How Installations Create Connections
The artist Chris Burden, who was known rather reductively as, “the guy who shot himself,” thought carefully about the involvement of the public in public art. He wasn’t optimistic. Burden claimed that, “Almost everything that isn’t Bambi—you know, big brown-eyed girls, cute cocker spaniels and Hallmark cards—is offensive to the general public.” *
I’d like to think he was wrong. But maybe, in a way, he wasn’t.
In 1975, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commissioned Louise Nevelson’s Transparent Horizon, the first public art commission under its then-new Percent for Art program. I.M. Pei, an MIT alumnus and the architect of the nearby Landau Building, had suggested Nevelson’s sculpture for the commission and had selected its site on the campus.
Almost immediately after the sculpture was installed, MIT students who lived in the adjacent dorms objected. They thought it was ugly. They were mad that they hadn’t been consulted. And it got in the way of their Frisbee games.
Transparent Horizon was defaced several times by MIT students. It was painted over in 1976, and again in 1977 and, even twenty years later, students attached balloons to it, with a note saying they’d hoped that the sculpture would float away. Soon after it was installed, the situation was defused, somewhat, when MIT sent a group of students to visit Nevelson in New York. She was not amused by their behavior, and she told them so.
I mentioned these incidents to a representative of the Pace Gallery when I saw Nevelson’s work in Miami, and he knew the story well. But we also talked about Black, a great installation in 2013 of Nevelson's work at the Wellesley College art museum.
I saw the exhibition at Wellesley almost by accident. I’d gone to see something else, but I noticed the Nevelson show as I was leaving. There, her work was installed in a dark gallery, as Nevelson preferred it to be, with just a little bit of blue light. As I recall, there was a place to sit while my eyes adjusted to the darkness. And in that darkness, I got it: Nevelson’s attachment to black, her intense interest in shadows, the mysteries in her work.
In Miami, I learned that Arne Glimcher, the founder of the Pace Gallery, had been deeply involved in installing the Wellesley exhibition. So in the midst of that crowded and crazy Art Basel Miami Beach exhibition hall, I discovered once again that a great gallerist can and should make connections between people and art.
In the Wellesley installation, I could see Nevelson’s work because Arne Glimcher showed it to me.
Of course, there are huge differences between a museum exhibition and a public art installation. And will admit to my reservations about whether Nevelson’s outdoor works are as strong as her indoor pieces. But I have no doubts at all about the gratitude I feel when gallerists and curators install works in a way that helps me to understand them.
I’ll have more to say about Arne Glimcher when I write about Agnes Martin. But, until then, I’ll conjure up a performance that never happened: Arne Glimcher sitting beside Transparent Horizon for a few weeks, and talking to those smart kids who didn’t get it, and weren’t given the chance to.
* Nicholas Drake interview with Chris Burden, “Excuse Me!” Public Art Review, Fall/Winter 1994. The article doesn’t seem to be available online, but you can read parts of the Public Art Review at http://forecastpublicart.org/public-art-review-home/