When traveling I always seem to seek out art. It can be artwork expressed by nature in rock formations and the colors of geology. It can be art inside the airport or part of a museum collection. I just know art touches us each in profoundly different ways.
Since mankind's earliest cave paintings, art has been part of, or wonderfully integrated into, our built world in our architecture and fine public works projects. Examples blend seamlessly into the fabric of cities. The art deco details and light fixtures of the Golden Gate Bridge are a good example.
Over the past two decades architecture schools have instructed that the architecture itself "is" the art. I have even had collaborating architects complain to me that the client "did not leave them enough budget to add architecture" to their projects, as if it was some kind of additive. That comment always makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. It has left our present built world increasingly impoverished as we see yet another rusting metal lattice screen placed over a wall of glass pronounced as "architecture".
Conversely, examples of art integrated into our urban fabric and in our architecture were common until the post war fifties when America joined in the move to "modernism" which changed everything.
Prior to that I particularly love how master architects in America (like Bertram Goodhue - LA Riordin Library and Nebraska State Capital) collaborated closely with artists to integrate art into their buildings.
Sometimes art in public places is simply what I call "plop art". It is just art that lands somewhere and really has no real connection to the place it resides. Some art looks like it came from a catalog (and in fact many of those "bronze children doing cute crap" sculptures at shopping malls are indeed right out of catalogs).
So this posting illustrates examples where, in my humble opinion, art works. I realize many won't agree with me and I assure you I think that is wonderful! Art is like music and color, everyone likes something different. But this is my blog.
LA County Museum of Art
Los Angeles, California
When art relates to, and forges connections with, the people whose life it will touch, it is most successful. When I saw Urban Light I immediately loved it. The artist carefully restored 200 antique light fixtures from all over Los Angeles. In essence this work reinforced the value of an everyday icon of the urban fabric. Icons that were slowly disappearing. Now in this massive cluster they demand attention as a whole. Yet, the assemblage makes us look at the lights themselves as the objects of art they are. Some have indian motifs in the base, all have that lovely almond globe. At night it is magic. The artist says they make "a statement about what constitutes a civilized and sophisticated society: safe after dark and bold and beautiful". I can't find words to improve on that.
Urban Light (Context)
Art Incorporated Into The Built World
The Memory Sculpture
Emory P. Seidel
I love the Memory Sculpture at the end of the New York Street Bridge in Aurora Illinois. Completed in 1931 it commemorates the soldiers lost in World War One. After nearly a century no icon represents the second largest city in Illinois better to me. We recently reinterpreted the Memory Sculpture into the column supports of Aurora's new Police Headquarters / Branch Courts.
Jack Sanders, Robert Gay, Butch Anthony
This stunning temporary art installation resided in a median near the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington Virginia. I feel it was important in a couple of ways. First off, it was lovely. Second, it showcased sustainability as each LED light was powered by solar energy.
The Fremont Troll
Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, Ross Whitehead
Ok art doesn't all have to be serious. For almost two decades there really has been a huge troll living under the Aurora Bridge in Seattle. He is crushing a full sized VW bug in his hand (which used to have a California license plate - representing the deep affection Washington State residents have always had for Californian's).
This art could not reside more effectively in any other place. It is where it is supposed to be. His sparkling eye is a hubcap. Humor meets art here and the fusion is wonderful.
Home to The Troll, America's tallest Lenin sculpture (what the heck is that all about?), and the frozen-in-time people Waiting For The Interurban, I vote the Fremont District of Seattle as America's home to the most funky art.
Waiting for the Interurban
Waiting for the Interurban is probably the sculpture that made me fall in love with public art. It appeared about the same time I lived in Seattle in 1979. It was one of the first public art pieces in Seattle at that time that was not some kind of pile of rocks. It portrays a group of cold commuters waiting in a bus shelter for transit that will never come.
While the piece itself is a wonderful aluminum casting, it is the relationship it has forged with the community that I find amazing. Seasonally, the statues are festooned in halloween costumes. They have party hats on New Years Eve. Every special event in Fremont is somehow translated and made manifest in the sculpture. Yet, it can make us think as well. When Abu Grabe was exposed, Seattle woke to find sacks tied over the heads of the people waiting for the interurban.
If you go to see this one, look at the face of the dog peeking between the legs. He has a human face. It is the face of the self proclaimed "Mayor of Fremont" who, at the time the sculpture was created, was vocally opposed to it.
Another Beyer sculpture I love is "Lunch Break" in Anchorage. Sadly, I could not find a photo of it. It is located at Anchorage's bus repair garage which is at the edge of the huge Far North Bicentennial Park. It depicts a bus driver sitting on a boulder to eat his lunch. He has his sandwich in his outstretched hand to share with the bear who is climbing up over the back of the rock.
The Big Blue Bear
Denver Convention Center
While on the subject of bears, Denver wins the award for the biggest one. When I drove by Denver's freshly expanded Convention Center, I first saw The Bear. It is big and it is blue. It is the world's largest peeping tom and it lets everyone know that there is always something worth looking at in the convention center. I love it.
Conversely, I'm not too thrilled with the ominous giant blue bucking mustang with glaring electrical eyes that appeared at Denver's airport last year. It also has bad karma. In fact the torso of this sculpture fell over and killed the sculptor (I am not making this up). Someone else had to finish it.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial
The Butzer Design Partnership
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Art can move from humor to profound. Personally I don't know how anyone can visit America's sacred places such as the Vietnam Memorial and not leave emotionally drained. None, however, has moved me as deeply as the memorial in Oklahoma City dedicated to the victims of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
One of the major features are The Chairs. Each "chair" has the name of a victim etched in its glass base. The 168 chairs are arranged in rows representing the floor a victim was visiting or worked on. Little chairs represent the children who died. Chairs with two names represent the three pregnant women in the building. Chairs to the side represent victims in adjacent buildings or on the street. The chair bases are illuminated at night.
The Rescuer's Wall
Eloquent words painted on the wall of the adjacent building by a rescuer remain. They tell the whole story.
In front of the 9:03 Gate is a cyclone fence that is constantly filled with items left by visitors. Originally intended to preserve the site, the fence filled a need to allow visitors to interact with the place, and this required its incorporation into the final memorial.
Gates of Time
In what was once the street is now a reflecting pool. Water gently flows from one gate to another. Inscribed in one gate is 9:01. Inscribed in the other is 9:03. This represents the innocence of the minute before, the horror of 9:02 in between, and 9:03, the minute recovery began.
Across the street is a sculpture of Jesus looking away from the scene of devastation toward the site of St. Joseph's Church. The old brick and mortar church was destroyed in the blast. Inscribed in the base of the sculpture is the shortest sentence in the Bible: "Jesus Wept".
So did I.
Love him or hate him, Frank Gehry proves with his Pritzker Pavilion that (despite my rants to the contrary) sculpture can be expressed in modern architecture. I know that his bandstand at Chicago's new Millennium Park is a complete joy. I have witnessed it both as urban living room for frisbee tossing kids and as a grand outdoor theater and picnic zone for spring and summer outdoor concerts. This park, and the art it contains, proves the urban core of Chicago has a vibrantly beating heart.
The Crown Fountain
What could represent a place better than representations of its people? This was the sentiment of the artist for the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. The faces in the water covered pylon constantly move and change expressions. They wink, they smile, and when their mouth's open water springs forth. In the summer, kids frolic in this fountain all day and into the warm evening.
Ok, lets forget the hokey name. To Chicagoan's it is fondly referred to as "The Bean". While sorta plop arty, it reflects the images of its surroundings beautifully (and arguably could not do so as successfully anywhere else).
Inside the Bean
Once inside the world view changes to reflect everyone in your presence. Very Cool!
I realize there are hundreds of great examples of public art. I can only scratch the surface. I just wanted to illustrate examples that over the years I have somehow connected with.
I'll let the world rage with the on-going arguments whether public art has a place in Americas finest cities.
All I know is that when it's appropriate it touches us and makes us laugh, or cry, or just think.
To me it is simple. Name any major city in the world worth visiting that is devoid of public art. Take your time. I'll wait.
Roadboy's Travels © 2009