Monday, October 11, 2010

Muscular Abstraction

Donald Judd Untitled, 1984. Photo: Mike Venso, courtesy Laumeier Sculpture Park

Much of the collection at Laumeier Sculpture Park is minimal, geometric, abstract. This is a function of the era of our founding, of course, and likely the taste of many of the patrons who contributed works or paid for purchases.

Yet muscular abstraction is also a function of the history of our place. St. Louis was not just a gateway to the west, it was a hard-working, hard-polluting, hard metal kind of town, where steamboats and cross-country travelers could gird up for their trip out west. Our landscape is still scattered with lead mines (and salt mines) that helped fuel travel throughout the booming 19th century.

Richard Serra, Twain, 1982. Photo from St. Louis Art Map

The much-maligned Twain, by Richard Serra, in downtown St. Louis, caused an uproar. The process of putting art in the public realm took the biggest hit, but the conversation around art took another. What is it about the work that created so much hatred? Is it because Serra's hard-edged work undermined the fluffy city-building happening around it? Is it because Serra's work made the bad architecture downtown seem that much worse? Is it because Serra reminded people of its now-disappeared working-class roots?

Flood gates, Sainte Genevieve, Missouri. Photo by the author

The best piece of muscular public sculpture I've seen recently is this flood door, near the ferry landing at Sainte Genevieve, Missouri. The enormous doors hardly seem sufficient to keep out the kind of deluge that has happened here over time--Ste. Genevieve had to move from its original position at the water's edge in the late 18th century--but I'm sure they've worked out the technology.

This piece of public art is a reminder of the area's lifeline, but it is hidden away from the tourists to this hard-scrabble town and its examples of French Colonial architecture.

Sculpture is best when it reminds us of what and who we are. The Judd, above, reminds me of the primitive boxes of so much human habitation over time; the Serra, the complex forms that humans can make in the city.

The flood doors remind me simply that Mother Nature is the basis for everything we can and will ever do.

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