The problem with public art
in Seattle is that our natural landscape is tough competition. There is nothing man-made in the city that holds a candle to the awe-inspiring sight of the Cascades at dawn or the Olympics at sunset. A local religious scholar was asked why so few Seattleites go to church. Her reply was that no one had built a cathedral to match Mount Rainier.
So, too, has public art been outclassed. The city's favorite sculptures have tended to be whimsical populist efforts, like Safeco Field's baseball mitt or Fremont's "Waiting for the Interurban." Our civic statues have been tucked away, as if we're embarrassed to be giving any single figure much attention: Chief Seattle hides under the monorail, and a statue of Washington's second governor, John McGraw, is dwarfed by vertical sprawl and historical obscurity. Our modern sculpture has often skulked at the base of downtown's skyscrapers.
Successful public art here must generate "dialogue" with the surroundings. Art may not compete with nature, but it can bounce ideas off nature's backdrops. Isamu Noguchi's "Black Sun," known colloquially as the "doughnut" at Volunteer Park, is a first-rate example. It unabashedly blocks one of Seattle's most spectacular views but offers a new way to see the city and its setting.
It's in this spirit
that the Seattle Art Museum's new Olympic Sculpture Park works so well. It's a modern art playground in the middle of a city whose spirit still comes from the wilderness. It's a place where modernism's wild things have come out to play.
Before the park opened, I said I would have been happier if the land had been used for something more practical, like a biofuel depot. In my mind, the disappearance of blue-collar Seattle is not to be celebrated. But after half a dozen visits, I am a convert. Not an uncritical one – I think Louise Bourgeois' fountain sculpture "Father and Son" is hilariously bad kitsch – but the park has undeniable magnetism, as evidenced by the curious crowds that are already embracing it. On sunny days, it's a veritable passeggiata of Belltown residents who look like they've tagged the place as home turf.
The Weiss/Manfredi design is as brilliant as advertised, creatively zigzagging visitors on walkways over and alongside swishing cars and rumbling trains. The paths also bring you close to the gargantuan tankers anchored in Elliott Bay. This is no Olmsted-style park cultivating pockets of nature in the city. Rather, it's a celebration of the urban environment in the face of nature and framed by office buildings, condos, even the brick and neon charm of The Old Spaghetti Factory.
Even so, nature is not
to be denied, and it frequently upstages the art. Eagles dogfight with seagulls overhead, and the Olympics play peekaboo behind a kimono of clouds. The park offers a west-facing Puget Sound vista unique in the city. Everyone gets a corner office view, thanks to Jon and Mary Shirley, and Bagley and Virginia "Jinny" Wright, the millionaires who funded and furnished the park.
Some have criticized the park for lacking artworks by Native American or Asian sculptors – a glaring omission for a Pacific Rim city that's in a region whose earliest public artworks were waterfront totems of the kind that make the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver one of the best art museums in the Northwest. Others have pointed out that too many of the sculptures are by older artists, like Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg, and Richard Serra. The collection has also been accused of being a hodgepodge. A poster on a blog at Artdish.com
called it "Jinny Wright's latest lawn ornament."
But remember, the sculpture park is a work in progress. SAM's modern art curator, Michael Darling, says that new works will be added to the collection, and rotating shows will be hosted on the site. He hopes that works by Asian and Indian artists will be among the new works included. First, however, the pocketbooks of benefactors need time to recover.
For now, enjoy the art that successfully plays off the location. Calder's "Eagle" – rescued from a plaza in Philadelphia – is often juxtaposed against real bald eagles overhead. Serra's "Wake" captures both the motion of water and the rounded, rusted sensuality of old ships and is proving irresistible to the touch. And art – modern art at that – finally has an outdoor home in Seattle.