UCSF Installs Suspended Spinning Steel Sculpture in Library

Sarah Sze

UCSF commissioned New York-based artist Sarah Sze to create a steel sculpture to hang inside the Kalmanovitz Library on the Parnassus campus.

Six years ago, UCSF invited artist Sarah Sze to create a work for its Parnassus Heights campus. The result of her labors is now cascading down the three-story front window of Kalmanovitz Library, much like liquid metal.

“It’s really very difficult to explain,” said Kirk Hudson, facilities manager at the library. “I tell people it’s a two-dimensional abstraction of her three-dimensional found object pieces, which are very large and can consume a huge gallery, and yet they’re gossamer and seem almost weightless and they soar and swoop. And they look at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’ Sarah said she’s had the same problem her whole career.”

This much can be said: The piece is made of polished stainless steel. The exterior is visible from Parnassus Avenue and the interior from the library’s stairwell. And it was described in Sze’s original proposal as a suspended spinning metropolis, with tumbling landscapes of an imaginary world.

“I wanted it to be both a sculpture and a drawing,” Sze said. “The process was complicated in that I wanted it to be very light and diaphanous. I’ve never worked on something directly in a window before. The main thing was to make it fluid and elegant and span those huge spaces -- to do a permanent piece with an ephemeral quality. That was a real challenge.”

Born in Boston in 1969, Sze lives in Manhattan with her husband, Siddhartha Mukherjee, a doctor whose book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. They have two daughters, ages 1 and 6.

Sze said her husband was researching parts of the book in the Kalmanovitz Library while she was doing drawings there. She settled on that location because she saw it as a kind of intellectual community center, a welcoming space that was a magnet for campus activity.

“After spending a lot of time walking around campus, I realized it doesn’t have a center, or an iconic or hierarchical layout,” Sze said. “I was an undergraduate at Yale, which is the exact opposite. And it’s interesting how Parnassus interfaces with public space. You don’t even realize you’re driving through a university. Parnassus doesn’t announce itself.”

She was also smitten by the landscaping around campus, with its lush growth and greenery, and by the spectacular views. Sze took a lot of pictures of nature, and some of those images inspired parts of her sculpture, which also mirrors the vines that climb up the side of the library.

Sze was struck by the beautiful windows on the side of the library overlooking Golden Gate Park and the anonymity of those on the Parnassus side. Her sculpture, which was installed recently and has yet to be titled, has changed that dramatically.

“The work itself is very dynamic,” Sze said. “At night it will be a silhouette. At different times it will cast shadows. I think about my art a lot in terms of an experience. Being around the piece is one of discovery and movement. It doesn’t give you all the information in any one place. And it’s entirely different on the inside and outside.”

She said the depictions in the piece have to do with climbing and falling, with construction and deconstruction, with coming up or going down in space, with navigating a building. She likes the way the work sneaks up on people walking by outside, sometimes prompting a double take and forcing them to reconsider space.

“It’s such an evocative piece,” said Hudson, who tried to make sure the five-day installation went as smoothly as possible. “There are so many components and motifs. And the light, whether outdoor or indoor, will hit it very differently in the morning, during the day or in the evening. I really feel this will be able to actively entertain me for years without getting tired of it.”

Sarah Sze talks about her work at UCSF.

Artist Sarah Sze talks about her work during a reception inside the library on the Parnassus campus.

He said there is already a lot of excitement on campus about the piece. For him, it serves as a “personal touchstone” and “a place of contemplation.”

“It’s almost as if you took a bucket of paint and threw it against a wall and it dripped down, in a beautiful set of patterns, on the structural mullions of the building and just kept going,” said Hudson, who has made a DVD about the installation with hundreds of still photos.

Lynne Baer serves as art advisor to the UCSF Chancellor’s Committee on Art, Honors and Recognition, which commissioned the piece using discretionary funds from Chancellor Emeritus J. Michael Bishop, MD, who launched the public arts program at UCSF.

Baer is a longtime admirer of Sze, who received a MacArthur Foundation award, nicknamed a “genius grant,” in 2003 and whose creations can be found in the collections of major museums, including SFMOMA. She has had solo exhibitions all over the world, including Tokyo, London, Milan and New York, where the Whitney Museum of American Art showcased her work eight years ago.

“Artists always look at space and life a little differently. I’m always amazed at what they see,” said Baer, who has worked with the UCSF committee to commission 11 works, including an upcoming installation, for the Parnassus and Laurel Heights campuses. Sze will return to UCSF at a date still to be determined, so that people can meet her and discuss her work.

“I think it’s even better than what I had imagined,” Baer said. “In my mind I didn’t think it was going to be as dynamic and magical as it is.”

Photos by Susan Merrell