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Big Man On Campus

How to install a Richard Serra: Very, very carefully, from Germany to Long Beach to Sylmar to UCLA via ship, truck and crane.

How to install a Richard Serra: Very, very carefully, from Germany to Long Beach to Sylmar to UCLA via ship, truck and crane.

Sometime after the moon had set early Wednesday morning, when Venus was the only light in the sky, two 21-ton steel arcs arrived at the north edge of the UCLA campus. Two halves of a sculpture by Richard Serra — the master of carving up space with gargantuan insertions — the pieces were destined to be united in the plaza of the renovated Dickson Art School, renamed the Eli & Edythe Broad Art Center. The enormous, rust-colored slabs were trucked from Sylmar, on a nocturnal convoy along the 405 and neighboring surface streets. Chained upright to oversize flatbeds, they looked like sections of a dismantled battleship, incomprehensibly heavy and strong.

Under the black sky, one of the red Peterbilt diesels backed along a narrow lane, inching toward a staging ground where Dan Jenkins had parked his yellow, 150-ton crane. Jenkins had loaded the T.E.U.C.L.A. (as this latest of Serra’s torqued ellipses is known) in the Sylmar yard, using the same crane, then steered the behemoth on its own pre-dawn run down the 405. Now, as a pale-blue wash spread across the horizon, Jenkins’ crew began the remarkably simple yet labor-intensive job of unharnessing the ellipses and setting them in position for a welder to permanently affix them to six steel plates — which themselves would later be bolted, epoxied and cemented in place.

Serra wasn’t here to oversee the installation, which left Jenkins — who’d installed Serra’s MOCA show a few years back — in charge. With his trimmed white beard, combed-back hair and alert blue eyes, Jenkins could be mistaken for a shorter and a bit stockier Burt Reynolds. But his grip, which is as thick as the Cor-ten steel he was about to ease into place, revealed a man thoroughly conversant with the physical world. He seemed in no way perturbed at the prospect of the work ahead: making two pieces into a single ellipse measuring 28 feet long by 17 feet wide by 14 feet high, and tilting something like 75 degrees off vertical.

Brackets made in the same German foundry where the piece was rolled and bent into its torqued shape were bolted into the top of the ellipse, and a system of cable was rigged from them to the crane’s elephantine hook. Jenkins called a huddle, and did all the talking, which added up to five sentences. “Don’t get between it and anything hard,” he said, nodding toward the ellipse. “When we get it up off the truck, it’s going to want to dip down, here. No yellin’. No yellin’ at all. If you see something, anything at all, you tell Joe, he tells me.”

Then, just as he explained, the piece lifted off the flatbed, tipping gently down at the ends of the curves. As Jenkins hoisted the arc, two men gently steadied it with gloved hands. In 45 seconds, 45,000 pounds touched ground, resting on solid blocks of oak. An hour or so later, its mate was similarly situated.

Now the real work began. The halves, which were resting back to back, needed to be swung around 180 degrees, craned through the outstretched branches of an African coral tree, raised over a 10-foot-high chainlink fence, and lowered onto the six mounting pads. The positioning had to be exact, or at least as exact as UCLA’s project manager, Michael Grant-Martin, deemed reasonable. The trick was to get one edge that was bent in two dimensions — cupped from top to bottom and twisted from end to end — to mate with a presumably identical edge. It was like getting the edges of two pieces of paper, standing freely on edge, to kiss perfectly.

Jenkins moved each metal curve through the three-dimensional mid-air maze like Balanchine choreographing a ballet. Once again, the work was over in minutes. The ellipse stood 1 1/2 inches off the ideal centerline Grant-Martin had conceived. The entire morning had been spent in preparation — mostly, the repeated use of a tape measure, a Sharpie felt-tip pen, a bottle jack (to shove one half closer to the other), and an 8-pound sledge hammer (swung as hard as humanly possible against a wooden block to nudge the pieces into the same plane).

The ellipse had been coaxed into becoming one single object. A tight seam formed where the pieces touched. At the opposite side, an entry, some 40 inches wide, allowed one to enter a vertiginous realm of bent light, shadow and unhinged equilibrium.

By noon, Jenkins was beginning to pack up his rigging. The installation had lasted six-and-a-half hours.

“How’d it go?” someone asked.

“It was a pretty easy deal,” he replied pleasantly.