Abstract Art Gets a Warmer Reception

A recent sculpture unveiling in the Midwest highlights the evolution of public art

Abstract architectural expressionism and the American Midwest have often not gone hand in hand. But slowly, the two are forming a closer bond.

Last fall, for example, Michigan artist David Austin's latest sculpture was unveiled to a warm public reception. Though New York art critics aren't necessarily beating a path to the Portage Public Library to see Austin's piece, his untitled work highlights two trends in the evolution of public art: Abstract expression seems to be gaining public acceptance. And, art for public places, by its very nature, is a more-collaborative effort than most forms of art.

Abstract acceptance

Christine Berro, director of the Portage Library, says the abstract nature of Austin's sculpture is the result of an effort to enhance the existing architecture. "The abstract goes with the contemporary style of the building," she says.

There are a variety of ways that abstract public-works artists are finding greater acceptance. In Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, a 32-year-old Alexander Calder sculpture - "Le Grand Zitese" - has gained acceptance by standing the test of time.

The piece was the first public artwork funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant. When it was unveiled in 1965, it ignited controversy as city officials and residents questioned its relevance to their community. In recent years, however, images of the sculpture have been used to identify the city, and it has even become part of the city's official logo.

In Detroit, public-art officials and the artists they commission have found community involvement plays a key role in the acceptance of abstract expression.

Diane Van Buren Jones, a private consultant who has worked closely with Detroit's public-art programs, says the city's current Art on the Move program makes use of local high school students for the five projects a year it sponsors. The program, which produces temporary outdoor sculpture along the city's people-mover train system, has gained public and financial support for involving at-risk students from tough inner-city schools.

Dennis Nawrocki, a professor of art history at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, is working on a book about public art. He says the growing acceptance of abstract expression in the public realm doesn't necessarily signal a new enlightenment.

"There is a funny double reaction," Mr. Nawrocki says. "People still think abstract is strange and weird, and say it is something their five-year-old could do. But abstract has also become benign and harmless if it doesn't seem to have a content that will stir people up."

Austin tries to draw people to his work by creating a context that stimulates more than just the visual senses. The day of the unveiling, a young girl was drawn to the pool below the waterfall. Tiny fingers dipped into the water, tossing droplets up to the sweeping ceramic triangles way above her head.

Two raucous boys bounced a superball off the bas-relief walls, uncertain which direction the ball would go. Their voices mingled with the variety of tones produced by the asymmetrical waterfall. And an elderly woman quietly walked up and touched each of the three pillars of the central-courtyard element.

"Representational art is easier for people to pass judgment on - good or bad," Austin says. "Abstract is more open to interpretation. Therefore, people end up making their own stories about a piece."

A collaborative effort

"I'm not just an artist working in a studio by myself," says Austin, who is based in Harbor Springs, Mich. "I'm out working with people. I'm somewhere between the architect who is working with clients and the stereotypical artist who works in a studio and says, 'Here, I'm done - take it or leave it.' "

Whether or not Austin intended, he is part of a public-art trend that is binding artists and the communities they work for closer together. Austin's Portage sculpture began as a juried competition. The library had received a grant that included $55,000 for outdoor sculpture to enhance a bleak-looking, concrete courtyard.

When Austin first submitted a design to the Portage Public Library, the main element included impressionist images of sailboats, cars, and farmland. These images were intended to connect the ceramic elements to this family-oriented community of 42,000.

At the unveiling, Austin's finished product was entirely abstract. It includes a 38-foot-long main element of hand-built ceramic pieces, a wall of falling water with sheets of copper behind it, a piece in the center with pillars, two sets of ceramic pieces to tie the building's brickwork into the sculpture, and a partial arch at the front of the library.

A six-member committee of artists and library staff approved Austin's design. The public, including the library's numerous young patrons, had voted on sketches from three finalists chosen by the committee. Austin's finished design was the result of back-and-forth negotiations with the selection committee and phone interviews. "I try to be very responsive to other people and the environment I'm working with," Austin says. "I like to let them guide me at the outset."

"There seems to be a need for people to participate and react to public art, and we are seeing an interesting evolution take place," says Phillip Vander Weg, a professor of art at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo who was on the Portage art committee.

Mr. Vander Weg says the collaborative process isn't "art by committee." Rather, it can draw out the best in what an artist creates, as well as the best of what the public wants.

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