Sets Mood In Many Locales
by Jessica Lyones | ABN
Installations blend art and environs. The
aesthetic surprises indoors and out.
Beginning in the mid-1960's, many artists abandoned gallery walls and looked
to the earth as they pursued site-specific art. These artists wanted to
create art that would be best showcased outside the traditional gallery
setting. At its very best, site-specific art integrates so seamlessly into
its surroundings that it's difficult to tell where the piece ends and the
surrounding begins. That is, the art becomes part of its environment.
For example, Robert Smithson, who left New York for
Utah's Great Salt Lake, Jetty 35 years ago. The work is a 1,500-foot spiral
sculpture that coils out into the water.
While Smithson's monumental piece is an extreme example
of an earthwork, site-specific art may be large or small, and it may explore
its relationship to its locate, whether indoors or out -- to an office
space, a city park, an arid desert or a pond.
"With site-specific pieces," says Brent Sverdloff,
marketing director for DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, "you see a very
harmonious blending with its surroundings."
The park sits on 35 acres of rolling woodlands in
Sverdloff points to a piece called "Rain Gates," by Ron
Rudnicki, a sculptural landscape created from granite, water and plantings
about passage -- up or down the 20-foot climb over craggy bedrocks, along
the flowing water and meandering step-stones and through the shimmering rain
It takes the viewer on a journey from one point in the
landscape to another. "It's so thoroughly dependent upon the hillside where
the fountain is built, and it drips down into the grotto," Sverdloff says.
"You would be hard-pressed to tell what the actual configuration of the turf
is, and what the artist had to actually dig out. The two are so seamless."
DeCordova's permanent collection also features "Little
Red Riding Hood and Other Stories," a granite site-specific installation
depicting a door, a flying carpet and a granite floor by Carlos Dorrien. The
piece was designed expressly for the promontory overlooking Flint's Pond,
and it looks as if it's posed to launch itself over the body of water. The
door and the flying carpet symbolize vehicles used to access imagination.
And about the floor, Dorrien says, "The carved slab opens up the spatial
life of the object and its surrounding space. Also, the slabs can inspire in
the objects on top of them a sense of ceremonial mystery."
In a very different part of the country, painter and
sculptor Benini has created a 140-acre venue in the Texas Hill Country
(Johnson City, TX) to showcase large-scale, site-specific sculpture. Or
rather, as Benini notes, "the site is creating itself."
All the works at Sculpture Ranch are for sale, but each
piece is highly attuned to the natural landscape and vegetation, like the
black granite "Montezuma" by Benini that stands at the entranceway to the
ranch, and the "Blessing Counter" piece that stands 11-feet tall on a hill
top to catch the wind.
"When the winds blow, as they often do in the Texas
Hill Country, and even more on a high site like this, the beautiful timbre
of the steel song suggests that one count their blessings," says Lorraine
Benini, the artist's wife.
"As artists visit the Sculpture Ranch," Benini says,
"they respond at their own environmental level. The only guidelines are
dictated by the harsh Texas environment--the winds, sun and occasional flash
floods for example."
When the couple bought the property--formerly part of
President Lyndon Baines Johnson's ranch--in 1999, they didn't intend to
develop it as a public cultural facility. The began placing sculpture on the
rolling grounds, and soon artist friends began displaying some of their own
pieces on the land.
"At that point, the name Sculpture Ranch was born to
convey the notion that while the terrain could not be cultivated, it does
lend itself to host large-scale pieces in tune with the environment."
Site-specific can also apply to installations created
specifically for a particular place, like the pieces commissioned by
Progressive Insurance for its four campuses in Cleveland (tw0), Phoenix and
Former CEO Peter Lewis originally conceived
Progressive's award-winning art collection in the early 1970's. Today, it
includes more than 6,000 artworks displayed throughout the company's
offices. It began as a print collection, but now includes 15 site-specific
While not open to the publi9c, it's intended to
"support creativity in the workplace and promote the pursuit of innovation
and change," says Christie Frey, Progressive Art Collection's registrar. "In
addition, it provides a stimulating work environment that challenges our
natural inclination to remain inflexible in the face of an ever-growing need
to be open to new ideas and alternative perspectives."
Progressive began commissioning these large pieces of
art in 1993, when it moved into its new headquarters. Two more site-specific
commissions were installed in the new 600,000 square-foot campuses in 2000
"Art sets a mood, a tone in the environment," Frey
In Boston, Forest Hills Cemetery functions as a
public-park/open-air-museum of sorts. Forest Hills Trust Director Cecily
Miller calls the cemetery, built in 1848, Boston's first park.
"The design encourages contemplation, and thinking
about our own lives--what's important to us; whether there is a spirit life;
and whether there are forces larger than us," Miller says. "And this has an
interesting history, like the fact that poet E.E. cummings and abolitionist
William Lloyd Garrison are buried here."
For its first 70 years, the original cemetery
supervisors were horticulturalists and landscape designers, so that "the
physical beauty of the site was a very important aspect of the cemetery,"
Sculpture soon became a prominent part of the
environment, as families commissioned stonemasons and masons and artists to
memorialize loved ones. Today, the Victorian sculpture collection remains.
More recently, however, the Forest Hills Trustees
initiated The Sculpture Path, featuring works by contemporary artists that
leads from the oldest parts of the cemetery to newer areas where burials
still take place. The Trust also organizes summer exhibitions of
site-specific installation art and sculpture.
"It's a very inspiring environment for artists to
respond to," Miller says. "It also offers artists an opportunity to create
art that speaks to issues that matter to people, but that we don't often
talk about in our society, like mortality and what happens to people when
That's not to say that all the installations are
somber. Some, like Leslie Wilcox's "Nightshirts," painted stainless steel
screens on spruce trees, seem playful. The artist has said that she wanted
to "celebrate the generations of extended families and friends that have
shared these hallowed grounds for over 150 years." The figures float above
the ground. They are other-worldly, yet gentle.
At a more modern-day park, Millennium Park showcases
site-specific, public art, landscape and design in downtown Chicago. It was
originally planned in 1998 to create new parkland and transform unsightly
railroad tracks. "We also wanted to create some public art," says Ed Uhlir,
the director of architecture, landscape and design. "It was a modest
proposal back then," Uhlir says. "As the part grew in scope, opportunity and
size, we got the idea to add more art, and include some of the best
designers in the world for architecture, landscape and art."
Uhlir describes the park as a series of rooms, each
with a different piece of art: the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker
Pavilion; the interactive Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa; the Lurie Garden,
a combination of spatial structure, plantings and lighting design designed
by the team of Kathryn Gustafson, Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel; and Anish
Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture.
The Millennium site-specific installations help to
integrate the parks' entire surroundings--the people, the environment and,
of course, the art. The Crown Fountain, for example, invites visitors to
watch the changing video images on the 50-foot high glass towers; kids to
splash in the reflecting pool; and adults to watch the children playing.
"All of the art [installations] in Millennium Park,"
says Uhlir, "beckons people to interact with them." ABN
For reprints of this article, contact Charles Lang at
888-772-8926, ext. 266, or e-mail
■ Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch,
■ DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 781-259-8355,
■ Forest Hills, 617-524-0128,
■ Guggenheim Museum,
■ Millennium Park, 312-742-1149,
■ Progressive Art Collection, 440-461-5000,
■ Robert Smithson Estate,
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