A Tip of the Hat

The hats are an amalgamation of a saddle, cowboy and fieldworker hats, the sun, and a colander in reference to “Salad Bowl of the World.”

Over the years, “Hat in Three Stages of Landing,” a three-piece outdoor sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen, was turning into a metaphor, an albatross. The work by one of the most famous living sculptors sat nearly hidden in Salinas’ Sherwood Park, deteriorating, defaced and almost forgotten, a treasure in a city with seemingly too many issues to tend to its cultural life. Was Salinas healthy enough to have such nice things?

In the 1970s, the National Endowment for the Arts doled out matching grants for smaller communities to get a chance to commission public artworks by major contemporary artists. Locals here wanted one. Oldenburg, already renowned as a Pop Art star nearly on par with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and his wife van Bruggen, an art critic, teamed up to propose one. He was coming fresh from artworld victories inflating everyday objects into monumental size, like the 23-foot “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” at Yale University and the couple’s first collaboration, the 41-foot “Trowel 1” in the Netherlands.

Thirty years after completing “Hat” with his wife, who died in 2009, the 84-year-old Oldenburg has returned to Salinas. On Tuesday morning he was at Sherwood Park, watching crews re-install the three hats, refurbished for $160,000 ($45,000 contributed by Oldenburg, the rest the city is trying to raise).

“We wanted to get the artwork on a scale to compete with buildings, with architecture,” he said in the lobby of Sherwood Hall. “I like this building.” Just minutes before one of the architects of the building, Richard Rhodes, there to welcome Oldenburg back to Salinas, said that the yellow of the hats reminded him of Caterpillar tractors and trucks.

“My wife and I wanted to take artwork,” Oldenburg continued, “out of the hands of museums and dealers and work directly with communities. We did 44 sculptures all over the world with that in mind.”

As was their M.O. in other cities, Oldenburg and van Bruggen explored Salinas and Salinas Valley, looking for that mundane object that exemplified the place. Van Bruggen imagined an object “thrown” or “floating,” according to the artists statement. The idea for the public art sculpture for Salinas was a series of three 18-foot-wide hats, seemingly descending as if tossed from the Rodeo grounds into the park.

On Tuesday, as he watched a cherry picker lower one hat onto its metal stanchions, Oldenburg sat on a chair on the lawn. He flipped through the “Hat” portion of his catalog, comparing it to the real-life version reassembling in front of him.

“How often do they water the lawn?” he asked Salinas Library Director Elizabeth Martinez.

When Oldenburg and van Bruggen submitted their idea to the city in 1979, there were complaints that the hybrid shape of the hat wasn’t faithful enough to actual cowboy hats. But the artists stayed firm, making their case to the Salinas Outdoor Sculpture Advisory Committee, headed by Helen Kingsley, and won. It would be Oldenburg’s first piece west of the Mississippi. (“Cupid’s Span,” the monumental bow and arrow in San Francisco’s Rincon Park on the Embarcadero, would arrive in 2002.)

“Hat” was installed in 1982 for more than $100,000 – some from the NEA grant, most from fundraising – and, the L.A. Times reports, opened with fanfare. There’s going to be more this weekend with an art exhibit and artist conversation with Dennis Donohue at Hartnell College on Friday, and a rededication of “Hat” at Sherwood Park on Saturday.

The hats had been showing their age. The paint was corroded and weathered, tagged with graffiti and stained with bird poop. A crusade was stirred by then-mayor Donohue in his last year in office, convinced the city had the makings of a respectable arts destination.

“If anyone doubts the power of the arts,” Donohue says, “I had a chance to meet mayor of Charleston [S.C.], Joseph Riley. They used arts, culture and food as an economic strategy. It’s now one of strongest economic cities, according to Conde Nast, with flights directly from Boston and New York. I think great public art is a great opportunity, if you build a vision around that art, at that location.”

Here, that location is a big lawn, surrounded by the things that make a community: a swimming pool; Sherwood Hall; a recently constructed, handicapped-accessible playground called Tatum’s Garden; a Japanese stone garden; the Rodeo grounds; the new Rabobank athletic stadium; and a picnic and barbecue area. It’s got the makings of a hub.

One thing Oldenburg would change, he says, is the bronze plaque dedication embedded in a large chunk of rock.

“It’s big and clumsy,” he said, pointing to the offending object with his cane. “It clashes with the clean lines. And the first thing I told [the restoration committee] was they have to change the sign to include my wife’s name.”

Of the hats themselves, he said, “It’s good to see them fresh. They have an identity. When you see them, you know where you are.”

HAT IN THREE STAGES OF LANDING art exhibition reception at Hartnell College Gallery is 5-7pm Friday; a conversation with Claes happens 7:30pm Friday at Hartnell College Building K; ArtFest rededication is noon-3pm Saturday at Sherwood Park, 945 N. Main St., Salinas. 758-7476, 755-6792.

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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