It’s an article of faith among art
organizations that public art is unquestionably a good thing. The fact is, most
public art is far from a good thing; most of it is plain awful.
Making art good enough to hold its own in a pubic space is special skill, and most artists, even very good artists, can’t do it. Even if
they could, most committees, and Portland’s
is no exception, can’t make a decision for quality art, even if they were
offered it. Horses, camels.
For proof, one need look no farther than around the town. There is, as far as I know,
no good public art anywhere in the city, with the possible exception of some stones arranged on
the Waynefleet campus. The Mierle Ukeles piece at MECA is a obvious throw-together.
The recent additions are at best banal and at worst silly. There is some humor
value in the accidentally autoerotic (at least when viewed from the west)
statue of the fireman in front of the firehouse on Congress Street, but otherwise there is little to lift one's spirits.
public art committee has good people on it, but it the whole idea of a committee selection process is flawed. Percent for
art has left bad piece after bad piece around the state, all chosen by committees, most of whom were unfamiliar with art at all. Go look, you’ll see
what I mean. With the exception of a couple of pieces by Roger Majorowicz, who
has a flair for making art that is both interesting and accessible, most are
prime examples of what James Wines called ‘plop art,’ or the ‘turd in the
Good artists can’t always make art for public spaces.
There’s an Isamu Noguchi in lower Manhattan
that just shouldn't be where it is. For a while there was a David Smith, a great sculptor
by any measure, at Lincoln
Center and it looked
awful. Mark di Suvero, who depends on huge scale for much of his work, can’t
always get it right. Anyone who saw the Richard Serra ‘Tilted Arc’ before it
was removed from the plaza it occupied could see it was wrong for that spot.
During that same period there was another Serra in park-like area near the
Holland Tunnel that was great. His big piece outside the Carnegie
Museum in Pittsburgh is one of the best public
sculptures I’ve seen anywhere.
It’s best to get a good one that works where it is. Good art
isn’t always popular, but over time it
grows on the passers-by. The big Picasso horse in Chicago was like that. After a few years it
was embraced by the community. I’m no great fan of Picasso, but that is a great
Mediocre or poorly-sited work has the opposite effect. It
may generate a little early opposition, but over time it just looks like
nothing. It’s better to have nothing than to have something that looks like
nothing. These are the only art works some people will usually see in their
lives, and to have it be something pallid is a great shame.
Here are a few good public art pieces in Maine, in no particular order:
Sculptures by Richard Serra and Sol Lewitt at Colby College
Museum of Art, Waterville
Two pieces by Roger Majorowicz, one in downtown Waterville and another at
a school in Gardiner.
I can’t think of any more.