Public Sculpture is Having a Moment in the Midwest

IMG_3175On August 8, my beloved, complex, imperfect city of Chicago did the civic/art version of an historical battlefield reenactment…sort of. The event marked the fiftieth anniversary of the public unveiling on August 15, 1967 of Picasso’s untitled metal behemoth, now known simply as “The Picasso” (see Google Maps) or in its updated 2017 social media parlance, #EveryonesPicasso. So once again the mayor (Rahm Emanuel filling in so to speak for Richard J. Daley), artists, performers, civic luminaries, and a wide range of everyday Chicagoans (Loop workers on lunch breaks, those present in 1967, invested cultural types like myself, and even a handful of very vocal protestors–this is Chicago after all) gathered on a beautiful midwestern summer day to celebrate this odd, towering, now-iconic symbol of our city.

The City designated 2017, “The Year of Public Art (YOPA),” an initiative meant to celebrate the past legacies as well as the present and future possibilities of an art ostensibly for/ of the people, accessible or at least visible to all, that energizes and enlivens lived, urban space. While already deep into the calendar year, the Picasso celebration was a bit of a kick off for the second half of a robust calendar of events, exhibitions, films, and symposia taking place this autumn. As ever with public art, the results are never as unencumbered, apolitical, or universally accessible–itself often a highly problematic ideal–as one might hope, and I certainly approached this event with a great deal of skepticism and cynicism, anticipating a bit too much rah-rahing from a city government that has slashed budgets, had a difficult relationship with public schools, and governed in a time of absolutely horrendous, tragic gun violence. Additionally, it seemed a bit odd, even retrograde to re-enact an event that lauded a work a renowned if somewhat disengaged artist who never saw the work installed and arguably “phoned-in” the design a bit (honestly, the sculpture as a sculpture, even as a large-scale one, is not great… paling in comparison, in almost every way, to Calder’s magnificent Flamingo a few blocks south). The surprising thing, however, is that is was nice to see and participate in such a public display of, well, appreciation for ART. Anniversaries and celebrating history are important, crucial to a continued collective civic consciousness, and this event also provided an opportunity, as was evoked numerous times throughout the ceremony, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the now-destroyed Wall of Respect mural, the legacy of Jane Adams and Hull-House, recent successful iterations of public art like Anish Kapoor’s Cloudgate (“the Bean”), and even the foundational role Chicago played in the histories of jazz, blues, gospel, and house music. The event, maybe in part because it did not replicate the dramatic unsheathing of the sculpture, was really not about the Picasso at all or even public sculpture, but rather served as an acknowledgement of art’s continued and lasting importance, especially, idealistic or not, art that is free–a message that feels even more critical in the political climate of 2017.

Jim Dine, The Heart Called After the Flood, 2001. Bronze, ed. 2/6, 89 x 78 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago.

Chicago’s “YOPA” coincided with another celebration of public art, taking place in another city by the lake: Sculpture Milwaukee. Envisioned as an annual event, the city of Milwaukee, working with private/ corporate entities, the Milwaukee Art Museum and other cultural partners, and twenty-one local, national, and international artists, launched a six month outdoor exhibition of twenty-two sculptures along a one-mile stretch of Wisconsin Avenue in June.

Dennis Oppenheim, Safety Cones, 2017. Blaze cast fiberglass, steel, and acrylic, 216 x 86 x 86 in. each. Courtesy of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, New York

The organizers did a solid job selecting the artists. Yes, there is the requisite Deborah Butterfield “horse” sculpture and “big” or “bigger” names like Lynda Benglis, Santiago Calatrava (whose museum at one end of the route has become a Milwaukee icon itself), Tony Cragg, and Dennis Oppenheim, whose posthumously made, bright orange cones are populist catnip but also an undeniable delight. There are also a number of local and regional artists included including Paul Druecke, Michelle Grabner, Jason S. Yi, and Tony Tasset, the only artist to have two works included. None of the works are site-specific, with the majority being made prior to 2017, on loan from private galleries (most are for sale, though a percentage of proceeds are said to go to Sculpture Milwaukee), and have been previously shown elsewhere. Some are more successful as sculpture than others, and many suffer from unfortunate placement, succumbing to the reality that with public art it is not just about the size of the object(s) but scale and the work’s interaction with the space around it. At the end of the day, a sculpture placed in a planter, even if a beautifully landscaped planter, is just never going to do it for me. Taken together, however, the sculptures all become impactful through their collectivity, through their cumulative mass, and because of the diversity of materials, subject matter, and form, Sculpture Milwaukee succeeds as having something for everyone. Normally such platitudes of populism make for the worst kind of art, but here functions as a sort of cross-section of public sculpture, showing its diversity.

Jessica Stockholder, Angled Tangle, 2014. Steel, aluminum, auto paint, plastic bollards, wood chips, 480 x 240 x 144 in. Courtesy of the Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago

For example, I responded strongly and positively to contributions by two very different artists, Jessica Stockholder and Sol LeWitt. Though nearly consumed by the massive parking lot surrounding it, Stockholder’s Angled Tangle, with its plastic bollards, metal barriers, and hanging lights felt completely natural to its surrounding while also enlivening what is otherwise a most banal, harsh location with a sense of whimsy. The result was feeling like you had entered or were inhabiting an island playground in the midst of an asphalt sea.

Sol LeWitt, Tower (Gubbio), 1996. Concrete Block, 225 x 112 x 122 in. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York

Lewitt’s Tower, placed on a corner surrounded by brick and concrete midrises, mimicked more than floated amongst its surroundings, and honestly, the more I looked at and walked around the work, the more I just wanted to laugh at the presence of this inert, functionless tower of concrete blocks. I was also was taken aback by its sheer material presence. Laughter and a sense of heavy matter are rarely a sensations I get while encountering a LeWitt, a notoriously serious, conceptual artist known for his drawings and light white-painted wood constructions. Placed on this street corner and seeing its internal rigid geometries reflected in the urban grids around it, the sculpture made me see not only LeWitt, but the environment differently–for me, hallmarks of successful public sculpture. These two examples, will certainly not be the favorites of everyone who visits Sculpture Milwaukee or simply happened to walk by on Wisconsin Ave., but again, in going back to problems of accessibility and visibility, Sculpture Milwaukee presents some interesting solutions.

Signage for Sculpture Milwaukee. Tony Cragg’s Mixed Feelings (2010) is visible in the background.

Sculpture Milwaukee has a well-conceived and executed framework. The sculptures were sited along Wisconsin Ave., a main thoroughfare cutting through downtown, starting at the lakefront and the Milwaukee Art Museum, connecting to the river and ending just past the Wisconsin Center (the city’s convention center) and before the area surrounding the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Public Central Library. There is ample signage, labels next to each work, maps along the route.The exhibition comes up on Google Maps. There are self-guided tours, trolley and bus tours if you can’t or don’t want to walk.T here are docent-led tours…i.e. it is easy to get to, find, see.

Sculpture Milwaukee is further accessible through online platforms. There is an app. There is a user-friendly, informative, professionally-done website, and there is a growing body of photographs available through social media platforms.

Mark di Suvero’s The Calling (1982), with Paul Druecke’s Shoreline Repast (2017) and Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum visible in the background.

Sculpture Milwaukee is temporary, only installed for six months, which heads off any complaints regarding siting, eyesores, etc. You don’t like a sculpture, fine, it will be down soon.

Sculpture Milwaukee heightens the presence and visibility of public sculpture and art more generally in the city, not only by installing these temporary pieces but also bringing attention to pre-existing sculptures, monuments, and artworks throughout the city.

In an age of Instagram-able moments, Sculpture Milwaukee taps into the idea of art as must-see experience or event. Now I understand and even propagated the arguments against such spectacularization of art, and one only need look at the Hirshhorn’s recent Yayoi Kusama exhibition as an example of this, but honestly, at the end of the day, I think it is great when people get excited about and actually go see art. I walked the Sculpture Milwaukee route on a sunny Wednesday morning around 10am and there were numerous people, groups of people!, doing the same and doing it for free, perhaps in their own “backyard.” Public art, in particular, plays a significant role in keeping urban cores vibrant, as both Sculpture Milwaukee and Chicago’s Year of Public Art show. Would I like to see more people and cultural institutions push the boundaries of what public art or sculpture can mean and how it can function/ shape/ enliven the cities of the twenty-first century? YES, of course, but given that accomplishing anything on the scale of these initiatives within the bureaucratic structures and budget constraints of city governments is unbelievably hard, I think both present ambitious, significant, strong first steps. One need only look at projects like artist-organized, DCASE/ City of Chicago sponsored Floating Museum project, which takes as its mission, “the challenge to re-imagine our city as a Museum Campus, and its neighborhood as galleries,” to see exciting new directions and possibilities of public art taking place here in the Middlewest.


Sculpture Milwaukee runs through October 22; Chicago’s Year of Public Art has events ongoing through the end of 2017. 

3 thoughts on “Public Sculpture is Having a Moment in the Midwest

  1. You write about LeWitt’s work: ” I just wanted to laugh at the presence of this inert, functionless tower of concrete blocks. I was also was taken aback by its sheer material presence.” To what extent does the significance of this work depend on its identification with Sol LeWitt? If the answer is “almost entirely”, then fundamental questions of meaning arise.

    1. Great comment Jens! No, I don’t think that reaction is predicated on knowing anything about LeWitt – regardless of your art historical knowledge there is something a bit comical/ absurd about the tower of concrete blocks, amongst all those larger “concrete blocks”!

  2. Great comment Jens! No, I don’t think that reaction is predicated on knowing anything about LeWitt – regardless of your art historical knowledge there is something a bit comical/ absurd about the tower of concrete blocks, amongst all those larger “concrete blocks”!

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