Sculpture from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Landmarks: The Public Art Program of The University of Texas at Austin
by Eric Zimmerman
Public sculpture, and public art in general, is experiencing a resurgence of sorts. Strategies are diverse and range from traditional public sculpture to social actions and performance projects. Alexander Calder’s 1969 La Grande Vitesse commissioned by the city of Grand Rapids represents traditional public sculpture—bulking steel abstractions occupying lonely plots in city plazas or corporate atria—at its most successful. Calder’s piece was such a symbol of civic pride it became a logo emblazoned on the city’s garbage trucks. Contemporary projects along these same lines include Doug Aitken’s Sleepwalkers (2007), a mulit-screen cinematic project in which Aitken projected a series of interweaving narratives onto the concrete and glass façade of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The piece activates the public space of the architecture and surrounding city blocks in a manner not entirely unlike a steel sculpture.
On the other end of the spectrum and of no less importance are the social actions and projects executed by individual artists. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s performance works, including her well known Maintenance Art Performance Series (1973-74), are striking examples of community and social engagement. Creative Time’s 2008 project Democracy in America: The National Campaign, which had an Austin presence and featured a series of variety-show-esque performances by Rodney McMillian and Olga Koumoundouros, represents the ongoing presence of these types of public artistic production. The edges between these categories are not strict, but each represents a distinct type of public artistic production. In the case of public sculpture, these works activate urban spaces and, ideally, create a sense of place and, in the case of public projects, these works engage communities in social actions to build history, ties and awareness.
Landmarks, The University of Texas at Austin’s new public art program, is currently in the first phase of a three-part process and has adopted traditional public sculpture as its starting point. The second initiative promises to bring new works to campus by requiring building renovations and new construction projects to devote a small portion of their budget to public art and the third initiative promises to draw upon philanthropic gifts to enhance other shared public spaces. The first initiative has brought twenty-eight (twenty-six at the time of writing) sculptures to UT’s Forty Acres on long-term loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tony Smith’s Amaryllis (1965), Robert Murray’s Chilkat (1977) and Donald Lipski’s The West (1987) are the most notable among the loaned works, as well as Mark di Suvero’s Clock Knot (2007), which was loaned separately by the artist himself and is the only work the University has publically committed to purchasing so far. Ranging in size from towering, in the case of the Clock Knot, to sofa size, as in Willard Boepple’s Eleanor at 7:15, the Met’s sculptures dot the University landscapes and interiors.
This kind of public sculpture is notoriously easy on the eyes, emphasizing formal qualities such as line, shape, surface, material and volume. There are a few occasions when the pieces begin to have dialogue with their sites and these are the most successful parts of Landmarks in its current phase. Tony Smith’s Amarylis occupies a nice location in a plaza just across the street from the Trinity entrance to the Texas Memorial Museum and in close vicinity to the Glen Rose Dinosaur Tracks. The folding black geometric form plays nicely off of the art deco architecture of the museum. Crystalline in nature Smith’s piece has subtle suggestions of geology and childlike playfulness that coincide well with the museum and the nearby dinosaur prints. Clock Knot, Mark di Suvero’s recently dedicated piece, also holds up well at its location on the corner of Dean Keaton and Speedway. The bright red limbs of the piece spring forth from a torqued and twisted metal knot at its center. Monumental in scale, the piece activates the grassy space between the chemical and mechanical engineering buildings, referencing engineering itself in its shiny steel confines. However, more often than not, these are objects to appreciate only aesthetically. Individual sites for the works are interchangeable and non-specific, their placement having little to no dialogue with their surroundings apart from their mere presence.
Upon visiting, be prepared to not be shy about walking into a number of university buildings, as many of the pieces are located indoors; the law school, main building and the Perry-Castaneda Library just to name a few—places not without rich and complex histories. With the program in its fledgling phase hopefully these sculptures will eventually cede their sites to works that talk more directly and productively within these contexts. Their neutrality is often the most unforgettable thing about these sculptures. I watched as masses of students walked by the works without so much as a second glance, or casually glided their hands over the surfaces while chattering away on their cell-phones. Again, there is hope that in the future works created for the Landmarks program will gain more relevance for the student body. This can perhaps be achieved through works that incorporates technology, community service, or are perhaps even collaborative in nature. Involvement of the UT and larger Austin community is critical for the future success of Landmarks and the way in which the program will gain local and national prominence.
The programs mission states: “Landmarks records our history, builds community and creates a sense of place, now and for future generations. Its projects represent the creativity, innovation and rigor that make the university one of the world’s best.” Building place and community require a large measure of specificity, impact and participation that, in general, these works quite frankly do not possess. If the university is indeed interested in rigor, innovation and creativity, let’s hope that as the program moves forward it embraces more relevant, contemporary and thought provoking pieces of public art. These should be things that really do build our community, record our history and attempt to do more than simply improve the aesthetic character and reputation of The University of Texas.
Eric Zimmerman is an artist who lives and works in Austin.