfully within the order of Kahn’s spaces and forms. Todd’s objects are “right” for this area because of their planar and machine surface qualities.

Thomas H. Garver