With its stunning views of Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier as well as its world-class collection of steel behemoths by, among others, Alexander Calder, Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero and Tony Smith, the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, which officially opened to the public on Jan. 20, 2007, sets a new standard of excellence. It’s one of those rare art parks that combines spectacular vistas with splendid sculptures. The OSP, as it is dubbed, is an instant classic.
Olympic Sculpture Park is also the sort of place where you might expect to find Meredith Grey and Dr. McDreamy (stars of the top TV hospital soap, Grey’s Anatomy) walking along the 2,500-foot-long, zigzag path that descends from the park entryway at the top of the hill down to the city’s waterfront. A populist philosophy rules. As Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gardner Gates puts it, "Kids can run here, people can picnic under a sculpture." And Gates adds, "There’s a pocket beach where you can dip your toes into water in the heart of a city. And we’ve restored the shoreline so you can fish for salmon."
As if this weren’t enough, OSP, an arm of the Seattle Art Museum, is free to the public.
Weiss/Manfredi, a New York firm, transformed three parcels of brown land, crossed by a highway and a railroad, into an elegant green venue. The husband-and-wife team designed an entrance pavilion with a café, shop, rest facilities and space large enough to hold lectures, panel discussions and intimate concerts. The pavilion is flanked by an outdoor amphitheatre. Three distinct areas -- named Valley, Grove and Shore -- are reserved as sites for sculpture. It’s a 40-foot drop from the glass walled, street level pavilion to the water’s edge. Encompassing almost nine acres, the site was once a tank farm used by UNOCAL (Union Oil Company of California) for fuel transfer and distribution. Railroad tracks and a major thoroughfare bisect this otherwise majestic setting. Bicycle riders and joggers exercise along a revitalized path.
The sculptures of OSP, selected by former SAM deputy director and curator Lisa G. Corrin, now director of the Williams College Museum of Art, are a wonderful blend of golden oldies, local hits and hot talent. The park provides a good showcase for two artists based in Seattle: Roy McMakin, who has contributed sculptures doubling as seating (and who shows in New York with Matthew Marks), and photographer Glenn Rudolph, whose photographs of the waterfront are on display in the pavilion. Teresita Fernández, a MacArthur Foundation fellow, was tapped to design Seattle Cloud Cover, the intriguing canopy bridge crossing above the rail lines, before she got her genius grant.
If a Sculpture Hall of Fame existed, most of OSP’s artists would be elected on the first ballot -- though Seattle, with its heavy emphasis on American artists, it’s also a tad more red, white and blue than usual. But never mind; artists are international now. Richard Serra’s steel walls are made in Germany while Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero and Beverly Pepper have all had studios abroad (while the English Anthony Caro has done important work Stateside). Furthermore, OSP is to be commended for selecting five amazing artists who are women (in addition to Fernández and Pepper, there’s Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson and Coosje von Bruggen).
Calder’s soaring 1971 Eagle is being heralded as a future symbol of the Emerald City (i.e., Seattle), which has long been identified with its inimitable Space Needle. It’s a lovely idea until you remember how many other cities have monumental outdoor works by Calder. The changing silhouettes of this three-story-high gem can be viewed from a distance against Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains across the water. As dynamic as this aspect is, the curved steel planes, boldly painted red, must be experienced in the round. Anyone who has ever visited the Louisiana Museum outside Copenhagen might be reminded of the way their Calder is placed dramatically beside a body of water. A waterside site has illustrious historical antecedents: before making its way to the Louvre, the Winged Victory of Samothrace during ancient times faced a water view.
Regarding sculpture, issues of installation can never be ignored. For years, Claes Oldenburg’s public works have seemed less dynamic than his soft sculptures of the 1960s. But his and Coosje van Bruggen’s tricolored Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (model 1988, fabricated 1999), wonderfully balanced on the side of a hill along Elliott Avenue, is captivating. And imagine how many kids raised in Microsoftland will pass this whimsical confection without knowing what a typewriter eraser is!
If you saw Richard Serra’s Wake at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea a few years ago, you’re in for another treat. When the ensemble of five double-plated forms was exhibited indoors, it was 100 feet long. This time around it stretches across 160 feet of the Valley, where it someday will be surrounded by 150-feet-tall Sequoias. From several vantage points, including the pavilion, viewers look down on Serra’s sculpture, and can view its open tops.
And OSP is filled with other delights. The reflections off the polished stainless steel surfaces of Beverly Pepper’s Perre’s Ventaglio simultaneously unite sky, ground and the beholder. The transparency of di Suvero’s Bunyon’s Chess, an aptly named work from 1965, belies the labor involved with putting into place its moving parts. The title of di Suvero’s joyous Schubert Sonata from 1992 suggests the metal forms spinning along its top are actual musical notes arranged to play a wind tune.
Coming upon the five separate elements that comprise Tony Smith’s Wandering Rocks (1967-74) in the Grove, you’ll find beguiling volumes and planes shaped by a master. Then too, standing within the interior of Smith’s nearby Stinger, a major work designed during the late ‘60s, you’re literally enveloped by the mysteries engendered by his black art.
For the moment, OSP should silence anyone who is tempted to claim, as is often the case, that Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse are the preeminent sculptors of the 20th century. In some venues, size does matter. Just picture Picasso’s Woman in a Garden next to the Caro or Matisse’s Serf beside the Ellsworth Kelly. Further, the Seattle park is filled with work executed in steel rather than bronze casts. Most of these sculptures are unique rather than multiples.
Above all, whoever said sculpture is something you bump into when you step back to view a painting forgot that three-dimensional art prospers outside where there’s not a canvas in sight.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Bloomberg News, Town & Country and other journals.