Tag Archives: Claes Oldenburg

A Brush with Placeness

For as long as anyone can remember, the little stretch of midtown Philadelphia real estate has been just one thing: the 1400 block of Cherry Street – a narrow byway of such little distinction, most people have thought it was just a sunless, easy-to-miss alleyway that runs alongside one of the finest buildings a city could possess, Frank Furness’ glorious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But, what a driver sees (there are few pedestrians, other than art students, who make their way down there) when zipping through that block is not the wonderful front of PAFA, but its nicely bricked but otherwise inconsequential and street-unfriendly north-side façade, and some back doors; and, across the street, a similarly semi-interesting side to another of the school’s buildings, the Hamilton. By block’s end, where Cherry meets 15th Street, there is a corner convenience store and a parking lot.

If ever there was a place so close to great art and, at the same time, a whisker’s distance from great architecture, that had so little presence and placeness as this street … well, we defy you to find one. Most people don’t know it’s there; it’s the kind of street you don’t even realize you’re on, and once past it, can’t quite remember having been on it. In a big city, it is one of those nonentity streets, a shortcut, a place where you might find a parking space. It’s not the road to nowhere – it is nowhere.

But, now, it is on the verge of becoming somewhere. Some locales are born with placeness, some achieve placeness and others have placeness thrust upon them. The 1400 block of Cherry Street falls into the latter category and, with the help of big bucks and an artist of American iconography, is destined to be transformed into, oddly, a destination.

If you walk on Cherry Street due east from the Academy, crossing Broad Street, you will more than likely bump into a burly construction worker helping to put the finishing touches on the new, hulking, even monstrous addition to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It is this massive taxpayer-funded project, with its gigantic main entrance staring right down Cherry Street, that kickstarted the idea of a plaza of some sort as a way to prettify the view for conventioneers, and at the same time create a connecting walkway between the two PAFA buildings, and at the same time devise a tourist-y locational conceit. The improved area would be seen as and deemed a conduit – feeding who? Doctors here for the orthodontists’ annual convocation? – to what’s being marketed now as Museum Mile, a jeweled cultural belt along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with the Barnes Foundation, Rodin Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art as the most glittering of the gems.

With money from H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest ­– a local multi-multi-millionaire whose stated goal is to spend down all his money, so that it and he hit zero at about the same time – and a design by the distinguished landscape-architecture firm Olin, all that was needed was a landmark. Enter Claes Oldenburg (sadly, sans Coosje van Bruggen). His outsized renderings of commonplace items – spoons and buttons, electrical plugs and garden spades – are brilliant objectifications of industrially-designed products, illuminating their art by eliminating their function, and, lately, honoring extinct or endangered items made in the 20th century, like typewriter erasers. (In fact, just a quarter-mile south of the officially-named Lenfest Plaza stands Oldenburg’s towering “Clothespin,” a 35-year-old work of note across from City Hall.)

So, the centerpiece of the plaza (groundbreaking for which occurred last week) is an apropos, if obvious, art-linked object: A giant paint brush, complete with humongous paint drip. Nicely, it will lean out from the plaza and be visible on Broad Street, like Lady Liberty’s torch – its red-paint coated bristles acting as the beacon, its long, thin body angling down like a finger pointing to and, ultimately, anchoring in the plaza. From there, Olin has designed a self-contained yet open-at-both-ends hard-surface fuselage, complete with a long and curving bench, tables and chairs, and congregating and activity areas. It is easy to picture it as the outdoor public space that the building-bound Academy has craved: a place for students to mill in between classes, a spot for performance art, a location for post-openings soirees, maybe even clothesline shows for starving young artists. It makes the institution seem less cloistered, and brings its esoteric doings – mysterious to a suspicious, generally culture-averse population – into the light and air.

But how it will be used – how the institution will permit it to be used – will determine if it attains a placeness. The city – indeed, every major city – is peppered with plazas that, despite good intentions, are arid, unfriendly dead zones, little- or unused, stark scapes that even pigeons avoid. Too much or too little sun, no place comfortable to sit, bad feng-shui, purposelessly sited as an ego trip for a politician or donor. (Olin, masterful as they are, have done a few of these themselves.) After all the money spent on this Lenfest Plaza, will the Academy permit its students to post notices on its surfaces, or to paint on its walls, or rally or party in it? Will outsiders – nearby office workers, those conventioneers, other tourists and city residents – feel welcome to be in it, comfortable to use it? Will it be a vital space or merely a decorated canyon?

To the point: Can you impose placeness on a place merely by making it into something that is supposed to have it? Can placeness be legislated and design-built? Or is it just something that, inexplicably, just is, all of its own, with a power that it simply has and imbues, and which no one can control? Why do young children eschew certain toys and prefer to play with the boxes they came in? How do plans fire imagination, and how does imagination find the very thing it needs in order to sing, or simply to find a resonance in? Oldenburg’s brush, like the 1400 block of Cherry Street, has two ends; will it point down, attracting simpatico souls to a place they recognize as something of their own and of themselves, or will it point them away from the plaza, propelling thoughts and gazes elsewhere?

We wish it luck, the Lenfest Plaza; we hope it “works.” It has big guns and good brains behind it, and the city can use it. But placeness is a funny thing – it may not be where you want it to be, but it is where you least expect it, and most need it, when you come upon it. And you know it when you feel it – the way a painter knows that that stroke of her brush is just the right one.

 

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Grand Rapids Quag-Meijer

Half of the arslocii team has been eager to see as many sculpture parks as can be viewed. The resulting reviews for those already visited, most of them located on the east coast, and a couple in the midwestern United States, are a mixed bag of placeness criteria – some superb, others lacking. Of the parks previously seen, I would rate the top three, thus far, as, at number one, Storm King, The Fields at number two, and Nathan Manilow coming in third. Recently I journeyed to see Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The grandeur of the entrance, the constant movement of trams and the amount of parking slots being equal to the number of picnic areas – all of this made me a bit worried about what awaited inside. And the gardens, too: although they were nice collections and displays, the whole was a little too squeaky clean and informed by crowd-control planned movement. Plus, their big draw for the season was a comprehensive show of Dale Chihuly glass works – weaving through buildings, arranged in gardens, hanging from ceilings, poking out of ponds – so omnipresent that I wondered if this was his entire oeuvre carted here. Seeing that, I was still worried, maybe even more so. I have to say, I was starting to question why I had driven more than 600 miles for this when it was looking very much like Grounds for Sculpture, which I dislike but is only about one tenth the distance from home. Why go so far to be disappointed when you can do it close by?

What I didn’t realize going into this, is that the sculpture park is just one garden area in the entire park complex and is probably the least populated by visitors. The other gardens felt too coiffed while the sculpture park, despite being designed, was more naturalistic in its flowing hills and valleys, and seemed more probable in the surrounding landscape. Plus, the art within the sculpture park was better than I expected, based on what was around in the other garden areas. And, yes, the omnipresent Chihulys were scattered about there, too. But if you looked past them, the permanent sculpture collections and their varied settings were quite thoughtfully paired, and some were impressive.

Of particular note are two named sections of the sculpture park: The Hollow and The Gallery. (They appear to have named every walkway and designed area of the park, much like the hallowed grounds of Disney, but the sculptures these two areas contain are good works and well-sited.) The Gallery is a formal garden, in the European style, a series of small viewing galleries each with sculpture – similar to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, but with a little more risk-taking in color and design accents at Meijer. Many of The Gallery’s sites are geometric curbed islands filled with various interesting plant materials, ground-level green roofs or, rather, carpets designed to set off and enhance the hovering artworks. Tony Smith’s For J.W., a black, solid, oblique parallelogram is seated in an oblique shaped “bed” of yellow sedum. The contrasting textures, shapes and colors are kind of breathtaking.

Generally speaking, the pavers in The Gallery are too new and suburban looking, but the intelligent placement of the sculpture in its environment helps to overcome the connecting pathways. Not too far from Smith’s work is Anthony Caro’s Emma Sall, a geometric piece with a lot of movement, complemented by a nearly-as-complex installation – an angled pedestal, interlocking varying curb heights and a carpet of lavender alyssum against the teal blue of the painted steel.

The Hollow is, in contrast to The Gallery, a more in-the-rough site, with unmown grasses and wildflowers. The artworks still manage to have distinct areas even though they are not as well-defined. In this section, the sense of surprise is key, since it appears to be a wild area and not a real garden. In a small clearing of a woodland is Antony Gormley’s One and Other, a figure encased in iron, isolated, alienated, trapped – a kind of upright sarcophagus – a frightening vision found in a hidden glade.

A nearby open meadow offers Sophie Ryder’s Introspective, a bizarre grouping of figures that are half human/half rabbit, in some sort of stop-action poses, or, perhaps, a new take on the Ascent of Man. This work has a similar effect as the previous one, in that you don’t know whether you should be privy to what is taking place – both sculptures being perfectly placed and in synch with their environments.

Also “planted” in The Hollow is the Oldenburg and Van Bruggen Plantoir, another of their tools on steroids, this one comically painted up but standing erect on an untended hillock – looking completely in and out of place.

Back on the major encircling walkway of the sculpture park, and high on a rise, stands Andy Goldsworthy’s Grand Rapids Arch, like a huge red sandstone inchworm, as it surveys the landscape. Curious for the artist to have placed it in the road like he did – the blacktop, not the earth, acting as its pedestal – it is reminiscent of formations you might see in Arches National Park – but in the roadway. The two together, the sculpture and the asphalt, seem to be saying something about the West.

So, placeness does exist at Meijer Sculpture Park. I wouldn’t say it is the overriding theme of the park but someone there has given meaningful placement to many of the artworks, resulting in a symbiosis between art and site. And given so many other gratuitous displays throughout the gardens, the instances of arslocii become all the more special. In that way, Meijer’s park is a lot like life.

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