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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

San Francisco's 10 Best Public Sculptures

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2012 at 9:30 AM

This didn't make the cut. - FRANK KOVALCHEK / FLICKR

At its best, public sculpture is stirring and inspiring. At its worst, it's an assault on the senses -- a visual blight that prompts passers-by to avoid eye contact or (in extreme cases) attack the art with invective, graffiti, or even legal threats of removal. San Francisco has its share of divisive sculpture. Consider Cupid's Span, the giant red bow and arrow on the Embarcadero, which is a classic case of good intentions gone awry. Done in 2002 by the New York-based team of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the sculpture -- "inspired by San Francisco's reputation as the home port of Eros" -- is whimsical but way too trivial for its size and placement. Life is too short to stand in front of works like Cupid's Span. Instead, visit these free public sculptures, which should resonate with art lovers of all tastes.

FRANK KOVALCHEK / FLICKR

10. The Thinker at the Legion of Honor

Visitors to Paris' Rodin Museum see The Thinker there and often believe it's the only sculpture of its kind, but The Thinker at the Legion of Honor is also an original, bought in 1915 from the artist himself by San Francisco socialite Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Later, she donated it -- and the Legion of Honor -- to the city. This bronze Thinker, like the others executed in Paris, is a monumental work that depicts a nude man in the middle of serious contemplation. Located in the front courtyard of the museum, which is open to anyone, The Thinker is timeless art -- an iconic rendering that inspires many visitors to take photos of themselves standing at the sculpture's wide base.

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9. Angel on Market Street

Stephen De Staebler's Angel, in a building entrance at 720 Market (near Third St.), is a mysterious, semi-abstract presence -- a winged figure without eyes and other facial features, who is standing at attention, as if waiting for instructions on what to do next. De Staebler, who died last year, has said his angel sculptures symbolize the power to change life's outcomes -- but that these flying figures also have their limitations. It's this fine (tense) line between wishful thinking and diminished expectations that makes Angel so intriguing.

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LANA / FLICKR

8. Sculptures at the Palace of Fine Arts

The parade of sculptures at the Palace of Fine Arts date to 1915, when the palace was built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The most intriguing sculptures are the women holding onto the upper heights of one structure, their faces hidden as we see them from behind. For years, people have debated what the women represent. Introspection? The possibility of life without seeing art? Whatever the explanation, the sculptures are thought-provoking. Located at Lyon and Bay streets in the Marina, the Palace of Fine Arts offers a setting that has no equal in San Francisco.

BRYAN MALESZYK /  FLICKR

7. Willie Mays statue at AT&T Park

This is the sculpture that legendary outfielder Willie Mays always deserved. Depicting Mays at the end of a home-run swing, it has Mays -- bat in hand -- looking toward the outfield stands as the ball (we imagine) sails majestically over the fence. North Carolina sculptor William Behrends has captured the strength and the pride that emanated from every one of Mays' swings. Located at the corner of Third and King streets, in front of the main entrance to AT&T Park, the Mays sculpture is one of many impressive player sculptures on the ballpark's perimeter that bear Behrends' name.

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FRANCO FOLINI / FLICKR

6. Large Four Piece Reclining Figure at Louise M. Davies Hall

Made by Henry Moore when he was in his 70s, Large Four Piece Reclining Figure at Van Ness and Grove has many of the British artist's signature traits: concave forms, open space that lets the parts breathe in the middle, and an abstracted design that plays with the viewer's imagination. In the history of art from the past 100 years, Moore is a towering presence. Sixty-six U.S. cities have Moore's art on display, but this is one of the best examples of his work in the United States.

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SON OF GROUCHO / FLICKR

5. Harvey Milk bust inside City Hall

Near the entrance to the Board of Supervisors chambers, the sculpture depicts Supervisor Harvey Milk with a fervent smile on his face. Below are words from a speech that Milk gave in 1978 -- the same year he was assassinated in the building where his bust now sits: "I ask for the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give 'em hope." The sculpture also features a relief of people marching in a candlelight vigil the night that Milk and Mayor George Moscone were killed. It was designed by a Berkeley sculpture group headed by Eugene Daub, Rob Firmin, and Jonah Hendrickson and placed in City Hall in 2008, when Milk would have been 78.

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MIKE LINKSVAYER / FLICKR

4. Ruth Asawa collection inside the de Young Museum

It's easy to miss the de Young Museum's permanent (free-to-see) collection of Ruth Asawa's brilliant wire sculpture. Instead of heading into the main galleries, go toward the administrative offices, in the direction of the elevator to the Harmon Observation Tower, and you'll be in the company of 15 works that Asawa donated to the museum. The bulbous ones that cascade from the ceiling almost to the floor are the most intense, casting shadows on the walls that are themselves a sight to behold. Asawa's artwork is featured at various San Francisco venues, but the de Young is where her distinct wire sculpture is given the freedom to spread out and really make use of its exhibition space.

ELIZALO / FLICKR

3. Pink Bunny in the Lower Haight

For years, the former campus of UC Berkeley Extension -- particularly its Haight Street wall, between Laguna and Buchanan -- was a magnet for unseemly graffiti, but the past few years have seen an explosion of noteworthy street art, and a denouement of sorts occurred in 2011 with the placement of a giant pink bunny at the campus' northeast corner. The toothy sculpture is the creation of Jeremy Fish, a San Francisco artist who specializes in doing edgy interpretations of bunnies, skulls, and other figures. Fish's pink bunny-skull sculpture -- surrounded by a wall of painted bunnies that are either smiling or quizzical -- commands the intersection of Laguna and Haight like a stoplight that continuously blinks in red.

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charlie_brown_richard_serra.jpg

2. Richard Serra's Charlie Brown inside the Gap building

San Francisco is fortunate to have two Serra sculptures on public display: Ballast at UCSF Mission Bay, and Charlie Brown inside the Gap headquarters at 2 Folsom. Both are towering steel edifices that invite close inspection but also delight from afar. If you only have time to see one, though, make it Charlie Brown, which turns the atrium of the building into a Louvre-like hall where the light, acoustics and art mesh in ideal symmetry. And with Charlie Brown, you can walk inside the sculpture itself, making this piece much more interactive than other prominent sculptures in San Francisco.

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keith_haring_dancers_01.jpg

1. Keith Haring Untitled (Three Dancing Figures) at Howard and Third Streets

How many people have walked by these colorful figures and smiled for at least a moment? Fifty thousand? Half a million? Three million? The sculpture has been on the southeast corner of Howard and Third since 1989, and its three dancers -- red, yellow and blue -- are as energetic as any that Haring ever drew. The only thing missing: the trademark Haring dashes that hover over his figures to indicate movement. On a sculpture like this, those in-the-air dashes aren't required. The sculpture's location -- close to SFMOMA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Museum of the African Diaspora, and the Cartoon Art Museum -- make it a required stop in this part of San Francisco.

Update: We heard from Kate Patterson at the San Francisco Arts Commission that the Haring sculpture has been temporarily removed for renovation. We're told it will be back this summer. In the meantime, see several shots of it via Flickr user Wally Gobetz.

A runners-up list would include the lighted book sculpture at Broadway and Columbus, the Hard Bop sculpture in Fillmore Center Plaza (at O'Farrell), the Dancing Sprites fountain at Huntington Park (California and Taylor), and the Abyssinian statue on Fulton by the Asian Art Museum. And don't forget about SFMOMA, which has a rooftop sculpture garden that -- like the rest of the museum -- is free to visit the first Tuesday of every month. In fact, San Francisco is blessed with so much worthwhile sculpture that a Top 100 list is probably in order.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Jonathan Curiel

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