A Loss of Permanence: Monumentality in the 21st Century

Presenting a paper recently on the monumental sculptural projects of Alexander Calder, David Smith, and Robert Smithson in Italy, as a part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s wonderful symposium The Course of Empires: American-Italian Cultural Relations, 1770-1980, (my presentation and the entire proceedings are viewable here, if you are so inclined), I drew upon two quotes from the mid-twentieth century on the topic of monumentality: … Continue reading A Loss of Permanence: Monumentality in the 21st Century

Public Sculpture is Having a Moment in the Midwest

On 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 … Continue reading Public Sculpture is Having a Moment in the Midwest

Photography as (Public) Sculpture: Amanda Ross-Ho at MCA Chicago

IMG_0848As far as public sculpture goes, the notion of an opening date seems a little odd. Unless done under total secrecy or very quickly, such large scale projects reveal themselves over time, after periods of long installation, and yet one day they are fully realized, completed and ready for public consumption. This past Tuesday, 23 July, marked such a day for The Character and Shape of Illuminated Things.

IMG_0857The third commissioned work in the Plaza Project series at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the occasion was marked with an outdoor talk with the Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based artist Amanda Ross-Ho and MCA curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm; speaking at the height of rush hour, on a beautiful, if blustery Chicago summer afternoon, the receding sunlight streaming through the skyscrapers surrounding the MCA. I mention the artist talk, not only because the idea was both insane (honking cabs! emergency sirens! random tourists wandering around!) and a perfect, surprisingly successful venue for discussion of a work that by its placement alone is meant to engage and implicate the public, but also because it threw into sharp focus some of the stronger formal and conceptual aspects of the work on view. Continue reading “Photography as (Public) Sculpture: Amanda Ross-Ho at MCA Chicago”

That Richard Serra in Grant Park…

Richard Serra, Reading Cones, 1988, Cor-Ten Steel, City of Chicago. Photo taken by author, 2013
Richard Serra, Reading Cones, 1988, Cor-Ten Steel,           City of Chicago. Photo taken by author, 2013

A “Richard Serra” has come to designate a very particular type of sculptural thing – almost always a hulking, mass of Cor-Ten steel plates of various curvature, carefully and complexly engineered, installed, and viewed. This is sculpture that can (and has) kill a person and depending on your disposition and/or feelings about Serra, can read as impressive, oppressive, or some combination of the two. Whether seen positively or negatively, however, Serra’s sculptures undeniably makes a statement. They commandeer and define Frank Gehry-designed gallery spaces, required the Museum of Modern Art to preemptively fortify the floors of their newest building, and stand up to – and harmonize with – large swaths of majestic natural landscapes.

IMG_0696This brings me to  Reading Cones, or as its known to Chicagoans, ‘oh, that Richard Serra in Grant Park…’ (or perhaps more aptly, ‘oh that – ugly/weird/adjective of choice – hunk of steel with all that graffiti on in it Grant Park that smells like pee’). I cannot recall how many times I have driven, biked, or walked by it and barely given it a second thought – and this from an avowed Serra apologist, bona-fide admirer even. The thing is, the sculpture is small. A funny statement perhaps to make about a 17 ft. tall, 32 ton metal object, but in terms of scale and its relationship to its site – a massive park surrounded by the city and its distinctive buildings – the work seems, at best out of sync, and at worst, a bit dinky, to use a proper art historical descriptor. Continue reading “That Richard Serra in Grant Park…”

The Bay Lights

Today, a special guest post from Dr. Bridget Gilman on bridges and the remarkable Bay Lights project. Bridget studies postwar American art and is particularly interested in representations of the built environment. She received her Ph.D. in the History of Art from the University of Michigan.

by Bridget Gilman

It is difficult when writing about a bridge not to indulge the form’s metaphoric resonance. Bridges, of course, are built to connect landmasses, but also connote human mobility, connection, and transcendence. Like trains, highways, and other conduits of mass transportation, bridges are also often part and parcel of nation shaping and thus bear the weight of the governmental ideologies that propel their construction.

White City, World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893 (Image source: Flickr)
White City, World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection. (Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brooklyn_museum/2784211121/)

If bridges are inevitably metaphoric, light is likewise unavoidably symbolic—both in material and spiritual realms. Thus conceptions of the modern city are enmeshed with the presence of electric light, not simply on a utilitarian or technological level. To think of the world’s largest cities—and many of their monuments—is often to envision them at night, their skylines transformed from hulking masses to twinkling bodies of light and shadow. Iconic moments of urban luminosity range from the famous “White City” of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago to New York’s “Tribute in Light” memorial at the World Trade Center site, the combination of artificial light and architecture signifying an array of hopes and losses.

Neon Signage, San José, California (Photograph by author)
Neon Signage, San José, California (Photograph by author)

City lighting and urban infrastructure are clearly topics with deep, complex histories; discussion of their import and associations can get bogged down quite easily. But they are also things encountered in the everyday, and thus are fundamental to daily paths and routines. As someone fairly obsessed with the look and structure of the postwar American environment, practically nothing delights me more than the spectacle of vintage neon at old dive bars, motels, and restaurants. Likewise, there is perhaps no more thrilling ordinary spatial experience than a car ride over a large bridge. For just a moment life seems to become both distinctly physical, defined by the opposing pulls of the terrestrial and atmospheric, and existentially precarious, as the smallness and insignificance of a single body becomes all too clear.

Continue reading “The Bay Lights”