Public Art That’s Truly Public

March 1, 2013 · Print This Article

Preface

This week the Fashion Institute of Technology held a panel on scale and spectacle called “Size Matters” (apparently unaware that they were in danger of ripping off and thereby angering curator Shaquille O’Neal, also a basketball player apparently, who curated an exhibition in 2010 by the title of “Size DOES Matter”). The panelists were Gavin Brown, Roberta Smith, Peter Halley and KAWS, with Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic.com as the moderator. There are a lot of panels all over the world and this one wouldn’t really be notable except that Julia Halperin, editor of Art + Auction, live tweeted it and one particular tweet caught my attention. Following the subject of the panel on scale, Halperin reported that “Roberta [Smith] likes Anish Kapoor’s Bean [Cloud Gate] in Chicago because you can have a private experience [with] it.”

This caught my attention, and the attention of at least two other writers, since it seems the exact opposite of what the actual experience of the artwork is—extremely public. I recalled an essay I had written years ago about the artwork but, wanting to share it with my colleagues, realized that I had never published it since I wanted to be sure to retain copyright over it. I imagine a lot of other writers also accumulate essays and articles never published for one reason or another.

So in the interest of expanding the dialogue around this iconic Chicago work it seems time to publish this essay albeit in slightly modified and updated form.

The Bean

“[O]ver the past 15 years public sculpture. . . has become one of contemporary art’s more exciting areas of endeavor and certainly its most dramatically improved one,” stated New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, in August of 2008, when she visited Chicago’s Millennium Park. And by all accounts, Chicago’s Millennium Park is an extraordinary success, inspiring other communities across the country to take on similar projects. The success of Millennium Park, and public art generally, lies in how the artworks function in relation to the city and the people. The artists have achieved a high degree of success in their respective creations, which directly makes the park successful in its mission: “to be a new public space for the people of Chicago.”

The mission of Millennium Park sounds a bit generic until one considers the difficult challenge behind that goal. Chicago is the third largest city in the U.S. and like all major cities is home to a variety of people and interests. We’re only drawn together by the fact that we are Americans and that we share certain intangible ideals. Other than that we differ in appearances, faith, language and a myriad of other things. We are alike, yet profoundly different. This has been the strength, and challenge, of American life since our country’s founding, and this is the strength of the public artwork in Millennium Park, that it allows the viewer to celebrate our differences while creating a tangible sense of community.

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, nicknamed “The Bean” by Chicagoans, is a large, highly polished stainless steel abstraction that looks like a round cloud pinned down on both ends. The reflective surface lures visitors in close, drawing them from far off as if by magnetic attraction. Cameras emerge and visitors start taking pictures, in groups, individually, up close, or far off. We try to find ourselves in the reflections and simultaneously we find ourselves surrounded by the city, and we see ourselves in the city, part of a fabric larger than ourselves. It’s a powerful metaphor that becomes real when we see a young Chicagoan make this connection.  Strangers inevitably become a part of other people’s pictures, guards are let down and conversations are struck up. The curving reflections of the work dissolve the barriers we put up between ourselves, drawing people into relation, and sometimes conversation, with each other.

The alien form of the abstraction identifies itself immediately as Art but does not alienate, instead it draws people in through their curiosity and the work’s generosity. Kapoor’s contribution accomplishes the mission of Millennium Park, while being wholly successful on its own terms. Rather than an indifferent sculpture, this is public art that lives up to the aspirations of its genre, bringing people together and inspiring them.




Rant of the Week: Roberta Smith Has the Post-Minimal Blahs

February 15, 2010 · Print This Article

Roberta Smith of the New York Times is way too classy and refined to actually rant. Yet despite the even-handedness of her tone, her argument here is impassioned. It also happens to be one that I agree with. Note the part where she reports that the MCA has yet to find a New York venue for its in-the-works Jim Nutt retrospective.  A brief excerpt below, then go read the full, lengthy piece from last Sunday’s paper here.

“To paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis, there is a whole lot of art making going on right now. All different kinds. But you’d hardly know it from the contemporary art that New York’s major museums have been serving up lately, and particularly this season.

The current exhibition of Gabriel Orozco at the Museum of Modern Art along with the recent ones of Roni Horn at the Whitney Museum and of Urs Fischer at the New Museum have generated a lot of comment pro and con. So has the Tino Sehgal performance exhibition now on view in an otherwise emptied-out Guggenheim rotunda. But regardless of what you think about these artists individually, their shows share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.”

Jim Nutt, Plumb, 2004. Private collection. Photo courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York




Francis Bacon, Fried

June 8, 2009 · Print This Article

francis-bacon-1Looks like Francis Bacon is getting singed by the art press. The recently-opened Francis Bacon retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has critics seriously reconsidering this painter’s legacy. Some excerpts, and links:

Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine: “…the Metropolitan’s retrospective, like most Bacon shows, makes it clear that he kept working his theme until it became a gimmick. The calculated pictorial repetitiousness and lack of formal development wear thin. Except for a number of fabulous portrait heads and the astounding Jet of Water—made in 1988, just four years before his death, featuring an enormous streak of blue paint across an interior—Bacon’s formula had grown stagnant by 1965.”

Roberta Smith, New York Times: “The stately if cursory survey of Bacon’s paintings that opened Wednesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests a more lasting pertinence: Bacon’s depiction of the love that until a few decades ago dared not say its name, much less demand the right to marry. Bacon convincingly painted men having sex and sometimes making love. Whether this makes him a great painter, it certainly secures him a place in the history of both painting and art. He emphatically turned the male gaze toward males.”

Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, (online access to the June 1st issue is paid only); here’s an excerpt from the summary they make available: “Vamped with an eclectic mix of Expressionist tactics and decorative longueurs, Bacon now looks more prophetic than the Abstract Expressionists do about subsequent developments in art, starting with Pop and continuing through the so-called Pictures Generation. The key is his pioneering use of photographs and printed sources for his subject matter. While Bacon’s work is routinely celebrated as an authentic reactive to the horrors and the dislocations of the Second World War, it can come off as a pageant of hangovers and refractory lovers. Bacon’s striking formal innovations, in handlings of pictorial space, include swiftly limned cubical enclosures and evocations of proscenium stages, in which painted figures leap to the eye. His paintings, despite their extraordinary visual drama, thus lack a de Kooningesque sense of scale, which knits marks to the shape of the canvas and relates that shape to the viewer’s body.”

Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe: “…a lot of his work, with its teasing arrows and ashtrays, its syringes and swastikas, seems coyly involved in games of storytelling, and his drawing frequently feels flatly descriptive – exactly like illustration. Despite all that, I remember well the effect Bacon’s work first had on me, as well as its impact on several friends who have gone on to become artists. His paintings combined abject violence with a kind of immaculate beauty in ways that teenage boys are probably predestined to find alluring. I may be fussier in my mind about what succeeds and what doesn’t now, but I remain in awe of that early union of Bacon’s imagery and my own teenage hunger for maximum impact.”

And Jed Perl really hated it: “Bacon, who died in 1992 at the age of eighty-two, may well be the greatest exemplar of a wrongheaded tradition that we have ever seen. He had a knack for adapting all the wrong elements from all the right artists. He zeroed in on those moments when Van Gogh and Picasso were pushing their glorious anarchic energy to the brink of incoherence. This would have been fine, except that Bacon willfully ignored their ordering intelligence, preferring to sacrifice pictorial sensibility to literary sensationalism. What Bacon produced are not paintings, at least not satisfying ones. They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies.”

If you’re in Chicago and want to see work by Francis Bacon, the Art Institute has one painting by Bacon on view in the Modern Wing: Figure with Meat, from 1964.