“Students call that ‘The French Fries from Hell.'”
Such was my introduction to contemporary public sculpture, which my mother offered while we were walking across the campus of the University of Florida when I was a young teenager. The object she was referring to, properly titled Alachua, is a massive work by artist John Henry comprised of two towering, angular clusters of aluminum beams which, when taken with their bright yellow paint job, easily suggest their popular nickname. Ironically, as a boy with no inkling that he would grow up to make public artworks, I was enamored with the stories of its occasional embellishment with red spray paint, and I distinctly remember wondering if I could climb on it. I did not wonder at the time what this object meant, or what purpose it served. It never occurred to me to ask why these “fries” were sitting in the middle of public plaza in the first place, or how I ought to think about them.
I wasn’t interested in the history or ontology of objects as a boy. I just wanted to play, and cared little for a more mature interaction with art. Looking at a work of art and engaging it with interest and curiosity should be playful, imaginative work, but it is also demanding. For a viewer to fully mine the variety of ways artworks are capable of communicating requires patient, informed attention. Yet a far too common way of engaging with art (even artists are guilty of this at times!) is a bit like quickly scanning the shelves of a library, and then somehow assuming that we have read those books. One is no more likely to significantly absorb a work of art at a glance than to get to know Ignatius J. Reilly by staring at the spine of a Confederacy of Dunces. Books can only do what they do if they are read, and art only does what it does if it is really looked at—if it is patiently digested with the eyes. And looking, like literacy, is a learned activity.
Looking at art requires that a person learn to recognize a particular type of language. Learning a written language involves learning how certain abstract symbols (characters or letters and the words they form) connect to concrete external realities. Reading, then, is spending time letting one’s eyes pass over a book’s pages and allowing the objects, ideas and relationships that the words and letters represent to take form as a whole in the mind.
Similarly, looking at art requires learning to identify specific aesthetic languages and their corresponding visual vocabularies. Some art will be harder for general audiences to understand, because some visual languages are simply more specialized and complex than others, requiring a greater degree of active study to read and speak. So the inability to read a particular language should not cause a person to conclude that a particular text is incomprehensible garbage, as is often the case with a general audience’s take on modern and contemporary art. Ideally this should pique a person’s curiosity and determination to learn more about an artist, or art movement. Aesthetic stewardship means moving beyond childlike responses to visual philosophy (which is really what academic contemporary art is) and toward informed, faithfully reasoned responses, even if that response is, “I don’t get it.” Understanding a work of art still doesn’t mean one has to like it, but a determination of cultural value can only be made from a position of knowledge.
This is not to say that a person who is not conversant in the more technical languages of art will not benefit from interacting with sculptures or paintings; however, objects may be engaged on increasingly complex levels. A patient child may read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and enjoy the tale of a captain’s quest for the whale that destroyed his boat and bit off his leg, but he is unlikely to penetrate the deeper symbolic nuances or the literary and historical intricacies of the text. Whales can mean many things. As a boy I could recognize the basic (legitimate) symbolic connection between Alachua and fried potatoes thrusting up from Sheol, but I was unable to recognize the sculpture’s connection to the conventions of post-World War II modernist public sculpture—the actual key to why it was there, in that particular space, for the general public to just happen upon. So, what is going on when we encounter “whales” in the form of public sculptures?
Case Study: For Pittsburgh
If, as painter Barnett Newman famously described, sculpture is “what you bump into when you back up to see a painting” in a museum or gallery, public sculpture might be described as what you bump into when you are just minding your own business. A person never knows when, in some open, urban space, he or she might stumble upon an object that appears to be art. Yet, in modern times, what is or is not “sculpture” can be tricky to define. Influential art theorist Rosalind Krauss, in her essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” while outlining the “categorical no-man’s land” of modernist sculpture in the late 1970s, begins her analysis by describing it as “what was on or in front of a building that was not the building, or what was in the landscape that was not the landscape.”
An example of a sort of “not-landscape” and “not-architecture” that I’d like to discuss is the public installation titled For Pittsburgh, by American artist Jenny Holzer. Located at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the sculpture scrolls the entire text of three literary works, each set in Pittsburgh, using two rows of blue LED lights installed along the sweeping ascent of the convention center’s 350-foot roofline. Words scroll vertically, tracing the contour of the architecture using three-foot high letters to display the texts of Annie Dillard’s “An American Childhood,” Thomas Bell’s “Out of this Furnace,” and Edgar Wideman’s Homewood Books, “Sent for You Yesterday,” “Hiding Place,” and “Damballa.” While legible from closer distances, the words simply appear as two glowing ribbons of blue light from across the Allegheny River to the northwest and areas of downtown Pittsburgh to the southeast.
Before I conclude with a rumination on this work, I want to set it in the context of two other forms of public sculpture that we may be more familiar with seeing: monuments, and modern public sculpture.
We have all seen a monument at one time or another. Imagine: man in a military uniform with an upheld sword on the back of a rearing horse, or towering marble obelisk. It is generally not very difficult to “get” a monument. There’s a reason for that—a monument, Rosalind Krauss explains, “sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolic tongue about the meaning or the use of that place.” Even a monument’s pedestal, Krauss writes, serves an important purpose because it mediates “between actual site and representational sign.” Yet beginning in the late 19th century, sculptors began to make objects without pedestals, recognizable figures, swords, uniforms or engraved inscriptions. Krauss describes this changing dynamic as “the fading of the logic of the monument.” So without the familiar visual language of the monument, how would a general audience react to the new sculpture?
As it happened, general audiences often had a hard time moving beyond confusion, offense or both. For a while, a great deal of the new sculpture was kept mostly out of public view in a new type of institution for housing art: the museum. One could voluntarily avoid these places. But tensions were heightened during the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, as cities throughout the United States began active programs to commission public sculptures, using public funds. This led to battles between local governments, concerned citizens, artists and curators, and resulted in the occasional removal of controversial artworks by public referendum or legal action. At the root of this tension lay the fact that much of this sculpture was exploring the definition and language of sculpture itself—an important conversation, but not broadly accessible to the public that was paying for it.
Addressing the particular culture, history, architecture or landscape of the place the sculptures inhabited, or the people who would interact with the work, was not a driving concern of the artists or those that commissioned the work. These commissions were viewed as a way for the cultural elites to educate the public about art. This was not a bad idea, per se, but it was approached with very little educational strategy. Charles Cunningham, then director of the Art Institute of Chicago, said regarding the 1967 unveiling of the monumental “Chicago Picasso,” “Those who haven’t experienced this type of art may not like it, but that’s alright. Not too many years from now, it will be accepted by the man on the street, as Van Gogh and the others are today.”
Another important factor in this process was the fact that high modern architecture had provided plenty of “pure” sites and open plazas in urban spaces that, like the museum, would allow the work to exist in self-referential autonomy. Artists working within this “city as museum” were more than happy to utilize the space. And the folks working in the adjacent buildings were often more than happy to complain about it.
On the other hand, we see a different approach in a work like Jenny Holzer’s For Pittsburgh. Called a “site-specific” installation, the sculpture works with the architecture, rather than being situated in an architectural “neutral site,” and utilizes it to influence the way that the viewer perceives the content of the work. And in this case the work’s content issues from the texts of books that find their origin in the local culture of the city of Pittsburgh. It is through this site-specificity—its sensitive architectural and cultural rootedness—that For Pittsburgh reframes home-grown texts and invites the viewer to enter into an imaginative, allusive interplay with the words and the place.
By contrast, John Henry’s Alachua, while intended, according to the artist, to “express the exuberance of Alachua County’s multi-faceted cultural personality,” utilizes a visual vocabulary, which, when combined with the sculpture being sited in an open public plaza, places it squarely within the heritage of that earlier vein of modernist public sculpture. This draws its stated cultural and geographic specificity into question. Driving this point home is another sculpture by John Henry, located just one mile from Holzer’s For Pittsburgh. Titled simply Pittsburgh, the sculpture is comprised of an angular cluster of steel beams, painted yellow, and situated in an open grassy area of a public park. Created in 1977, eleven years before Alachua, it is commonly called “The French Fries” by locals. Sound familiar? The sculptures are connected to their site most fundamentally in sheer, raw, physical presence, and they are intended to draw attention to their own imposing form, rather than operating as a lens to something beyond themselves.
For Pittsburgh, on the other hand, adopts the city’s hardcover prose, transposes it into a unique sort of kinetic, concrete poetry, and offers it back to the city’s people. And while the pages of a book represent a particular type of space for words—a portable, bound site, important for a text to maintain both mobility and integrity—For Pittsburgh, while anchored, lofts its texts into the open atmosphere of the city. The words are no longer insulated within a volume’s leaves, but are reunited with the living, moving, breathing happenings of the city that gave them birth. The stories become delicate, ascending threads of text that, whether skimmed or read at length, possess the further potential of being woven back into the spontaneous, real-time fabric of the culture that gave them birth.
Temporality plays a significant role in For Pittsburgh, as the onlooker is invited to fall in step with the uniform, perpetual crawl of the scrolling letters. Restoring immediacy to the stories presented, there are no bookmarks, and no reading ahead in the unfolding of this narrative. In a way that can be both disconcerting and delightful, the reader must be fully present to remain in the action—an alert state that can be both exhilarating and wearying.
And yet, just when there appears to be no room for rest in For Pittsburgh‘s thread of text, one discovers a relaxing fidelity in the story’s unending ascent. While the narratives in For Pittsburgh are endlessly attenuated, they are not chaotic. They redeem, rather than embrace, the horizontal, fragmented, rapid-fire character of the downtown news ticker. Whether taking in one word, one sentence, or one chapter, the reader may delight in knowing that the story was rolling before they arrived, and will continue to steadily move on to its completion after they are gone. And even as the words emerge at eye level—a distinctly human scale—they draw the eyes upward as they steadily climb the contour of the rising roofline, extending finally as a safe corridor between the threatening, wave-like walls, holding them at bay with a thin, blue, luminescent strand.