‘Origin, 135 degrees’ marks the first in Rice Public Art’s ‘Platform’ series

It’s not a scaffolding for some edifice to come, nor is it — as one overheard conversation described the structure — a giant jungle gym. Jarrod Beck’s “Origin, 135 degrees” is the first public artwork in a new Rice Public Art series, “Platform.” Its 140-foot long steel cage occupies more than 2,500 square feet between Rayzor and Sewall halls. On a pleasant day, you can peer through its metal frame, looking past Willy’s Statue and all the way into the Engineering Quadrangle, where Michael Heizer’s famous granite monoliths balance on concrete plinths above the grassy lawn.

Jarrod Beck's "Origin, 135 degrees"

Jarrod Beck’s “Origin, 135 degrees” is the first public artwork in a new Rice Public Art series, “Platform.” (Photo by Lynn Lane)

This is not by accident. As the first major commission of public art on the Rice University campus in 1984, Heizer’s “45°, 90°, 180°,” sometimes referred to as “the Heizers,” was the inspiration for Beck’s own degree-denoted artwork — just as Evan Garza had hoped.

Garza, the director of Rice Public Art, and Alison Weaver, the Suzanne Deal Booth Executive Director of the Moody Center for the Arts, knew Beck as an artist trained as an architect, a sculptor and an installation artist whose works find creative ways to investigate the history and importance of a specific place. Garza quickly thought of West Texas-based Beck when commissioning the first piece for the “Platform” series, which launched in October 2017. “Origin 135 degrees” was made possible by a generous donation from Russ Pitman ’58, who underwrote this inaugural project.

“’Platform’ invites a living contemporary artist to respond to works in the Rice Public Art collection, to architectural structures on the Rice campus or to research that’s taking place at Rice and create a temporary site-specific intervention on the Rice campus,” Garza said. He called Beck’s creation “a perfect example” of “Platform”’s mission — in this case, a response to one of Rice’s great public art treasures.

“I think the Heizers represent the highest possible caliber of sculpture on the Rice campus,” Garza said. “And I think they’re overlooked. They’re not flashy, but they’re made by one of the most important living American artists and are an incredible example of the engineering feats that can be made possible at Rice.”

Beck, too, was taken by the pink granite monoliths when Garza first led him into the Engineering Quad. Originating in a quarry outside Marble Falls, Texas, each 66-ton slab made its way to Houston on three 36-wheel flatbed trucks in December 1984. At the time, they were among the largest natural objects to be transported by modern man.

Jarrod Beck

Beck was inspired by Michael Heizer’s famous granite monoliths in the Rice Engineering quad: “45°, 90°, 180°.” (Photo by Lynn Lane)

“I’m an artist who gravitates toward Heizer, toward the gravity of those 66-ton pieces of granite that were ripped from the earth and positioned at these crazy angles,” Beck said. That journey from Central Texas to the Gulf Coast factored into his decision to position his own response, “Origin, 135 degrees,” in such a way that the Heizers are still visible, albeit faintly.

“I didn’t want it to feel like I was completing the Heizers, because they’re complete,” Beck said. “I wanted it to be pushed further so that you had the sense of a journey. I hope that a few people are grabbed by that.” But, he added with a laugh, “if they don’t make the connection, that’s okay.”

As for the structure itself, Beck is also mindful that many onlookers don’t know what to make of it at first glance. “That’s one of the things I love about public art — interacting with people and getting asked those really simple questions like, ‘What is it?’ or ‘Why isn’t it a butterfly?’” Beck said. “I like to test out different answers to what I think it is.”

At its simplest, “Origin, 135 degrees” is an assemblage of steel beams. They span 140 feet in one direction, 18 in another. The structure is 9 feet tall, with hand-sized lumps of resin clay plastered to several of the beams, seemingly at random. Tree branches from live oaks overhead dip in and out of its scaffolding. It’s a piece that has inspired inquisitiveness since it was installed last fall.

“People are just generally curious about what it is,” Garza said. “I think most assume that something is about to be constructed, which is perfect because that angle — 135 degrees — is an angle that appears to be in a state of collapse. And the back end of the work really does appear to seem as if it’s collapsing, so there is this notion of implied movement. So when I hear that people think that it seems incomplete, I think that’s almost the perfect immediate reaction.”

This, for Beck, is the first element of his work: occupying a space that was previously occupied by something else (or nothing) and that inspires people to question what was there before, and why this thing — whatever they make of it — is here now. It’s a work defined by its openness, a representation of potential. “I wouldn’t say it feels unfinished, but rather feels open to something happening,” Beck said.

"Origin, 135 degrees"

Fist-sized lumps of resin clay are marked with the individual handprints of every Rice student and Houston participant who helped Beck and Garza assemble “Origin, 135 degrees” last October. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

The second element of the work is the resin clay, fist-sized lumps marked with the individual handprints of every Rice student and Houston participant who helped Beck and Garza assemble “Origin, 135 degrees” last October. The process took two days, and assistance was provided by students, Moody Center for the Arts staff and other Houstonians Beck met while he was visiting the Rice campus, leading workshops and giving talks, including one at Anderson Hall Oct. 13 as part of the Rice Architecture Mentorship Lectures in conjunction with the School of Architecture.

“The lumps add to the curiosity factor — to make it so that you’re not only looking at the piece from afar,” Beck said. “All those lumps are the negative spaces of hands; it is a way to say to people something happened here.'”

What Beck calls the “third phase” of “Origin, 135 degrees” will happen in April when he disassembles the structure to remove it from campus. It will then take a long journey — not unlike the Heizers — to Beck’s ranch in West Texas, where it will be re-erected in the Chihuahuan Desert to weather and age and transform even further in its new climate. “I’m interested to see what time will do to it,” Beck said.

As Garza sees it, the first piece in the “Platform” series has been a success, and not only at engaging the public through its attention-demanding inscrutability.

“For a university like Rice where science and mathematics are really and truly at the core of so much of its wheelhouse, I think choices like this that speak to the meeting place of art and technology, and art and science, are really important for the future of Rice Public Art and for the betterment of campus life,” Garza said. “Works like Jarrod’s and Heizer’s really encourage Rice students to think critically and creatively about what is possible in both science and art.”

In the meantime, “Origin, 135 degrees” will continue to confound and compel for the next four months, raising more questions than it answers. Beck likes to imagine what passersby will make of the 2,500-square-foot plat of land between Rayzor and Sewall halls once the steel beams vanish this spring. “That piece is garnering energy around it, and that will be taken away,” Beck said. “People will actually think about that piece a lot more once it’s gone.”

His hope for both “Origin, 135 degrees” and the “Platform” series is that they’ll encourage others to view such passive spaces differently, to perhaps engage with those spaces, to create public art of their own. “I got permission to do this, but so could you — and I’m saying that to anyone,” Beck said.

Far from being a deterrent, the temporary nature of “Origin, 135 degrees” on the Rice campus propelled Beck’s entire creative process, by offering a bridge to the artists who follow him in the “Platform” series. “I’d like to say at the end that I made an open structure for what’s next,” Beck said. “Another artist will occupy that.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.