Sunday, August 24, 2008

Public Art, Eyesore to Eye Candy

Peter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times
Anish Kapoor’s reflecting “Cloud Gate,” an abstract public art piece nicknamed the Bean, at the Millennium Park in Chicago.
Photo: Rafa Rivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Puppy By Jeff Koons outside at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, Spain

ARTmostfierce is quite burned-out from the summer extra curricular activities. Besides work , there is a lot on the plate right now so, blogging will be limited.

Lord knows it is hard to stay in shape with the schedule but, the photo project helps. Being on a bicycle Saturday for 4 hours and Sunday for 6 more hours taking photos all over Manhattan know it helps to keep you fit and trim.

I still need a vacation!

I n the meantime please read and enjoy this article by Roberta Smith of the New York Times about public art.I agree with her views and look forward seeing greater examples of it.

Published: August 22, 2008

ART adores a vacuum. That’s why styles, genres and mediums left for dead by one generation are often revived by subsequent ones. In the 1960s and ’70s public sculpture was contemporary art’s foremost fatality — deader than painting actually. The corpse generally took the form of corporate, pseudo-Minimalist plop art. It was ignored by the general public and despised by the art world.

Public Sculpture Steps Up At the time many of the most talented emerging sculptors were making anything but sculpture. Ephemeral installations, earthworks and permanent site-specific works were in vogue, and soon the very phrase “public sculpture” had been replaced by public art, an amorphous new category in which art could be almost anything: LED signs, billboards, slide or video projections, guerrilla actions, suites of waterfalls.

But over the past 15 years public sculpture — that is, static, often figurative objects of varying sizes in outdoor public spaces — has become one of contemporary art’s more exciting areas of endeavor and certainly its most dramatically improved one.

To be sure, this new public sculpture is not always good. (Damien Hirst’s “Virgin Mother” at Lever House comes to mind.) If this kind of work may not be batting much above .300, hits are happening, showing art’s ability to reach larger audiences (as it satisfies its core one) and to create a communal experience that is in some ways akin to movies or popular music in its accessibility.

Some recent successes have included Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 “House,” a concrete cast of the interior of a London terrace house; Mark Wallinger’s 1999 “Ecce Homo,” a life-size figure of Jesus crowned with thorns, hands bound, standing amid the din of Trafalgar Square in London; Takashi Murakami’s wicked aluminum and platinum leaf Buddha shown in the atrium of the IBM Building in New York in the spring; and Anish Kapoor’s abstract “Cloud Gate,” nicknamed the Bean, at Millennium Park in Chicago. Freely mixing elements of Pop, Minimalism, conceptual art and realism, these pieces also often benefit from new technologies and materials that make them dynamic and provocative. (Jean Dubuffet’s giant, cartoony “Group of Four Trees,” at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan, is a marvelous, unsung ancestor, but then it arrived in 1972, when sculpture was in an uproar.)

Certain artists may do their best work in the public arena. The Kapoor Bean’s giant, mercurylike dollop of brilliantly polished steel gives the phrase plop art robust new life and converts this artist’s sometimes glib involvement with reflective surfaces into an enveloping experience both humorous and almost sublime. From outside, the Bean’s curving exterior casts distorted reflections of its world — plaza, sky, city, people — back at us. It makes itself seem larger than it is by making us seem smaller, but its distortions change with every step we take, tilting the world this way and that, as if the universe were slightly adrift.

Beneath the sculpture is an arched space the size of a small chapel. Here the curving surface of the piece reflects itself, creating a dark violet cloudiness except at the highest point, which is reflection free. This small gleaming circle of silvery steel suggests a Baroque occulus letting in light; it has all the mysterious illusionism of a hole-in-the-roof church ceiling painted by Correggio but restated in modern, nondenominational terms.

No one has been more important to the revival of public art than Jeff Koons, contemporary sculpture’s genius lightweight, whose up-and-down, hellbent-on-perfection career is the subject of an illuminating if rather crowded survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was Mr. Koons’s giant “Puppy” — a West Highland terrier covered with dirt, planted densely with flowers and first shown 16 years ago — that broadcast most loudly and clearly that public sculpture was neither an exhausted form nor necessarily a dumbed-down one.

“Puppy” was well placed and well timed. It stood in the courtyard of a handsome, mustard-colored Baroque palace that framed it perfectly. It was June 1992, and a few miles away, in the German city of Kassel, the international megashowDocumenta 9” was opening. Scores of art-world denizens made the short schlep to Arolsen to see what Mr. Koons was up to.

What they found was a shocking simplicity, accessibility and pleasure. “Puppy” was intensely lovable, triggering a laugh-out-loud delight that expanded your sense of the human capacity for joy. It was a familiar, sentimental cliché revived with an extravagant purity, not with enduring materials like marble or bronze but with nature at its most colorful and fragile. The flowery semblance of fur made “Puppy” almost living flesh, like us.

The sculpture could also be read as a redemptive gesture, a kind of mea culpa after the sexually explicit harshness of Mr. Koons’s “Made in Heaven” series, exhibited the previous year at galleries in New York, Brussels and Lausanne, Switzerland. Four of these paintings hang in the Chicago show behind a wall flanked by dire parental warnings, showing them to be almost anti-public compared with most of his subsequent work.

Public Sculpture Steps Up “Puppy” also provided a karmic bookend for an occurrence that happened almost exactly three years before its Arolsen debut: the removal, in March 1989, of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” from the plaza at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan. The dismantling came after a court ruling, complaints by the people who worked in the building — they hated the Serra — and days of acrimonious public hearings overseen by the General Services Administration.

“Tilted Arc” was in many ways the dark before the dawn not only of the Koons “Puppy,” but also of the shining achievement of Mr. Serra’s post-Arc work. He has in essence taken his revenge on the public by making stronger, more elaborate pieces that it could not resist — judging from how people line up these days to walk through his torqued ellipses, spirals and arcs.

The “Puppy” set a high standard that Mr. Koons reached again only with his recent works in gleaming high chromium stainless steel, especially his big hatched egg and his prim yet erotic “Balloon Dog” sculptures. The dogs imbue a greatly enlarged child’s party toy with the tensed stillness of an archaic Greek horse while subtly evoking various bodily orifices and protrusions. “Balloon Dog (Yellow)” is on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it draws crowds, functions as a photo op and yet retains its dignity. “Balloon Dog (Orange)” is among the Chicago survey’s high points.

That show is almost a primer of dos and don’ts in public sculpture. The best of its 60 pieces have the same irresistibility of “Puppy”: you are drawn to them by their familiarity only to realize that they are unprecedented. Spanning from 1979 to 2007, it has been organized by Francesco Bonami, the museum’s former senior curator, and is the most comprehensive museum survey of Mr. Koons’s career. It reveals an artist whose work has proceeded in fits and starts and has improved as it has shed its often abstruse conceptual, not so vaguely Scientological story line.

Mr. Koons’s theme is transformation, enacted literally with familiar restated objects in uncharacteristic material or scale. It is a basic Pop Art strategy but much easier to pull off on canvas than in sculpture, where it requires a level of perfection, the pursuit of which has, at times, nearly brought Mr. Koons’s art to a standstill.

The show demonstrates that his work has constantly returned to notions of weightlessness, floatation and levitation, often conflated with innocence, and that his progress has to some extent been a matter of getting his elaborate sculptural chops together. He broached weightlessness from the start, first with simple Duchampian ready-mades: plastic inflatable flowers and bunnies; vacuum cleaners set aglow by fluorescent light tubes and sealed in Plexiglas cases; and finally basketballs afloat, embryolike, in aquariums. In Chicago it is a little startling to see how much of middle-period Koons — the late 1980s bronze casts of an aqualung and life raft, the stainless-steel casts of portrait busts, a Baccarat decanter set or a miniature train (also liquor decanters) so central to his early reputation — now seems inert, heavy with irony, kitschy obviousness and sheer material. The most overt sign of the Koons to come is “Rabbit,” the 1986 stainless steel cast of an inflatable bunny that joins weightlessness and reflectivity and remains his best-known work.

Mr. Koons’s art enacts the basic exchange of public sculpture. We literally see ourselves in his alluring reflective surfaces; his buoyant forms reach deep into our childhood with its feelings of hope and optimism. At the moment his biggest projects include an enormous public sculpture commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which, echoing his stainless steel liquor train, will involve a locomotive suspended from a crane. He also has a show at Versailles opening Sept. 10 that could build on the felicitous placement of the Arolsen “Puppy.”

Ever since Jasper Johns’s flags and targets pointedly addressed the viewer with “things the mind already knows,” much, maybe most art has set out one way or another to reach a broader audience more directly. The welter of strategies began simply enough, with the elimination of the sculpture’s pedestal and the siphoning of images from pop culture, and it now extends to the Internet. The revival of public sculpture is perhaps only the latest ripple in this continuing wave, but it is also the most public. Its manifestations are out there and easy to find.

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