Princeton

Alice Adams

Site-specific sculpture may be the most overworked, underdeveloped genre spawned by ’70s art. Overworked, because there was so much of it; “projects in nature” and environmental works flourished in abundance. But underdeveloped, because the issue of siting was rarely addressed. Most artists who took to the woods and fields, leaving galleries and museums behind, packed along their old studio notions to adjust, alter, and generally impose on the specifics of their sites. And then the critics moved in, talking of landscape and architecture, of open and bounded space, of “exceeding” sculpture and the “expanded” post-modernist field . . . Somehow the sculptural role of interpreting space, taking cues from place to talk about the natural environment, vanished in the theoretical breeze.

Among exceptions, though—works that fully explore their sited condition—is Mound for Viewing Slope and Sky, which Alice Adams recently completed in a quiet Princeton, New Jersey, field. This permanent piece is public; it was commissioned by the University, built with local and student help, and placed within openly accessible land. Yet it’s best not to talk about it in terms of community involvement and public address, but rather through its specific involvement with space.

Adams’ Mound is participatory, demanding physical involvement among viewer, environment, and piece. For the perambulatory peruser it affords a series of changing relationships to the natural surround. You approach it from an access road cutting through dense forest into a broad, grassy clearing. From this road the piece is visible as a 90-foot-long structure built into the slope, and formed of two equal elements—a sodded earthen bank and a braced wooden frame. These two parts seem to have different functions—the one pointing to earth or slope, the other implying sky—but it’s only after climbing the wooden ladder embedded in the bank that their spatial roles become clear. From this elevated perspective, you can see how the work both “measures” the site, repeating in its trapezoidal shape the general contours of the field, and “marks” its particularities, playing up the distinct qualities of surface and peripheries. Thus one side is aligned with the road, rhyming its extent through the wooden trellis’ stretch; another faces the incline where the field merges into a shady glade. The trapezoid’s base runs parallel to deep forest, repeating the line where grass is abutted by trees, while its fourth and shortest side looks onto a junction of woods and road. Different vistas are available from the sides’ intersections: one of the mound’s angles points directly toward the sole visible clearing in the woods, where the forest gives onto the adjacent lake. And, through this process, different levels of landscape are articulated. There is the harsh, primitive aspect, represented by field and forest. And there is the more rural, serene aspect that bespeaks the landscape humanized; below one side of the mound, where it leans toward the sloping glade with its grass and sparse shade trees, Adams has placed a flagstone terrace to reiterate its tranquillity.

I’ve often objected to Adams’ quotations of architectural elements, which sometimes seem to have no further aim than that of emulating already extraordinary structures. But the wooden construction parts in the current work serve a number of internal ends. They act as structural supports, banking up the earthen mound; they act as ladders, moving the viewer up and down. On the top of the mound, they create an elegant pattern, a formal tracery articulating its surface reach, but their edges also provide pointers, directing the viewer to different features in the landscape. And these multiple functions are matched by the many uses to which the work, in its totality of relations, applies. You can use it in its most primitive allusions, by which it serves as a solar device, a means to watch the sun’s trajectory through the sky and over the land. And you can read on it, dance on it, picnic on its pleasant terrace (the university avoids the problems of many public works by carefully maintaining the grounds). Interpreting its terrain both spatially and socially, in total site specificity, this may be Adams’ best work yet.

Kate Linker