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Art Among Art

Although it can be unfair to compare a small museum’s sculpture garden to a full-blown sculpture park, arslocii holds them both up to the same standards using the same  magnifying glass. We have been to some of the big outdoor-sculpture venues, as well as some of the diminutive ones; and we are fond of any size open-air gallery where the art’s placement is considered and complemented.

This week we visited the Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington. First (and Delaware is the first state), let’s say that the museum itself is situated in a rather stately neighborhood. Placeness already. The Copeland Sculpture Garden is a slip of land behind the broad-lawned and broad museum building. At first glance the landscape seemed too shallow and uniform to allow any sort of interaction of art and site to occur. Walking through the main entrance and out the glass-walled back, across a large terrace and into the “yard” made me think that this was a private home with garden art. Maybe it once was.

Crying Giant

The difference is that what is immediately in your face is Tom Otterness’ “Crying Giant.” It is huge, 13 feet tall, resembling a cartoon version of Rodin’s “Thinker,” but is maybe a more accurate depiction of modern man. The piece is a cluster of geometric solids that has tendril arms and legs, and Mickey Mouse hands and feet. It leans head-in-hands, dunce cap on head, with painful swollen feet and seated on a large cube. For a series of balloon shapes, it is filled with angst, both comic and sad. Is it sad about the state of art? I was moved by its powerful simplicity, but then I wondered … about its placeness. Well, on one level, if it is pondering art then it is filled with arslocii. But then it is reflected so well in an all-glass modern gallery wing of the museum – a sort of looking glass for the angst of modern man. Also, when catching a glimpse of it through the connector bridge between old museum and new, it is handily framed by the architecture, making it appear much diminished and, perhaps, even more sympathetic.

framed view

Down a wooded path is an interesting piece by William Freeland, “Irish Pastoral VII,” a minimalist hard edged factory made of rock and steel that felt like a tombstone. Behind it and hidden below grade is an old reservoir structure, a circular pit with stone walls that looks like a train-engine turnabout. Maybe that is because it is now a labyrinth, a spiral made of gravel and stone. That day it was set up for a wedding event and, although empty of guests, it was filled with placeness by what it was and is.

Another interesting work is Robert Stackhouse’s “Delaware Passage,” a rigorously fashioned structure of square metal tubes looking, all at once, like a railroad bridge, a brise soleil, a roof, a dock and a teepee. It plays with perspective, as it is short but endless. It is a striking piece but its placement doesn’t do it any favors.

Delaware Passage

But what is this? Three large craters encircled by hedges of holly. This Copeland Sculpture Garden is not a collection in which one would expect to find earthworks, but here they are. Only … what they are, in actuality, are functional drainage pits/fields. There are cascading rocks, having been intentionally (and well) placed that lead to large cast cement cubes guarded by iron grates at the bottom of the craters. They are modern and primitive, compelling and mysterious in that they are hidden by the shrubbery. But they are beautifully rendered works that are so integrated into the environment – because, unlike most of the pieces here, they are interacting with the environment. They are of the environment and, though not “art” in its narrow definition, should be considered part of the collection.

drain field

drain house

Placeness is a funny thing. Sometimes you can gather together things that artists make and which are intentional works of art – and sometimes they can be very good representatives of the form – and they do nothing for you or to you or with you; they do not gain from the setting nor add to it, they do not relate to it in any way nor to the other pieces scattered about, all seemingly with the same purpose – display; all this despite the best efforts of art professionals to show off the work and make something of the place. And then, sometimes, something that is neither created to be a work of art nor is considered to be such – in fact, is hardly considered at all, except as a workaday intruder in the garden – can have such power or attraction or even a compellingly formal nature that it not only challenges your conception of the art and its definition, but makes the o better and the place perfectly contains it, as if it were prepared thoughtfully to do so. A rocky sluice designed to channel water runoff away from the art and into a drain can, somehow, wonderfully, become the centerpiece of the sculpture array – a questioning of the need for intention as a component of art. Arslocii can materialize from something functional as well as something artful, being the product of one or both at the same time. It just happens, and just is. Arslocii.

reflected view

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Sculpture Garden, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and its grounds are a facsimile of the Acropolis of Athens: a flat-topped mini-mountain with temples sprouting forth. The museum building sits astride a rocky promontory named Faire Mount, once topped by an earthen-walled reservoir that held the city’s water supply; aptly called the “Parthenon on the Parkway,” the Greek-inspired structure and its site offer dramatic bird’s-eye views – one side looks down on the Champs-Elysees-style Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and from the opposite side, the flowing waters, elegant dam and sinuous valley of the Schuylkill. Over the past two years, in a project almost as massive an undertaking as the original 1815 reservoir, there has been an excavation of parts of the bluff for a parking facility and an accompanying designed reuse of the ground above, actually a green roof, for a sculpture garden. The opening for this welcome open-air addition was in September, but we explored it on a quieter day.

First, it feels odd to be inhabiting space on the grounds (formerly a rock and grass cliff face) where you couldn’t go before – so, it is like visiting unknown territory surrounded by the familiar. The landscape plan, by Olin, utilizes the changes in grade to create terraces and garden rooms (but with views both in and out, above and below and, as we’ll see, through). The Museum itself calls this a “gallery without walls,” but many of the terraces do have walls, only they are glass. Despite the amount of plate glass a city-dweller passes by every day, not much of it is freestanding, so there is something strange about its presence in the landscape, generally, and its use as exterior fencing, specifically. However, the surreality aside, using glass as a frame and railing around the terrace edges has the dual ability of being not only a transparent, discrete and nondisruptive border but also a palpable design presence in the greater environment – there, and yet not there. Of course, the plantings are new, so the “garden” part seems sparse and small in relation to the open space, which is magnified even more by the elevation of the site, creating a kind of natural pedestal for the artwork and for the viewer. The vistas out to the Schuylkill, its west bank rolling hills, the tree-lined parkway and its background of Fairmount Park, and the increasing density of high rises as the view heads east – all is hugely entertaining and encompassing. The question is: Can the sculpture garden compete in such a setting?

The inaugural exhibition in the garden is of stone works by Isamu Noguchi, whose pieces are diverse enough to make one think that this might be a group show – except that the sensibility is familiar in all. One particularly fortuitous pairing is of a Brancusi-like column standing against a backdrop of The Philadelphian apartments – both having a sameness in patterning and color, with their grey and white striping, the one undulating totemic form and the other massive edifice, in a stand-off conversation across the Parkway.

In answer to the question posed above – yes, the sculpture garden can compete. This is a bit of the Tuileries with a penthouse command, made up of contrasting colored gravel paths, green knolls, geometrically aligned trees and captivating captured scenic panoramas. Stylish in and of itself, it coexists with the surrounding beauty of the river as well as the nearby built environment, blending the two and mixing them up in an unfolding of defined spaces with both hard and soft edges and plenty of vantage points – for the garden rooms themselves, for the larger environment and for the sculptures that will inhabit the lofty perches created.

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