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OLYMPIC METAL
by Grant Mandarino
 
With squares of sod barely knit together, several pieces still being assembled and the "Boeing Company Bicycle Path" unfinished and fenced off, Seattle’s new Olympic Sculpture Park finally opened on Jan. 20, 2007. Delayed by a drawn-out concrete workers’ strike last year, the 8.5-acre, $85-million park, which was originally scheduled to open last October, welcomed throngs of curious visitors who braved the cold weather to traipse through the city’s newest architectural wonder.

Zigzag shaped, the park is all angles and slopes, much like the exterior of Seattle’s other recent architectural marvel, Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library. Like the library -- which incorporates work by Tony Oursler and Ann Hamilton, among others -- the Olympic Sculpture Park (OSP) presents contemporary art within a multi-use public space. What’s more, the OSP is being hyped as a model of the ways that art can be interwoven into the urban landscape. That it succeeds as a sculpture park is not to be disputed. Whether it succeeds as a public park, well, that remains to be seen.

If $85 million dollars seems like a lot of money for a park, bear in mind that nearly all the tab was covered by some of the biggest names in Seattle’s ever-expanding community of multimillionaire philanthropists -- whose names grace nearly every zone of the park. From the (Bill and Melinda) Gates Amphitheater and the (Paul) Allen Family Foundation Plaza, to the Kreielsheimer North Meadow and the Henry and William Ketcham Families Grove, the OSP donor’s list is a veritable "who’s who" of Seattle’s richest families and most influential corporations.

Thanks to Jon and Mary Shirley’s $30 million endowment, the park has no entrance fee -- though it’s hard to imagine charging admission to a public park, even in these days of rising museum entry costs. Many of the works on display are from local private collections. Most are full or pledged gifts of the Shirleys or Virginia and Bagley Wright, known world-wide for their holdings of modern painting and sculpture. Other works are on loan from major donors or were purchased with their financial support. Tony Smith’s Stinger was a gift of the artist’s widow (who died last year). In a sense, the new sculpture park is a monument to contemporary art patronage.

No single piece better demonstrates the collaborative effort between the Seattle Art Museum and these donors than Richard Serra’s Wake (2004). The story goes that the museum’s former deputy director and chief curator of modern and contemporary art, Lisa Corrin (now director of the Williams College Museum of Art), first saw the huge sculpture at the Gagosian Gallery in New York and persuaded the trustees of the museum to buy the piece for the park. The museum was able to purchase the $5-million dollar Wake through a combination of donations and its own acquisition funds.

Serra’s work now sits in a ravine called "The Valley" near the easternmost entrance of the park and the Gates Amphitheater. From the top of the amphitheater, the five massive 14-foot-tall steel forms look puny and hollow, like pieces of rigatoni or, perhaps, metal versions of Eva Hesse’s polyester resin luminaries. But as one walks down into the ravine the scale shifts, and the metal slabs seem to increase in size.  Walking among them, the viewer is dwarfed, particularly when standing in between two forms.

This kind of disorienting effect characterizes many of Serra’s monumental sculptures, but the drastic shift in perspective from the top of the amphitheater to the bottom of OSP ravine is, I believe, unique. It is unlike the experience one has with the Serra works by at Dia:Beacon, and vastly different than the way that Serra’s works are seen in a gallery. Unsurprisingly, the artist was extremely pleased with the placement of Wake -- he should be, he placed it.

Other sculptures play a similar game of hide-and-seek. Two works by Tony Smith, Wandering Rocks (1967) and Stinger (1967-68/1999), are placed in a grove of trees in the second of the park’s three tiers. Both are black-painted steel forms reminiscent of polygons or crystals. Wandering Rocks are scattered across a mulch path that leads down to Stinger at the bottom of a hill. As the trees and ground cover grow, the Rocks will no doubt cease to stand out and become absorbed into the surrounding environment.

Not so for Stinger, which sits all alone on a bed of wood chips and looks like something out of the movie Tron. Standing inside the curving geometric form, one cannot see any other sculpture in the park -- a fact that is characteristic of the placement of most of OSP’s sculptures. Instead, viewers are encouraged to stick to the path that winds through the park in tight switchbacks, taking in one piece at a time. Despite the open-air arena, the logic of a linear museum exhibition remains in effect.

The exception to this rule is Alexander Calder’s monumental orange Eagle (1971), which is the park’s centerpiece. Smack dab in the middle of the park, this emblematic piece (now used by SAM as the advertising symbol for the park as a whole) can be seen from almost anywhere in the park. Echoing the forms of the shipping container cranes visible further south, Eagle’s curvilinear silhouette could also be compared to the wings of the numerous seagulls that fly above the park, or the subtle curves of the Space Needle’s slender stem, visible to the east.

Two pieces by Ross McMakin, Bench (2004) and Love & Loss (2005), are the only works on display so far by an artist who lives in Seattle, although SAM promises to exhibit more local work in the future, either in the park or in the PACCAR Pavilion (which also houses the cafe and gift shop). The majority of the sculpture on view are by critically acclaimed artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Anthony Caro, Mark Di Suvero, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, Beverly Pepper and the Pop monument team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, whose Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (1998-1999) is a crowd pleaser for both those who grew up using such an implement and those for whom such an anachronism is merely a charming, whimsical form.

Thrown into the mix are works by more contemporary artists: Pedro Reyes, Roxy Paine, Teresita Fernández and Mark Dion, whose Neukom Vivarium (2004-2006) features a decomposing 60-foot nurse log ostensibly will engender a new ecosystem of local fauna and insect life enclosed within Dion’s greenhouse, for all to witness (I can’t wait).

That the OSP integrates well with its urban setting is a fact. The shape of the park covers both an arterial highway to Seattle’s downtown and a set of train tracks -- though one thinks that the design team might have been able to do without so many overlapping rectangular slabs of concrete (which, unfortunately for the Seasonal Affective Disorder-stricken Seattlite, exactly match the hue of the sky during the city’s famously grey autumns and winters).

Sadly, the overall design concept, which might be called "park-as-zigzag path," while striking, leaves visitors with relatively little usable green space. What grass there is covers steep inclines that, while good for sitting to catch a view of the water or mountains, does not make for an easy spot to have a picnic or play Frisbee.

It will be interesting to see how use of the park evolves once its novelty wears off. According to local people-counters, over 40,000 visitors tramped through OSP during its opening week, and left several scuff marks on the million-dollar artworks. Such damage is the downside of public art, of course, and the museum has placed signs throughout the park asking people to respect the works by not touching them. One oft-heard criticism of Koolhaas’ library is that while it looks interesting, the building is difficult to navigate and books hard to locate. I wonder whether the public will find the OSP equally frustrating as a public park.


GRANT MANDARINO writes on art from Seattle.