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“When it first came out my initial reaction was, ‘This is certainly — well — odd,’” Taylor, waiting at a bus stop just down the street from the sculpture, said as he rubbed his head and searched for the right word to describe it.
Around the corner, at the Vidiots video store, co-owner Patty Polinger is a huge fan of the sculpture, although she admits the first time she saw it her reaction was: “What is that?”
Since then she’s researched its history, come to embrace it as a great example of public art and even hosted a recent documentary screening in an effort to save it. The film, “Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire,” examines the life of the longtime cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times and Denver Post, who won three Pulitzer Prizes for work that skewered every major political figure of his era.
She acknowledges, however, that not everyone in the store shares her enthusiasm for the sculpting abilities of Conrad, who died in 2010 at age 86.
“One of our employees, who shall remain nameless, thinks it’s ugly,” she said with a smile.
From Day One, the work has evoked sometimes heated debate.
The City Council only narrowly voted 4-3 to accept Conrad’s gift, which former mayor Dennis Zane described at the time as an ugly non sequitur.
Before the vote, the public was asked to weigh in and responded 730-392 against accepting the work. The result was ignored amid concerns that Conrad critics had stuffed the ballot box.
“As was typical of my father, he had people that hated him,” his son recalled with a laugh earlier this week.
Indeed, the unabashedly liberal artist’s cartoons enraged many, among them the late Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, who once sued Conrad, unsuccessfully, for a cartoon that implied he was a lunatic. President Richard Nixon famously put Conrad on his “enemies list” and Frank Sinatra once denounced him for making fun of President Ronald Reagan.
In arguing against keeping Chain Reaction, Santa Monica’s planning staff didn’t question Conrad’s greatness as a cartoonist, but said there was little evidence to show he was much of a sculptor.
That simply isn’t true, said his son, who noted his father created numerous bronze works of historical figures, including Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Many were done in a serious style, although Conrad portrayed Reagan as Robin Hood, maintaining he robbed from the poor and gave to the rich.
“He also did a fair amount of public art,” said David Conrad, adding his father’s work graces churches in Southern California, as well as the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
As for what his father would think of all the hoopla Chain Reaction has kicked up again, Conrad thinks he’d enjoy it.
“He sure loved stirring things up.”
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