PRINT October 1979


DURING THE FINAL SUMMER of the 1970s the issue of public art arose on two distinct but related occasions. The first, in Italy in July, was an international conferenza of art historians and critics who convened in the Umbrian hill town of Todi to consider “Monumental Sculpture Past and Present,” hosted jointly by the Region of Umbria, the Province of Perugia and the Commune of Todi. The participants included Germano Celant, Rainer Crone, Diane Kelder, Fred Licht, Wolfgang Lotz, Sheldon Nodelman, Marisa Volpi Orlandini, Marcelin Pleynet, Paolo Portoghesi, Barbara Rose, Jan van der Marck, and Kathleen Weil-Garris, along with many others, some mentioned later. The second event, a few weeks and many thousand miles west, was Seattle’s “Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture,” a project of major public dimensions that announced the betrothal of eight contemporary artists to eight environmental eyesores. From the looks of things as this goes to press, a number of these unions are headed for consummation.

The Todi conference seems particularly relevant to the Seattle enterprise in one important respect: it brought the art historians into a debate which, during the ’70s, at least, has been conducted primarily among artists, communities and the government. Since 1968, when the National Endowment for the Arts’ Works of Art in Public Places program first bore fruit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse, monumental outdoor sculpture (christened “Public Art”) has spread to epidemic proportions.

But how “public” is it, really? How successful is its dialogue with the community? Who is the patron? Does the expenditure of public funds—i.e. tax dollars—invest the community with the same pride of ownership that would come from a truly personal commitment? How does the artist see his or her role vis-à-vis the public? To what extent does the diffidence of a traditional modernist posture prevail? And finally, how do content and intention, perhaps the most elusive and shifting of all public art’s attributes, function within the work and convey themselves to the spectator?

Art history offers some instructive ground rules. Historically, the public has never clamored for art, nor has it been considered in its commissioning. The patron commissioned the work, chose the subject, paid the artist. And though the subject may have been picked symbolically to represent certain lofty civic ideals, as often as not the content, which the work somehow sucks in from its context, may be entirely different (the simplest example being when the work comes to stand for the power of the patron). This content is also subject to change, depending on the political and social circumstances in which the work is perceived.

An important, if obvious, distinction was made in Todi between “monument” and “monumental sculpture,” further amplified by Virginia Bush’s discussion of the definition and evolution of the colossus, a term that started out with a specific set of requirements and gradually deteriorated into “colossal,” eventually coming to stand for anything big. “Monument” devolved into “monumental” along much the same route, as sculptures came down off their pedestals, lost their commemorative subject matter, and passed through a transitional period—embodied, according to Rosalind Krauss, in Rodin—then into the 20th century and the modernist era. Krauss proposed that the term “sculpture” itself is historically bounded, tied to the concept of the monument, and that the self-referential character of modernist sculpture has resulted in a “homelessness” or “sitelessness” that divorces it from its predecessors. She considered that the minimal and postminimal works of the last two decades, including Earthworks, are in fact not sculpture, but that they exist in an “expanded field,” operating in an arena between “not-landscape” and “not-architecture.”1

Which delivers us to Seattle, where the King County Arts Commission and the King County Department of Public Works are sponsoring the most ambitious Earthwork project this country has ever seen. The selling point is land reclamation; the raw material: four gravel pits, a creek with drainage and erosion problems, a garbage landfill, a strip of land along the airport runway abandoned because of jet noise, and an ex-naval air station that is now a park. The project has already harnessed formidable energies; in addition to the arts commission and the D.P.W. the list of supporters includes government groups on local, state and federal levels, as well as architectural and engineering firms, conservation groups, private industry, and, of course, Seattleites. If community involvement is any measure of the success of a public art venture, this one seems in good shape.

The real work, however, has barely begun. The artists have completed preliminary plans and models which were exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum. Concurrently, an enthusiastic program of panels, lectures and discussions gave everyone a chance to congratulate each other, cheer the artists on, and reiterate, with the usual rhetoric, the two years of bureaucratic hassles, official and unofficial heroism, fund-raising, cooperation and compromise, back-scratching and back-biting, that constituted Phase One.

The artists are lain Baxter, Herbert Bayer, Richard Fleischner, Lawrence Hanson, Mary Miss, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim and Beverly Pepper. Baxter, Fleischner, Hanson and Morris drew the four gravel pits. Despite the superficial similarity of the situations, the proposals are extremely varied. Morris was chosen before the others, as a “pilot artist,” and work on his four-acre pit is already underway, paid for by the D.P.W. and one-percent-for-art funds. All the artists had to work within certain environmental guidelines regarding hydraulics, grade, slope, etc. so the exigencies of the sites had considerable bearing on the esthetic solutions. Morris employed an ancient form of terracing that follows the natural contours of the site. Trees are being cleared from one corner, but the trunks will remain, several feet high, coated with preservative material. Hanson’s proposal, for a pit about the same size as Morris’, is more traditionally “sculptural.” The entire pit is to be faced with stone, layered from the upper edge in a spiraling ramp/path that descends into a bowl covered with loose stone. Lights sunk below the surface at the bottom would switch on at night, causing the work to radiate with a soft bluish light.

Baxter’s and Fleischner’s sites are larger. Baxter proposes to convert his to a recreation area. Regular, semicircular terracing, with steps connecting the levels, alludes to stadium design; the tiers will serve as jogging tracks, furnished here and there with “exercise stations,” wooden post-and-lintel structures for stretching and chinning. At the bottom, below the terraces, are two oval “infinity mounds,” around which will circle a “wheelchair fitness course” for the handicapped.

For by far the largest pit, of approximately 300 acres, Richard Fleischner offered alternate proposals, one involving an apartment or office building that would double as a retaining wall. Steep, formal terracing would descend at right angles to either side of the building; a drainage problem would be resolved by a shallowly terraced, square collecting area above and behind the building that would drain, via underground pipes, into a square pool in front of the building at the foot of the terraced side slopes. The second possibility substitutes more terracing for the building. Both solutions invoke the rigid formal elegance of French landscape design.

Mary Miss, on the other hand, harks back in her proposal to the English concept of the deliberately random, but controlled, vista. She conceives her airport site as a sort of ramble, through which one can stroll and come upon various built structures, most of which embody in some way her continuing interest in the three-stage progression. Some of these can be entered; one is meant as a viewing platform for watching the planes.

Beverly Pepper plans an “archaeological site” for the garbage landfill. At one end is a tumulus inspired by the ancient one at Marathon, with a glass-covered cut-away section through which to read the contents of the site. Layers of peat and sand alternate with garbage—the excess packaging of the supermarket ethos in progressive stages of recyclement. A gently terraced, 300-foot path would lead from the mound to a circle of posts that would function as a monitoring system, revealing the settling and shifting taking place beneath the surface of the site.

For the Mill Creek Canyon site Herbert Bayer has planned a sort of park and picnic area, punctuated by five circular grassy mounds and doughnut-shaped Earthworks strategically placed to control the course of the stream. Two of these would act as water retention basins. Bayer’s project, sponsored by the City of Kent, is on the brink of realization. “Shares” are being sold to local citizens to raise the remaining funds.

Playing upon the nautical nature of his site’s previous incarnation, Dennis Oppenheim came up with the most indulgently fanciful idea of all. He plans to convert the ex-naval air station into Waiting Room for the Midnight Special (A Thought Collision Factory for Ghost Ships). Various bizarre elements—a long, arched walkway partially covered with sheet metal, tracks leading to a circular boat basin, a turntable (like the ones in railroad yards) in the bottom of the basin, rowboat-shaped “molds” or “templates” and a structure reminiscent of a Cornwall tin mine dubbed “Shape Transmission Chamber,” combine with a lot of quasi-Duchampian Large-Glass-type explanation written on the blueprints to conjure up some kind of dream environment for channeling and transforming thoughts and ideas. Its pertinence to land reclamation seems somewhat tenuous.

So the plans are drawn up; the project is launched. And Earthworks, which signed off the 1960s as the most private, inaccessible art activity imaginable, leave the ’70s in the form of a major public art scheme. We have come a long way from Double Negative, but by a route advocated on numerous occasions by Robert Smithson, whose spirit certainly pervades the Seattle endeavor. A newly published collection of his writings (see Book Review, p. 60 ) serves as a reminder of his deep interest in this area. Several of Smithson’s proposals seem particularly relevant here: in 1966 he was an “artist consultant” to the planners of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport; a 1971 drawing reveals plans for A Wandering Canal with Mounds; a 1973 proposal for the reclamation of a Utah coal pit uses terracing similar to that of Morris. And in 1972 he wrote:

A dialectic between mining and land reclamation must be developed. Such devastated places as strip mines could be re-cycled in terms of earth art. The artist and the miner must become conscious of themselves as natural agents. When the miner loses consciousness of what he is doing through the abstractions of technology he cannot cope with his own inherent nature or external nature. Art can become a physical resource that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist. [The coal companies] must become aware of art and nature, or else they will leave pollution and ruin in their wake.2

Despite the proliferation of public art during the ’70s, success stories are less common than tales of hostile communities, disgruntled artists, and charges of indifference and elitism leveled at those responsible for the choice of works. The root of the difficulty would seem to lie back at the turn of the century with the disappearance of the monument. Avant-garde art in general, with its aggressive neutrality of content, has a long history of being perceived by the public-at-large as irrelevant. Its abstractness, however, is not the problem as much as its failure to conduct a public dialogue. (The Washington Monument, though not representational in any conventional sense, engages shared patriotic sensibilities; Saarinen’s arch in St. Louis, as abstract a form as one can imagine, has made its peace with the public by serving as “the gateway to the west.”) Belief or conviction on the part of the artist, while perhaps the most important single ingredient of a great work of art, is not, as far as the public is concerned, a substitute for symbolic content, since it is not usually transmittable through channels easily received by the spectator.

It is too early to tell whether Seattle will succeed in marrying the avant-garde to the public. The projects are still in the idea stage; they have not yet begun to trespass physically on public territory. But one senses, nevertheless, a possible change in climate. Does the notion of land reclamation, entering as it does here into dialogue with the esthetic of the Earthwork, signal a return to content—of a nonesthetic, rather social, nature? Will these works, if they gain acceptance, do so only because of their ecological services to the county, or will they succeed as art?

To avoid the charge that land reclamation is the domain of the landscape architect, they will have to make it as art. Otherwise the ecological plague areas of this country will fall into other hands. It is all too easy for the public to prefer parks to art: if “pedestrian amenities”—benches, picnic tables, parking lots and trash baskets—are what it wants, the landscape architect, not the artist, is the one best prepared to provide them. And if the ecologists want bird sanctuaries or wildlife refuges, the best thing to do is keep everyone out. But artists have something to answer for too. They cannot simply grab the public’s land and run off with it, absolved of all extra-esthetic responsibility. Their posture vis-à-vis the audience must be one of engagement, not alienation.

I would submit that such a change in attitude has been taking place throughout the 1970s; that it characterizes the distinction between ’70s and ’60s art more surely than any shift in form or ideas. Seattle is the result, not the harbinger, of this reassessment. The artists who succeed there will be those who are willing to come to terms with the notion of public commitment, who realize that such a stance, far from compromising their work, can infuse it with nonesthetic content, which has absented itself from modernist art.

Nancy Foote



1. Rosalind Krauss’ lecture, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” appears in October No. 8 (Spring 1979), pp. 31–44.

2. In The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt, New York, 1979, p. 220.