Friday, June 5, 2009


This photo, which I took in Pittsfield, MA and posted last year, pretty much sums up how I feel about public art. Not that public art can’t be good, but that it rarely is, because too much rote thinking is involved on the part of the artists, as well as those who commission it. Artists make art that looks like what they think public art—especially sculpture—should look like, and selection committees select it, without a lot of thought to site or placement. It’s hard to compete with nature—usually the environment would look a whole lot better without it (although I’m a big fan of her paintings, the pile of rust by Rebecca Horn that despoils Barcelona’s beautiful beach is a perfect example, and the Frank Gehry fish that lurks nearby, isn't much better).

I was back in Pittsfield today, at the Berkshire Medical Center (for an MRI on my foot which, of course, was completely cured by the fact that I was going for an MRI—just the way a snuffly, crying baby turns into a smiling picture of health the minute you enter the pediatrician’s office) where this sculpture caught my attention. Although I’d go for something a little more comforting and calming for a medical center—incorporating a water feature perhaps, or vegetation (it would be a great place for some surprise topiary)—the sculpture itself is not so bad, and its sleek lines and mirrored surface contrast nicely with the traditional architecture of the building behind it. But what’s with the sign at the bottom? What’s the point of installing something if you’re going to overwhelm any redeeming qualities it might have with a tacky sign? Who’s thinking here?

So I’m driving home, ranting to myself about how I’ll gladly add public sculpture to the list of things (museum wall text, artists statements, children’s music) that I plan to outlaw when king, when I see this—unmarked, unattributed, and perfectly at home in its environment—and am reminded, as with the Kinderhook snow sculpture I came across last winter, that the human artistic impulse has a place outside after all, just best, perhaps, when it’s not institutionalized.

But let's be positive. Send me examples of public art you think works. Or even better, we could compile a best and worst list.


Anonymous said...

I love the shark!

One of my least favorite pieces of public art in New York is Jim Dine's Venus (Venuses?) in midtown:

While one of my favorites is not too far away from there - Norman B. Colp's "Commuter's Lament" in one of the unending passageways of the Times Square subway station:

Anonymous said...

I loved the benches in the museum quarter in Vienna. Can they count even through they're functional?

Quick Google image search results:

Anonymous said...

Does Andy Goldsworthy count?

Kim Hambric said...

I do wish I had an example for you. I'll have to get out in the world and look around. I agree with you about the rust pile on the beach. It's intrusive and very depressing. The fish -- not so bad. At least it ties in somewhat with its surroundings.

I'm afraid if I look too hard or too closely at "public art" I will end up at the trauma center.

You might make a good king.

LXV said...

My favorite public art was the unpopular, but stunning Tilted Arc by Richard Serra, which, under cover of darkness was ripped out of its site at Federal Plaza during the time I lived in Chinatown when I could walk by and touch its walls. What a shock! I loved that thing and the scar left in the ground after its removal was a bitter thing. Public resentment brought this debacle to a head and resulted in the installation of a bunch of ditzy crap.

We are now faced with a problem over here in Jersey City because the 9/11 victims' families have been sold a bill of goods by a big architect, the Port Authority and various governors past & present who want to put up a monstrous behemoth at the edge of the river. This thing (for now, stymied by overruns and budget issues) would actually be 3 times larger than Serra's. It would be better if the thing were never built. The renderings put forth are a Photoshop fantasy minimizing the 200 x 30 foot dimensions of the walls. Do the math: it's a small city block. It is the most insensitive & inappropriate nonsense I've ever seen. Maya Lin, this ain't.

CAP said...

Yes, Maya Lin gets it about right.

But generally sculpture that has to fit in with architecture ends up looking like sculpture designed by an architect (cf: Gehry).

Too much fitting-in is as bad as too little!

That shark could be a dinosaur head as well, but either way it works!

martin said...

giant dubuffet tucked into a nook way up on a pedestal in philadelphia -

clyde du vernet hunt in bennington -

hood -

empire state underground christmas -

happy good friday -

shibuya sculpture thing, in shibuya tokyo -

uncle sam statue in troy -

daniel buren's bus stop benches in la -

american tree -

dumpy -

james wines -

j. massey rhind in albany -

salvador dali's monument avenue statue that was never made (in richmond) -

stitchy japanese house, in nagaoka japan -

haigh jamgochian -

broad street robot dance, richmond -

paul di pasquale's arthur ashe statue, in richmond -

Xainti said...

I agree with you about public art, Carol, with one caveat: Alberto Burri's "Grande Cretto"

After the city of Gibellina, Sicily was destroyed by a volcanic eruption, he reconstitued the city in concrete. You can find an image if you follow this link:


YHBHS said...

i love maya lin's work! incredible. and that shark, well, that is just fantastic!

Rob said...

Sadly, it takes a lot of courage for a committee to select powerful work for a public space and most groups don't have the strength or vision to outlast attacks from a vocal minority. You would think that the Washington Capital Commission would have learned something from Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial but have you seen the WWII Memorial? Very boring. It looks like they just threw it in to say they did it.

I've never seen anything by Calder that wasn't brilliant. Maybe I'm missing something but I think Mark di Suvero's piece ( outside the Hirshhorn Museum is a bad version of a Calder. Self-promotional, but you should check out Montpelier SculptCycle 2009,, if you're passing through central VT this summer.

Pretty Lady said...

How to make a link:

type (without the spaces)

< a href="http://yoururlhere.html" >WORD< /a >

Regarding public art: yes. Most of it looks like litter. I regard the human assumption that any action or construction on our part is an improvement upon nature, to be a thoroughly adolescent one, of which I have been as guilty as anyone.

Some of Twist's graffiti, however, hits a sweet spot. Also Swoon.

Oh, and the tunnel between 5th avenue and Bryant Park is pretty groovy.

Carol Diehl said...

Agreed! I just drove through a perfectly beautiful town that's temporarily dotted with outdoor sculpture--something in front of every building--and cringed. No wonder so many people think they dislike modern art.

And I'm pleased to know that so many others feel as I do about Maya Lin and the Vietnam Memorial; I think it's one of the great achievements of the last century.

Pretty Lady said...

Upon further consideration: I think public art is most appropriate in places like subway stations, that are already about as ugly as it is possible to get, and have already eradicated nature. Lots of the MTA art is cheesy, but it's still an improvement on dirty underground tunnels made of bathroom tile. Ditto mosaics and murals on the walls of bleak urban buildings.

In most other places, public art would do well to be almost completely replaced by public gardening.