On 8 September 2016, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego, which may be the most litigated religious symbol in America, is here to stay. Set aside for a moment matters about separation of church and state on the coast of California and specific features that were part of the recent controversy, and an opportunity emerges to reflect on the role of the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla’s larger assemblage of religious art, which includes University of California, San Diego’s Geisel Library, Snake Path, and the neon Virtues and Vices.
Assemblage is the art of proximity. Objects that individually evoke one meaning or experience when put in proximity to other things can change or expand that meaning or experience. Assemblage art can be a flower arrangement, a collage of images framed on a wall, or the placement of buildings or sculpture in artistic relationship to each other. Few people notice that in 1992, Alexis Smith, one of California’s most famous collage/assemblage artists, pulled together her grandest assemblage by uniting two buildings and the cross with her Snake Path on the ridge above La Jolla.
The Snake Path that unites the work was the last part constructed. The first was the cross on Mount Soledad; at 824 feet, it stands as the highest promontory on the coast that sits south of Orange County’s San Joaquin Hills. At 422 feet, Point Loma rises only half the height of Mount Soledad; and further north, Palos Verdes rises only a quarter the height (220 feet).
La Jolla was a bit of a bohemia before settling into its wealth. Molly McClain, a historian at the University of San Diego, quotes Ellen Scripps describing La Jolla as “a woman’s town.”1 As a progressive colony, it was friendly to spiritualists, scientists, theosophists, painters, and poets. But bohemia symbolically gave way to mainline Protestant culture when in 1913 a large wooden cross was placed in a reigning position on Mount Soledad. In 1954, the wooden cross was replaced with the twenty-nine-foot-tall concrete cross of mid-century modern design drawn by a prominent local architect named Donald Campbell. Like many of the coastal enclaves founded by progressive-minded, university-trained folks, La Jolla has a long history of racism, especially against Jews and East Asians. As a kind of post-1960s university-town backlash against its racist history, La Jollans, concerned about civil rights and separation of church and state, started in 1989 what became a long-standing ruckus demanding that the cross be taken down. Like all good art, the work is too meaningful. It communicates too much too well.
The UC San Diego library opened in 1970 and is a stunningly sculptured building. Its shape has become the UCSD brand image, designed by California’s most famous mid-century modernist, William Pereira. His work on the California Bight includes the initial designs of University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Irvine; the Malibu campus of Pepperdine University; the urban plan of Irvine; and the unfulfilled island plan for Santa Catalina Island. His most iconic buildings in California are San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, the spider-like Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and UCSD’s central Library. Describing his design for the UCSD library, Pereira said he was sculpting a building inspired by hands joined at the wrist, fingers spreading wide, “holding aloft knowledge itself.”2
How did the library turn from cupped hands into the tree that is now the image most often associated with the library? Pereira thought up the cupped hands, and it fit his mental conception of a university; however, the site of the library screams trees to those who visit and listen. UCSD was built in the midst of a large forest of eucalyptus trees, and in 1983 the Stuart Collection of public art commissioned Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms, an installation designed to enhance the experience of UCSD’s eucalyptus trees. A few years later, one of Robert Irwin’s students from when he taught for a short time at UC Irvine, Alexis Smith, was asked to produce another installation for the Stuart Collection. Irwin and Smith had studios near each other in Venice where, in the decades after World War II, a new artistic bohemia gathered that shared many ideas about how to think about art and themselves as artists.
Robert Irwin wrote in 1985 about how a sculpture should be “conditioned/determined” by its site. “This means,” he wrote, “sitting, watching, walking through the site, the surrounding areas…the city at large or countryside.”3 At UCSD, Irwin sat, watched, walked, and understood that it was the forest of eucalyptus trees that would determine his work. In the same way, Alexis Smith would have felt the same thing sitting, watching, and walking around the library, which itself in turn became conditioned and even determined by the trees; and the library as a tree—the tree of life, the tree of knowledge—would then condition and determine the Snake Path.
Another aspect of their thought was that an artist needs to get out of the way of art. Irwin in the late 1950s and 1960s became very interested in Zen Buddhism and went so far in his anti-individualist notions of art that he stopped signing his paintings. Art must increase, and the ego of the artist must decrease.4 Sharing in these artistic ideals, Alexis Smith, in a 2010 interview available on YouTube, says that she thinks of herself as a novelist who lets a story lead her rather than the other way around. She wants art to reveal itself through her work. The meaning of art, she declared, should be cultural, not personal. She tells viewers that she is not interested in herself or what she thinks. In her work as an assemblage artist, she works within the “pool of cultural information,” the stories that cultures carry through time.5 In the video, she talks specifically about the small-framed assemblages she creates; but at UCSD, she tapped into the great tradition of a snake at the center of Western culture’s religious story of sin, disease, health, salvation, and redemption.
To those of us who visit the UCSD library, the Snake Path sucks everything around it into its narrative. Deep culture calls out in a religious tableau of tree, snake, and granite statue of a book marked clearly as Paradise Lost. That Smith so obviously calls visitors to John Milton’s classic story of the birth of sin and sickness also demands, artistically, a fuller story of the tree in Eden being linked to the cross on Golgotha. Get above the eucalyptus trees that encircle the Snake Path in the upper floors of the library and the Mount Soledad cross rules the skyline. Tree and cross, in the deep literary culture derived from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there are types and antitypes that link history together. Early on, soon after the death of Christ, the stories of tree and cross were linked as antitypes: through the tree of disobedience in Eden came sin and death, and through the cross/tree of obedience on Golgotha comes salvation and life. Add to this someone standing at the end of the snake’s tail and looking away from the library is staring directly at another piece in the Stuart Collection: Bruce Nauman’s Vices and Virtues, the seven-foot-tall neon banner finished in 1988 that wraps the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory with Christianity’s seven vices and seven virtues. The snake’s body, then, links artwork about humanity’s ethical choices to the ultimate choice of disobedience or obedience at the snake’s head and in the distance on Mount Soledad.
It is significant that Smith inscribed a quote onto the granite oversized sculpture of Paradise Lost that stands, encircled, half way up by the snake’s body. The quote offers some meaning to the whole assemblage: Then Wilt Thou Not Be Loth To Leave This Paradise, But Shall Possess A Paradise Within Thee, Happier Far. When my students—and probably most passers-by—read it, they usually assume this is what the snake says to the biblical character Eve and believe that it is a promise to individuals about finding happiness—but it is not. In Paradise Lost, an angel says this line to Adam in a manner that draws in all creation. The quote on the book sculpture, then, hints to the cross on Mount Soledad off in the distance. This quote comes at the culmination of Milton’s epic when the archangel Michael tells Adam about the future coming of Christ and the eventual salvation of all creation. The angel Michael tells him of the redemption of the Earth:
…for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier daies.
Adam then declares, speaking for himself and all who follow him, his final speech:
Greatly instructed I shall hence depart.
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can containe;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the onely God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake
Is fortitude to highest victorie,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.
Did Alexis Smith in 1992 plan to use the Snake Path to link the engineering building to the library in the context of the Mount Soledad cross? Maybe. By her own standards, it does not matter what she thought. The Mount Soledad cross is the dominant work of art that towers over Smith’s Snake Path. If Smith sat in, walked, watched, and listened at the site, then the cross, the library shape, and the Vices and Virtues might have consciously or unconsciously conditioned/determined what story would be artistically told on that site without her fully knowing it. A novelist can set up a story without knowing its ending or its full meaning. The La Jolla ridge itself might demand something about which an artist has only an inkling. Whatever the initial consciousness, we can recognize today that the La Jolla ridge has inscribed into it a massive work of religious art on the California coast. Although today it is hard to see all four parts from the ground, the whole assemblage is readily visible to airplane pilots, UFOs, angels, and anyone with access to Google Earth. Maybe it is best to think of this assemblage as a grand quadrapartite-geoglyph, bigger than the ancient Blythe Geoglyphs in the desert near the Colorado River and the ancient Serpent Mound in Ohio. However one thinks about it, we should recognize that the cross on Mount Soledad has a larger role as religious art than merely proclaiming Protestantism’s supposed cultural dominance over La Jolla.
1 Molly McClain, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment,” The Journal of San Diego History 56 (2010): 17.
2 James Steele, ed., William Pereira (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2002), 148.
3 Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries: With Essays by Hugh M. Davies and Robert Irwin (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 180.
4 Lawrence Weschler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 41–85.
5 “Alexis Smith – Revealing Art in the Studio – The Artist’s Studio – MOCAtv,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VsNvgj8k8A (24 October 2016).
Rick Kennedy is a professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Educated at UCSB, mostly under cultural and architectural historian Harold Kirker, he recently published The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans).