The role of art in public places

Art in public places comes in all sizes and shapes, in every kind of balance between man and nature. It ranges from an Ansel Adams mountain photo on your company cafeteria wall to the 70-foot-high faces of four Presidents up there on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Somewhere in mid-balance are the thousands of public parks that wedge open breathing spaces in towns and cities everywhere.

Public art seems to be innate to us, healthy for us, indoors and out. It has pushed its way onto the blank pages of city walls, even onto subway cars in the form of "masterpiece" graffiti. Since the prehistoric cave paintings, we've shown a hunger to "go public" with our images, and to recognize something of one another's lives in the art touches our environment.

And as we do so, all these elements adjust: our experience with the art; the art itself; and even the environment.

A few days ago I wandered into Madison Square Park -- green and inviting -- about five blocks below Grand Central Terminal in New York.

At the north end I came up against a fine example of what art in public places still means to a good many of us: August St.-Gaudens's statue of Admiral Farragut, the naval hero.

The admiral's bronze figure, standing in easy authority, surveyed the tree-filled park from atop his wide stone pedestal. Two diaphonously draped ladies face each other in low relief across the pedeltal surface, symbolizing Royalty and Courage, blown by the same sculptural wind that turns up a heavy corner of the admiral's coat.

That's a real statue. The kind, on or off horseback, that has belonged in a park or a square ever since Donatello's equestrian Gattamelata first commanded a Paduan piazzam in renaissance Italy.

But within the admiral's purview, about halfway through the park's three-block depth, is another arrangement of metal and masonry that St.-Gaudens, although an artist of some originality, would never have recognized as sculpture at all.

"Chant" consist of two long, curved walls of slanting corten steel strips, about 36 feet apart. Standing at the center, with the walls flanking you rather like the brown and rusted side of a ship's hull, you look down to see a concrete plaque set in the ground, announcing this to be the work of Joe Moss and a current project of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

"City noise," you are told, "is dominant during business hours. When the city is more quiet, a variety of sound experiences can be realized by sound originated and heard between the parks."

The city's noises were definitely dominant, but I made a few of my own anyway , singing out the notes of a chord -- and then looking round to see if any of the lunchtime idlers at the nearest park bench could hear me. Evidently not. I sang again, louder, and yes, I could feel just a hint of a shape, a containment, to my sound and the city's.

In a minute a young couple came through, laughing a little shyly as they listened to their laughter, and went on. This was public art to be seen, and then in quite a private way to be heard. It was public art corroborating, in its own terms, the invitation of a public place to rest, look, talk, listen -- maybe to oneself.

The terms vary a lot more than they used to. They may reflect the balance between man and nature with the commemorative dignity of a Farragut or with the acoustical conspiracy of a "Chant." They may, like the hewn stone "unidentified object" of Isamu noguchi now standing near the southeast entrance to Central Park, show man consciously using nature, honoring its textures and colors directly.

That's the direction that leads the long distance to Christo, who honors nature by, in a sense, transparently gift-wrapping it. In 1976 he planted 24 miles of 18-foot-high heavy white nylon fence across rural northern California, in from the coast to a point near Petaluma, breaking only for highways. It stayed in place a mere two weeks, but left a permanent record in accounts and photographs of its carefully planned and immensely complex construction. It may have been the most immediately noticed piece or public art in history.

This was art honoring nature?

Yes. At the opposite pole from the merely monumental, this was an art not ultimately of substance but of gesture. It swung across all that countryside, giving many people reason to look at it, to embrace it, as they never had before. And then it left, with scarcely a physical trace of its presence there. Conspicuously public and festooned with publicity during its cross-country run, Christo's work, like the others, ultimates in a myriad of private experiences.

There are of course more conventional ways of honoring a landscape. Since 1966 St. Louis has framed its downtown urban landscape -- a whole history of it -- with the 630-foot-high Gateway Arch of the Jefferson national Expansion Memorial. Eero Saarinen's graceful parabolic arch is not only to look at and to look through, but to look out from. Stairs and a 40-passenger train take visitors up to the observation tower at the top.

A valid work of public art may still be an honest-to-goodness statue. One such, dedicated on July Fourth of this year in Cody, Wyo., is a 10-foot-high painted bronze of Sacagawea, the young Indian mother, carrying her papoose, who took part in that Jeffersonian expansion as guide for Lewis and Clark through the Rockies. Its sculptor, HArry Jackson, has come quite a long and sometimes difficult way himself, having made his name first, in the early '50s, as an abstract expressionist.

His Sacagawea stands near the new Plains indian Museum at Cody's buffalo Bill historical Center. There's even a park handy -- well, only a few miles away, up in the mountains; the Yellowstone.

It happens that I know this work in its first wax study, which Jackson also cast in bronze at his own foundry in Camaiore, Italy, and that this early version embodies for me a particularly inward, primal power, a deep feeling of windy distances. But then, I find the same immediacy in Leonardo's preparatory drawing for his "Madonna, St. Anne, and Child," compared with the relatively "public" painting in the Louvre.

All these examples have in their very different ways agreed with their environment, with the surrounding balance of man and nature. In them man and nature meet and concur. Even the essentially structural creation of a DiSuvero, poising chains and beams and girders, are agreeing humanistically with the engineering part of us that has built our cities. Such art isolates the power and the poise of architecture by being free from function. It says, in effect, "This is the poetry waiting near the prose of your building," and it too can be much at home in a city's open space, near those buildings.

But what about public art that presents not so much agreement, traditional or otherwise, as it does confrontation?

The Picasso monument in Chicago, the nearby Chagall mosaic wall, the Dubuffet "Group of Four Trees" at the Chase manhattan Plaza in downtown New York -- works like these seem to take those private roots of an artist's style and to thrust them perhaps presumptuously on public spaces. But where the roots are strong and distinct, the public experience -- given a period of adjustment -- has generally turned out well. Such works, after all, result not jsut from an artist's ruge for monumentality but from the clarification of his own experience. If he is successful in this, his form will communicate, will in some proportion illuminate and entertain. There's something of trees and people and a kind of organic structure in Dubuffet's mix of shapes and materials. Claes Oldenburg's monumental "Lipstick on Tracks," set up in a quadrangle at Yale University, seemed to many in 1969 an utterly incougruous sculptural melange, its huge lipstick jutting out from a fairly normal-size replica of a tank's caterpillar tracks.

At that moment of history, however, with the Vietnam war on all minds,its forms externalized portest over political and military policies. And that lipstick is a kind of column, a statue with precedents going back to the severity of the early Greeks. And the tank is a strong pedestal. (Is Farragut so far away?)

In a place like Savannah, Ga., or Portland, Maine, or South Morwalk, Conn., through imaginative restoration by the people and businesses that live there, the urban environment may be brought nearer its own origins, and be found to have an art of its own, inviting other art. In that Calder-mobile-like balancing of man and nature and form, the idea of public art finds its way home. That's where it started, and that's where soomer or later it surely belongs.

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