Allegheny Landing Sculpture Park

Allegheny Landing Sculpture Park

Since we lack an iconography available to both serious artists and the larger public—who could sculpt John Wayne to please both Rosalind Krauss and the average moviegoer?—our public art is problematic. These four commissioned works, all 1984, are sited in a riverside park just north of downtown Pittsburgh. Isaac Witkin’s The Forks, though presumably referring to the nearby river forks, seems a Claes Oldenberg in aluminum, representing drips of that metal. Like the George Segal-esque The Builders, by George Danhires, whose figures stand by a building as if they had constructed it, this work is too small, literally and sculpturally, to work outdoors. George Sugarman’s large Pittsburgh Variations, a multiunit work, represents the region’s woods in green, a paddle wheel in green and blue, a smelting crucible in orange and black, and the downtown business district, the “Golden Triangle,” in gold; one can sit under the metal representations of trees or within the triangle, or stroll through the crucible. Color in sculpture, formalists say, is “esthetically provisional,” a claim this Sugarman piece illustrates: if rusted it would look like an assemblage of Anthony Caro works from his most Matisse-y period, but painted as it is it maps nature, industry, and the city.

Ned Smyth’s Piazza Lavoro and Mythic Source, the central pieces physically, comprise a circular four-piece tribute to work set on a hillside above a mosaic pavement, both centered on zigzag columnar elements. Reading clockwise (if that’s the right direction to turn), Piazza Lavoro depicts working men and women, anguished figures (exhausted, not unemployed), and an unpeopled nature. A plaque says the work “suggests the heights to which civilization may be elevated,” and the workers are on a platform, but even readers of Erwin Panofsky may find this obscure. Why are there no anguished women? Why, paraphrasing Stendhal’s complaint about Jacques Louis David’s nude warriors, are these workers naked? Why is “nature” signified by palm trees? The circles remind me of Stonehenge, the verticals of Constantin Brancusi, the mosaics of Ostia Antica; the references to nature and sources may be informed by Jacques Derrida; but for the same reasons that a politician’s speeches are best not written by Donald Barthelme, nor his posters designed by David Salle, so what in a gallery would seem witty is here rather an in joke. Not far from this site is a Ukrainian Catholic church decorated with ’30s murals about immigrant life in America. These esthetically unimportant works are, I imagine, meaningful to their audience as Sugarman’s and Smyth’s cannot be.

Positioned before newly constructed offices, near a street still housing a Harley-Davidson dealer, this sculpture park is intended as “the catalyst” for the gentrification of a neighborhood temptingly close to the Golden Triangle. Though the ambitious installation is bolder than a 19th-century-style memorial to the worker, and more controversial than an esthetically safe Henry Moore, such a celebration of the city’s history is (unintentionally?) ironic in a town whose steelworkers are mostly unemployed. Just as Philip Johnson’s Gothic skyscraper downtown will not, I predict, look as good in a decade as H.H. Richardson’s wonderful jail does after a century, so it is hard to imagine these perplexing sculptures satisfying the test of time.

David Carrier