Though the Seattle Art Museum’s new Olympic Sculpture Park doesn’t open to the public until this weekend, there has been no shortage of discussion and descriptions in both the local and national media. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin has been part of the preview crowd, and he joins us now with his observations on this latest addition to Seattle’s cultural landscape.
The architects of this minutely-engineered, nine-acre Earthwork, Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, state their intentions clearly, right from the outset. Visitors who cross the symbolic moat to the entrance pavilion at Western and Broad are confronted with a perfectly framed, picture-postcard view of mountains, sky, and sound, outlined by the building’s metal porch and treated with a reverence missing from almost every other built environment in the region, most of which make no acknowledgement of their setting at all. (“Higgledy-piggledy, low-rise, low-density sprawl”, to quote local author Jonathan Raban.)
Far from ignoring the setting, nearly every path, bridge, and viewpoint of the sculpture park represents a particular, elaborately thought-out take on the park’s view-worthy surroundings. Turn one way and the architects call our attention to the high-rise urban background, as well as the active railway and highway arterials that rumble through the park itself, directly under our feet. Turn another way, and we see (thanks to the park’s ownership of everything from hilltop to waterfront) nothing but sea and sky. Mt. Rainier is suitably honored, absolutely, precisely on axis with the main walkway, and turning to the west, one sees ships at anchor so perfectly scaled to the foreground that they almost seem part of the plan.
I’ve never been to a sculpture park with so much outside environment to have to balance with its art, and it’s not surprising that the architects have provided a number of installation sites that are purposely screened off from the surrounding spectacle.
Tony Smith’s dated-looking, minimalist black boxes, for example, are clustered in a view-less aspen grove, placeholders, one hopes, for more interesting art to be cycled in later, as future curators tinker with the mix. Likewise, a row of abstract metal works by Louise Nevelson and Beverly Pepper is protected from the infinite view by high walls, a decent location also awaiting a more exciting sculptural population than this dutifully mainstream, modernist group - made available by local collectors, which is the reason it’s here.
It’s interesting that even the swaggering art-god Richard Serra, given his choice, declined an opportunity to do battle with the view, choosing instead to locate his massive sculptural group "Wake" in the most isolated setting in the park, The Valley. One first sees the five enormous curving steel elements that comprise the work from a distance, and the effect – like smokestacks or oil tanks lined up for storage - is not particularly promising. But when the artwork is viewed, as intended, from the narrow pathways between the works, the experience is indeed transformative. Serra’s 14-foot high, smoothly rusting walls suddenly seem oddly sensual and protective – like a womb or an embrace - the environment completely self-contained. We notice how differently we perceive sounds, light and shadow, and the suddenly small patches of visible sky. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a Serra piece so much, but I’d still prefer seeing this prime real estate made available for other works from time to time – which given the nature of the Serra piece, isn’t going to happen.
The single most extraordinary section of the park is directly over Elliot Avenue, where the main pathway does a complete switchback to head down to the new railway bridge, and all the interacting elements – urban, natural, and artistic – are tuned to their highest pitch. It’s also here that the park’s biggest sculptural success and most egregious failure sit nearly side by side.
The success, the brilliant siting of Calder’s "Eagle" as the park’s most prominent sculptural landmark, is all the more interesting when one considers how much less impressive the same sculpture seemed during the five years it sat on a side lawn of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Here the sweeping, 40-foot red steel abstraction powerfully anchors the visual and geographical center of the park, looking equally dominant from nearly every angle, its graceful, balletic gesture of energy and affirmation an appropriate punctuation mark to the sensory excitement of the park.
But one’s heart sinks when one turns away from the Calder to look off to the west, where in the very spot where the architects have given viewers the illusion of hovering directly over the sea (actually hundreds of feet away and dozens of feet below), a huge, awkward and ugly log, chain, and steel sculpture by Mark Di Suvero comes off as an eyesore rather than an accompaniment, a moment of sheer visual clutter at a spot where we least appreciate it. It’s only fair to mention that a little ways down the same path, a sculpture by the same artist – made thirty years later – appears first as a tantalizing tease and then at full height against the sea. It works far better here than at either of its previous locations, Harbor Steps and Benaroya Hall.
Perhaps the visionaries of the local donor community and the Seattle Art Museum got a bit more than they bargained for with this groundbreaking park. The site design is so good, and the setting so epic, the park would certainly be popular and beloved without any art at all. The challenge going forward will be to find artworks that can succeed as man-made interventions in their charged environment nearly as well as the splendid park that contains them.