Dream Sculpture Tour

In 2004, I was awarded a Travel & Study Grant by the General Mills and Jerome Foundations to visit outdoor sculpture parks, museums, and studios from here to the East Coast. During the month of June, I spent 20 days on the road, along with my wife, to accomplish that task. From Minnesota to New York to Missouri and back, we traveled 4700 miles, took over 2500 pictures and visited 38 different venues. Along the way, I kept a journal on the International Sculpture Center’s online forum. Updated with pictures and reflections each day, it has become not only a way for others to experience our journey, but a record for myself as well. All I have to do is revisit those pages to return again to that incredible experience.

The Dream Sculpture Tour

As a condition of the Travel & Study Grant, I was required to submit a written report detailing my experience. That report is reproduced here in full:

On June 7, 2004, I left my home in mid-Minnesota and, along with my wife, began a road tour of sculpture parks, museums and studios to the East Coast and back. When it was over, we would have traveled 4700 miles over 20 days through 15 states. We visited 38 different places while taking over 2500 photographs. It has been said that a fish is unable to see the water that it swims in, that while immersed in an environment, it is unable to fully understand it. Well, that was my goal for this trip. I wanted to “see” the sculpture environment so that I could better understand it as well as my place in it.

Upon leaving, I compiled a list of four hypotheses that I would attempt to test with what I saw. They were:

1. There is a noticeable difference in quality from great works of art to second- and third-tier works.

2. Good site selection and placement play a crucial role in how we see sculpture. It is so important that good placement can make bad work look good while poor placement can make good work look bad.

3. The superiority of blue-chip sculpture is due to qualities inherent in the work and not due to social and theoretical constructs surrounding the work

4. Craftsmanship in outdoor work is more important than in indoor work. A well put-together sculpture looks better than one that is poorly constructed.

The first day was a crucial beginning for the trip. In fact, it could be seen as a microcosm of the trip as a whole. I saw then that there would be no easy answers or black and white judgments. The first stop was the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, MN, and the last stop was the junkyard sculpture park by Dr. Evermor in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It is hard to imagine a wider spectrum of work.

I had been to the Walker Sculpture Garden many times. It is a very deliberately and intelligently designed park. Formal gardens create a group of outdoor galleries at the beginning. These give way to a more free-form park area of grass and trees. Since I had been there before, I was familiar with nearly all the work. There were only a couple new pieces or groupings on display, and these were all located in the more organic part of the garden. The formal gardens almost never change. The works there are placed permanently and beautifully. Just the right level of light flickers through the trees, dancing over the surfaces of high modern and contemporary work. They are all by big name artists.

Only towards the way back did I see something really new. There was a recent competition to design miniature golf holes and a dozen of the winning proposals were installed there. The opening for the show had been a week earlier. These installations were new to the park and yet they were somehow familiar to me. Many of them played with commercial imagery in an ironic attempt to co-opt popular advertising. But mostly they came off as looking as if they were sponsored by major department stores. The works were slick and intelligent. They were high contemporary slumming it for their own amusement.

At the Walker I saw what would become a staple at the more prestigious venues across the country: high art as high religion. You were not invited to touch the work. Children running and playing in the grass seemed somehow inappropriate. A lot of nodding and quiet contemplation. The systematic movement from one work to the next, pausing for an obligatory amount of time. The identification of sculptures by their maker and not their subject or title. And occasionally, you would happen across a transcendent experience, a work so beautiful it would stop you dead in your tracks. A single sculpture that would expand in time and space to eclipse all the others and render them beside the point.

Dr. Evermor’s park was completely different. At a junkyard, one man has fashioned an idiosyncratic vision of classic outsider art. The centerpiece is his Forevertron, an expansive, undisciplined work to serve as both a figurative and literal transporter to other worlds. The surrounding areas are replete with fanciful birds fashioned from musical instruments and giant lizard forms with individual scrap metal scales. There is very little thought given to placement beyond expediency. Works are crammed in with like works in whatever space is available. Often, only enough room to walk between them is left. Viewers are not only allowed to touch the work, they are encouraged to bang on them. Open-ended cylinders attached to a giant, curving dragon create atonal chimes when summoned. The sculptures are often made of rusted metal left unpainted or painted metal in a state of decay. But what imagination! Giant cylinders are transformed into the breasts of an enormous bird. Trumpets and trombones become the tails of peacocks. They don’t simply “represent” these things; they become them! They are the vision of a single man made manifest in the world. They are both a gift and a natural expression. They are like the shells fashioned by the nautilus; unconsciously created, they are an evolving expression of life.

It would have been enormously convenient for my trip if I had been able to easily dismiss this work. If the Walker had succeeded in every way that Dr. Evermor had failed. But it was not that easy. There were a pair of gigantic custom bass violins fashioned into birds at Dr. Evermor’s that did not simply succeed as interesting outsider art; they succeeded as sculpture. They were able to overcome poor placement to shine, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they would have stacked up in the Walker collection with proper placement. And there were sculptures in the Walker propped up with a tasteful display and a big name that if placed in these weeds would have shriveled up into nothing. Though created from junk, the craftsmanship of some of Dr. Evermor’s work rivaled that of sculpture in the Walker collection because craftsmanship is not just technique, it is the care and grace with which that technique is used.

But one thing was noticeably missing from the junkyard park, and that was the transcendent experience. As wonderful as certain works were, as much as they evoked amusement and compassion on my part, they could not deliver an other-worldly experience. Is it because they lacked the religious environment of the Walker? Did they lack the aesthetic dimension of a profound sculpture? Was it due to something inherent in the work, the environment of the work, or in my expectations and training as a sculptor myself? In the course of my trip, any answers only became cloudier as I saw the repeated successes and failures of sculpture and sculpture organizations.

The first day set the tone not just thematically but practically as well. We would visit 2-3 different venues each day while driving between 200 and 400 miles. Really important or high profile places, such as Grounds for Sculpture and the Storm King Art Center, would pretty much get the day to themselves. In the evening, I would download all the digital pictures I took that day and post highlights along with a day’s summary on the Sculpture Community Forum of the International Sculpture Center’s website. Using these technologies, I was able to bring others along for the ride and use their questions and reactions to help me clarify my own thoughts.

As the trip progressed, I was surprised at how my thoughts moved from what I could learn from individual sculptures to the construction of the venues themselves. I did not expect how great a role the design and care of the sculpture parks as a whole would affect how I saw the individual sculptures. But if the sites were not maintained, the works were not kept clean, the labels were obscured or absent, it made it difficult to see the work. It did not help either that there were so many poorly constructed and designed sculptures. I learned that a great sculpture can overcome a poor placement, but a mediocre one cannot. In that case, the two seem to pull each other down even lower.

But the other reason for my attention turning away from the individual works is simply because I’d seen many of them so often. A number of museums and parks not only have works by the same artists, but the exact same works as well. I began to wonder about the reasons for this phenomenon which led me to thinking about the nature of these artistic organizations. It dawned on me that in many ways, they were organizations before they were artistic. It is human nature to not trust your own value judgments and the structures of the art community make that even harder. In a notoriously subjective sphere, big names and recognizable works can provide security and prestige. It is the same phenomenon seen in mutual fund managers transferred to the artistic realm. Since nobody really knows what makes for a good stock, buy blue chips. At least you won’t be alone if your judgment is poor.

The viewer is no different. Since many feel themselves lacking in the expertise to pass value judgments beyond “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” being able to recognize big names can impart the appearance of a meaningful cultural experience. And so the politics of safety motivates organizations to choose certain works over others. Parks are then designed to house these works, and I, as the viewer, find myself in them looking at works of a certain type. I have now come full circle.

Of course, the flip-side of this coin are the aggressively cutting-edge exhibitions that seem to render value judgments beside the point. The works are political, economic, or theoretic. In fact, they are most anything but aesthetic. Just another way of avoiding the question and retreating to the safety of a particular niche. They are little more than a foxhole dug for defense in the culture wars. Identical foxholes can be found housing their polar opposites on the other side of the front.

These forces are not only dangerous because of the repetitive experiences they result in, but the weakened sculpture community that could be the result. Many if not most of the works at the top museums and parks are by the same, older artists. In fact, it seems as if these forces are so strong that an inferior sculpture by a big name will be chosen over a great sculpture by a lesser or unknown artist. Calder, in particular, is a sculptor prone to this phenomenon. I saw many poor stabiles by him in collections across the country whose main attribute seems to be that he designed them. What this does is potentially create an enormous gap of the work of mid-career or younger sculptors. This slack seems to be taken up by the smaller or second-tier sculpture venues where many younger sculptors can be found. In these places, the quality of work fluctuates wildly. Some of these gems shine gloriously and inspire, but all too many are poorly made and poorly designed. At my darkest moments, I could not tell if the large museums were overlooking great younger artists or if there were simply none to find.

But it’s not even as simple as that. Due to our first day, I knew that there were many factors contributing to my “seeing” of a sculpture beyond its inherent design and material. Slowly, I began to get a hint of the Patina. What I call the Patina is the final finish that seems to adhere to world-class work. But unlike a usual patina that is applied by the artist, this Patina is applied by the cultural times, a dealer, a gallery, a museum or an institution. It exists between the viewer and the physical object being seen. Our expectations, education, and inadequacies connect the dots to form the picture we expect to see. The institution, the layout, the big name, the color brochure all help to guide the viewer to see “properly” The more I think about the Patina, the more it undermines all my own expectations as to what makes for a good sculpture and how a Quality work should be received in the world.

Whenever my thoughts began to wander too far, meeting with a great artist in his studio brought me back to the immediate concerns of sculpture. By far, the highlights of my tour were seeing the different ways such talented and intelligent people navigate their way through this complex community. From a single-man shop to one with 3-4 people in the administration alone, each one demonstrated skills beyond simply those of making sculpture. As much as I could learn aesthetically from encountering a great sculpture, I could learn from a great sculptor what makes for a great character. I think sculpture has always attracted more practically oriented artists due to the increased interaction of people and the greater responsibility that brings. No matter how large the painting, if it falls over it’s not going to kill anyone. Perhaps most inspiring to see was the great discipline and effort with which they undertake their multiple responsibilities. And being a successful sculptor is about juggling multiple responsibilities. Responsibilities to their collectors, galleries, public boards, employees and, above all, their work. It is just this type of discipline that is obviously lacking in inferior work. It is hard to truly understand just what is missing until you’ve seen the absolute epitome of a great modern sculptor.

In the end, I realized that my initial hypotheses were a good place to start, but they did not take into account the complicated intersection of forces and motivations in the art community today. There is often a noticeable difference in the quality of blue-chip work and lesser work, but I can’t always attribute this to the qualities of the work itself. It is vitally important that a sculpture park be well designed, accessible, and well maintained, but that isn’t enough. The work must inspire awe and imagination as well. A well crafted sculpture does hold up and look better in the natural landscape, but it takes more than just that. Cold technical skill are no substitute for the passion and care of the artist’s hand. In short, sculpture and the sculpture community today is more grand and meager than I could have ever expected.

My thanks again to the General Mills and Jerome Foundations for making this experience possible.