Tag Archives: UCSD

"garden art"

Set in the fake forest of UCSD’s eucalyptus groves is one my favorite artworks. Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms was installed in 1983 as part of the campus’ Stuart Collection of site-specific outdoor art. The piece, like much of the artist’s output, is a subtle presence that takes a while to absorb.

Here’s how you might encounter it, approaching on a path through the trees:

The piece is pretty unassuming and is almost not there. Stainless steel posts raise two V-shaped runs of a tight blue-violet colored chain-link mesh up into the tree canopy. That’s basically all there is to it, materially at least, which of course would be basically saying the same thing as a Mark Rothko painting is a piece of stretched cloth with some paint applied to it.

Once you add some light, the magic happens. Depending on where you stand and depending on how the light hits it, the piece’s panels are either almost transparent or absolutely opaque. What looks transparent subtly darkens and colors what you view through it. The panels that appear opaque accept shadows of the surrounding branches gracefully.


Move around the work and things change. What starts out transparent turns opaque; what begins as opaque dissolves into a blue-violet vapor. Visits during sunny weather end up being subtly different from those on overcast days. Like the living trees around it, the piece responds to the weather and its surroundings.



To the general public Robert Irwin is now probably most famous–to me unfortunately so–for designing the Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA. It’s a beautiful and interesting garden, but not one that shows off what he does best. The Getty website talks about the garden as “always changing, never twice the same,” which any gardener would say about their own garden. But it also is a description I’d apply to the piece at UCSD.

It’s interesting that the Running Violet V Forms, from 20 years earlier than the Getty garden, also has a botanical element. The Stuart Collection description mentions that “[p]urple flowering iceplant, echoing but not matching the color of the chain link, is planted under the fence.” When he was working on the Getty garden, Irwin was quoted declaring himself not to be a gardener, and of his working with plant consultants to complete the design. This is where bringing in a plant consultant at UCSD might have resulted in a different artwork. Today, the iceplants live on only as one or two little mounds that almost never bloom. You wouldn’t take them to be intentional parts of the artwork. Planted in the fairly deep shade of the understory, these sun-loving succulents live out a meager existence, deprived of the very light that gives life to the artwork high overhead.

a fake forest

Last time, I wrote about going to the eucalyptus groves at UCSD to look for wildflowers. I’ve always been fascinated with these areas of the campus. Boston ivy growing on brick buildings might define the look of certain East Coast schools, but here it’s the eucalyptus trees.

At first your eye follows the trunks on these trees, in the summer covered with beautiful exfoliating bark, up to the high branches and out to the weeping branches that come back towards earth, often with vivid red coloration on the stems, contrasting with the slender gray-green leaves. Individually the trees are striking, and growing together they give the impression of a light, sunny forest. Pay some attention to how they’re planted, however, and the initial impression of pristine nature falls apart. Below I’ve taken a picture and drawn black lines that accentuate the rigid rows that were used to plant the “forest.” Not so natural after all. Southern California, home of the simulacra manufactured in Hollywood, the fake features of Disneyland, and the artificially buxom women of West-Side L.A., does it again.


You probably know that the trees are native to Australia, and may know that down under they’re sometimes called “widow-makers” because of their tendency to drop their branches onto people. You may even know their history in Southern California, that they were planted by the millions as part of various get-rich schemes in the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries, with promises that they’d grow wood for railroad trestles or ocean piers, or that they’d yield essential oils with all sorts of miraculous properties. A great article in the Journal of San Diego History goes into some of their fascinating past.

The plantings that remain throughout Southern California are beautiful stands. The occasional grove even harbors monarch butterflies on the migrations. (An area of the UCSD groves used to be alive with monarchs during the winter in the earlier 1980s, but I haven’t seen more than the occasional monarch since then. Too bad, for sure.) But these groves of perfectly-aligned trees for me talk about culture and nature, and of the ways accidents of history shape how the world looks today.

into the wild

A couple posts ago I mentioned dichelostemma blooming in the garden and I was thinking that they were probably also blooming wild in the natural spaces around me. I took a lunchtime walk through one of the semi-wild areas on the north part of the campus of the University of California, San Diego. The area has been set aside as a natural preserve, although “natural” in this case is actually a canyon of native plants mixed in with some earlier 20th century plantings of eucalyptus. Fake as it may be as a genuine Southern California chaparral ecosystem, the edges where the grove meets the scrub starts to take on more native flavors.

There had been heavy rains this past January, followed by occasional wet periods, so the ground was still moist in spots. The weather was now turning warm, sunny and spring-like. Grasses were growing exuberantly. It wasn’t long before I started to notice occasional flowers in the understory. Although the spaces under the eucalyptus prove hostile to most flowering plants other than the occasional also-imported black mustard, the blue dicks were pretty content to be there, a single plant here, big rafts of them there.

A flowering head of Dichelostemma capitatum, mixed in with the grasses and eucalyptus

A larger stand of them, with their little flower heads raised up two feet or more in the dappled shade

I was tuned in to what I was seeing, but in the back of my mind I was aware that back in my garden the same species of plants was also blooming. Back home the blue dicks are part of a long continuum of “springtime” flowers that begin with the first narcissus in October and continue into a number of plants that have yet to bloom. But in the wild areas of Southern California this is it. Spring is short and–in a wet year like this one–intense, orgiastic. As the weather warms the rains will stop. The grasses will die out and the flowers will fade out. Soon the long brown season will begin. But in the fictionalized natural world of my garden, spring will be here for several more months. I’ll enjoy it for sure. But somehow it seems a little wrong.