There's good news and there's bad news about Seattle's outdoor public-art collection. The good news is that many of the city's major sculptures have held up well...
There’s good news and there’s bad news about Seattle’s outdoor public-art collection.
The good news is that many of the city’s major sculptures have held up well, growing more beloved over time and gaining tremendously in value. And we’re spending more on public art than ever — the budget has grown from $125,000 in 1978 to nearly $1.8 million in 2003, not counting administrative costs.
The bad news is, much of that money now gets frittered away on “art lite” — projects almost guaranteed not to generate controversy (or maybe even get noticed) — rather than the kind of big, risk-taking, iconic permanent works our earlier civic leaders and arts commissioners stood up for. Revisiting some of our city’s best and worst public artworks, I realized that many of the great ones — and we are blessed with a number of them — date back to the 1970s and the early days of the Seattle Arts Commission or, even earlier, to the Seattle World’s Fair.
Some of those purchases raised hackles at the time. Yet despite all the grousing, nearly 30 years later many of those pieces stand among the city’s strongest and most significant artworks — and smartest buys.
Let’s start our exploration of Seattle’s major outdoor sculptures with a quick tour of what our enlightened civic leaders did right. In judging the success of a public sculpture I considered scale, location, accessibility, materials, form and content. In the best cases, an inexplicable bit of magic played into the picture as well.
A look at some great ones
“Black Sun” by Isamo Noguchi
One of the city’s most beloved sculptures, Noguchi’s “Black Sun,” is pictured on a new U.S. postage stamp. Predating the city’s “1% for Art” program, Noguchi’s 12-ton granite sculpture was installed in Volunteer Park, across from the what is now the Seattle Asian Art Museum, in 1969, funded by the National Foundation for the Arts with money from the Seattle Foundation and Seattle Art Museum founder Richard Fuller. Skeptics dubbed it a “doughnut,” but with its simple lines, polished granite surface and 9-foot-diameter circular form, the piece quickly became one of Seattle’s most beloved icons. As with all successful public artworks, location matters. The piece is perfectly sited as an oculus overlooking the Volunteer Park reservoir, the Olympic Mountains and the Space Needle. It’s one of the city’s best spots to lounge and take in the splendor of a Northwest sunset, and Noguchi’s “Black Sun” reflects the experience in an awe-inspiring yet human scale. A version of the sculpture appears on a new U.S. postage stamp.
“Adjacent, Against, Upon” by Michael Heizer
One of the city’s unsung treasures, Heizer’s massive sculpture was commissioned in 1976 for Myrtle Edwards Park on the waterfront with 1% for Art funds from City Light and additional money from the National Endowment for the Arts, Contemporary Arts Council, the Virginia Wright Fund and Seattle Arts Commission. The formal simplicity of the design showcases the primitive heft of natural stones against the smooth geometry of three concrete slabs: a triangle, a quadrangle and a pentagon. Viewed from the grassy knoll to the east, the vast scale of Heizer’s sculpture and the way it parallels and intersects the plane of the waterline creates perfect harmony with the broad stretch of beachfront. As its title suggests, “Adjacent, Against, Upon” is about about the relationships between objects, natural and manmade. It’s poetic.
Technically, the site is perfect; practically, it’s poorly maintained and unguarded. “Adjacent, Against, Upon” has sprouted a beard of weeds, and its simple lines are marred by the clutter of park picnic tables dragged into its shade.
Heizer’s public commissions are rare, and his vertiginous, inverted sculpture “North, East, South, West” is one of the highlights of the new Dia Center for the Arts in Beacon, N.Y. When Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park opens on the property adjoining Myrtle Edwards in 2006 (there will be no fence dividing the two parks), “Adjacent, Against, Upon” will be a star.
Dia Art Foundation director Michael Govan calls it “a landmark of public art — one of the most important large-scale sculptures in the nation.”
“Broken Obelisk” by Barnett Newman
Purchased in 1970 by the Virginia Wright Fund and donated to the University of Washington in 1971, “Broken Obelisk” puts Seattle in prestigious company. The 26-foot-tall Corten steel sculpture is from an edition of three: one resides at the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.; the other outside the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I fell in love with the piece when I first saw it as a student at UW and have never failed to be thrilled by the way two powerful forms, the pyramid and the obelisk, connect in a single tiny point of energy. It reminds me of the finger touch between God and man in Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” mural at the Sistine Chapel.
Virginia Wright tried to convince Seattle First National Bank to buy the piece for the plaza of its new downtown building, but bank officials opted for Henry Moore’s “Vertebrae” instead. Wright took the initiative and bought the piece for $100,000. The University of Washington got lucky indeed to be the beneficiary. It’s a knockout, and a photograph of the Texas piece illustrates the back cover of a widely used art-history textbook. Today the value would be millions — but nobody’s selling.
“Vertebrae” by Henry Moore
When the massive cast-bronze sculpture was installed in front of the former Seafirst Bank building at 1001 Fourth Ave. in 1971, it was subject to the usual round of razzing from the peanut gallery, but there was also plenty of reverence. The British Moore, after all, was considered one of the 20th century’s premier sculptors. The bank reportedly paid $165,000 for the piece. But when Seafirst unexpectedly sold the sculpture for an undisclosed price, citizens raised such a big fuss that eventually the piece was bought back — reportedly for $2 million. It now belongs to SAM, though it still resides at its old address. I like “Vertebrae.” It’s sleek and anatomical and fits its site nicely. But it doesn’t thrill me like “Broken Obelisk,” a gutsier purchase.
“Fountain of the Northwest” by James Fitzgerald
Seattle Center is a public-art journey in itself, with artworks old and new cropping up throughout the grounds. Some of my favorites date back to the World’s Fair. The late Seattle sculptor James Fitzgerald’s 1962 “Fountain of the Northwest” in the Intiman Theater courtyard still looks timely and suitable, its patinaed bronze spires and troughs reminiscent of the crags of a Chinese scholar’s rock. But recently, on a lovely July day in the middle of tourist season, the fountain was turned off, the water in the square pool murky and littered with scraps of garbage.
McCaw Hall promenade by Kathryn Gustafson
Landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson’s gauzy new walk-on-water promenade outside McCaw Hall was also off. A guard told me the water is seldom turned on except for McCaw Hall events. What’s going on at Seattle Center?
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Untitled fountain by Ted Jonsson
Seattle has lots of appealing fountains, notably a host of lovely ones by the late George Tsutakawa. One of our most dramatic, and least appreciated, is by another Seattle artist. Jonsson’s forceful fountain at the Water Department Operations Control Center on 2700 Airport Way S., initiated by the Seattle Arts Commission and installed in 1975, predates the city’s 1% for Art program. The high-testosterone fountain looks like an elegant cousin to the water mains that snake through the city. Its twin jets of water blast from symmetrical, intertwined arcs of wide, stainless-steel pipe. It suits its site, certainly, but it’s located in such an out-of-the-way place, not too many people really get to enjoy it. If it were in a more welcoming location, Jonsson’s fountain would be a hit. As it stands, the fountain is a drive-by piece of art, and that’s too bad.
“Waiting for the Interurban” by Richard Beyer and Emil Venkov
No piece of Seattle public art has drawn as much affection and wrath as Beyer’s delightful populist sculpture in the heart of Fremont at North 36th Street and Fremont Place North. It suits the spirit of the neighborhood: It’s approachable, endearing and is regularly embellished by locals. No need to explain this Seattle icon.
But among the constantly sprouting public artworks in Fremont, I’m also partial to the looming Soviet-era bronze Lenin, saved from the scrap heap and installed to a chorus of controversy. To me, the vanquished communist ruler striding fearlessly into a future he could never have foreseen (outside a Taco del Mar at North 34th Street and Fremont Place North in Fremont) is a good reminder for everyone: A symbol of hubris, the fleeting nature of human power, the rise and fall of nations.
On the other hand…
“Aurora Borealis” by Max Gurvich
Everybody has their pet peeves among public artworks. For me, the worst of the worst sits glaringly in Lake Washington, at the west end of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. When the 520 bridge opened in 1963, two graceful fountains splashed at the site, but they were eventually shut down to save money on electricity and maintenance. Seattle businessman Max Gurvich decided he could do better. Using salvage materials, he concocted “Aurora Borealis,” two gaudy, top-heavy towers of multicolored metal that have no formal purpose and no relationship to the site. At 16 feet tall, they sprout like rickity toadstools from pedestals that once shot 100-foot spires of water into the air. There they sit, shiny eyesores for passing motorists. Gurvich talked the Department of Transportation into letting him donate the sculptures in 2002.
“Ballard Gateway” by Tom Askman, Lea Anne Lake
Installed last year with 1% for Art funds from the DOT and City Light, and matching funds from the Department of Neighborhoods, this project is wrong all the way around. The eight 10-foot aluminum columns are puny and insignificant poking up along the railing of the Ballard Bridge. With traffic dense and fast, taking your eyes off the road to get a glimpse of them is treacherous.
There is no way, short of venturing out on foot, to see them close enough to learn that they are supposed to represent different aspects of Ballard history. They don’t serve the bridge architecturally, and you can’t easily observe as artworks. Besides: What’s with hiring Spokane artists to do a Ballard neighborhood project, when Seattle is swarming with well-qualified artists? The project budget was $76,000.
“Gateway” by Michael Sweeney
This is an old gripe. The 1980 installation of faux boulders and steel on the median strip of Lake City Way was a faux pas from start. It’s not a smart place for an art installation to begin with, out in the middle of traffic. The artist was clearly over his head with a commission of that scale and complexity. He told The Times in a 1980 interview that the rocks had to be fake because “engineers said they had to be sort of collapsible, in case they were hit by a car.” The metal and concrete structures ended up looking like oversized potatoes with steel blades poking out of them. It’s a dud.