Niki de Saint Phalle was the first artist to be commissioned to make an artwork for UCSD and Sun God was actually Saint Phalle’s first massive outdoor sculpture in the United States. The artist was chosen by the Stuart Collection Advisory Board, which consisted of Pontus Hultén, Pierre Restany, and Jim Demetrion, amongst others. Hultén and Restany were good friends of Saint Phalle and familiar with her creative spirit and artistic vision. Naturally, they were very much in support of her getting this project.
Saint Phalle submitted three different ideas for the proposed work; Life Saviour, Nana House, and Sun God. She, herself, favored Sun God, describing it as an “homage to the Southwest”.
“Birds have been a major theme in my work; I think they’re free and spiritual. I hope if I get reincarnated I’ll get turned into a bird. I love their magic, their freedom.”
In 1981, Saint Phalle visited the UCSD campus with husband and fellow artist Jean Tinguely to choose a location for the sculpture, which she found in a grassy field near the Mandeville Center for the Arts.
"When I came to UC San Diego, Jim DeSilva rented a helicopter to go around the campus for me to choose the place for my piece - and I was scared to death. I thought a lot about the roots of California, which were Native American and Mexican. I wanted something that would mean something on a spiritual level. And I chose an eagle."
Niki de Saint Phalle envisioned this massive 14-foot bird to be perched on an enormous concrete arch, which had to be built on-site at the university. Working off a miniature styrofoam maquette made by Saint Phalle, artist Mathieu Gregoire assisted in creating the arch made of steel, wire mesh, and spraying it with gunite.
The bird itself was constructed in the Haligon workshop in France and then transported to the school campus. The Haligon family had been working with Saint Phalle since the early 1970’s – creating molds for her sculptures, reproducing editions, and enlarging sculptures.
Mary Livingstone Beebe, longtime director of the UCSD Stuart Collection was vital in the planning and installation of Sun God. During this 3 year process, she also became a good friend of Saint Phalle.
In 1983, Sun God was finally delivered to the UCSD campus and installed on top of the enormous archway.
Beebe describes in her book Landmarks: Sculpture Commissions for the Stuart Collection at University of California, San Diego (University of California Press, 2020.): “A crane lifted Sun God, wrapped in packing garb, and flew it to the base. It was cemented in, and the Stuart Collection really had begun; Our bird was here to stay.”
“And it was met with a mixture of delight, distress, dismay, but it immediately became embraced as a campus character and almost an informal mascot so you know that has been very successful.” (Beebe, Mary Livingstone. Interview by Philippe Ungar, 10 May 2011)
Stemming from the Sun God sculpture, UCSD began organizing a campus festival of the same name Sun God Festival. It is an annual music and arts event, taking place every spring, that began in 1984 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Sun God installation. Over the years the festival has evolved, with booth sponsors, food trucks, and even waterslides to cool down from the San Diego heat.
Early on, Sun God became a landmark and meeting place for students on campus. Throughout the years, students have decorated and celebrated the big bird; wearing a cap and gown for graduation, holding a book, and yearly decorations for Sun God’sbirthday as well as holidays such as Christmas.
Albeit being in such a busy, public location, the Sun God has never been vandalized. The sculpture has been restored twice in its long-standing existence. In the early ’90s, Sun God began to fade due to sun exposure so the Haligon family traveled from France. The artisans removed all the paint off in order to re-do the paintwork and the gold leaf. Then in 2016, Sun God was again stripped down to its original white base because of paint cracking from weather exposure. This second restoration was headed by La Paloma Fine Arts who used Saint Phalle’s original sketches to match the color and gold leaf application.
Sun God is a significant sculpture for Niki de Saint Phalle and San Diego, not only because it is the first outdoor large scale artwork made by the artist in America, but also because of the meaning it had for her.
“It is a celebration, not just of the immensity and the beauty of the climate and the beauty of the landscape, but also the cultural identity between Mexican art…and Indian art. So there’s many cultures that meet here, many different landscapes. So that’s how this creature god of the sun, the life-giving force came about and that’s why he’s here today.”