‘Where earth meets art!’ With that slogan the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park was inaugurated in January 2007: nine acres of industrial wasteland transformed into a sloping promenade through some 20 sculptures along the fjordlike Puget Sound, the cleaned-up waters of which are nowadays home to seals.
As I arrive by ferry, the setting sun strikes Alexander Calder’s Eagle (1971) full on; very red, it eclipses even the icon that dominates Seattle’s skyline – the Space Needle. The city has completely adopted the park: on the evening of my visit, a tai chi class is taking place between the walls of Richard Serra’s beautiful Wake (2004); a little further on some newlyweds are being photographed beside Teresita Fernández’s Seattle Cloud Cover (2006), which offers a view of the sky though a printed glass wall; and in front of Mark Dion’s greenhouse (Neukom Vivarium, 2006) an aerobics class is being held.
Louise Nevelson, Roxy Paine, Beverly Pepper (Persephone Unbound, 1999), George Rickey, Tony Smith… the collection, of very uneven quality, is varied, despite comprising exclusively works by American artists. The park also aims to develop native species of trees and shrubs, from which the statues emerge with more or less success (the Zen garden around the Serra is pretty much redundant).
As I walk between the tall legs of the Calder eagle, I think about Louise Bourgeois’s spiders, telling myself that these two sculptors, so different, succeeded in pushing their animal forms into the ground with the power, spirit and prominence of trees. Her series of six Eye Benches (1996) that signal the edge of the park are mainly anecdotal, but less disappointing than her fountain, Father and Son (2004). Here a man and a boy face each other, arms extended but not touching. The jet of the fountain hides one, then the other. The title illuminates the metaphor – the irreducible distance between father and son. OK – it’s a theme that was dear to Bourgeois, one that she generally linked to the feminine and that she has adapted here for her commissioner, Stu Smailes. Prominent on the Seattle gay scene, Smailes, who died in 2002, bequeathed $1 million for the creation of ‘a fully articulated, life size, realistic male nude’.
And so a penis – ‘Seattle’s first’, according to the art critic Jen Graves. In fact not one, but two. The problem is not so much the controversy this pair of nudes, stupidly perceived as being an homage to paedophilia, sparked locally; rather it’s the unprecedented failure of these two human forms, which are neutral without being universal. They make you think more of dummies for orthopaedic bandages than of the Greek statues towards which they tend their pathetic arms. Return to the trees, to Calder, to the beauty of the city on the one side, to the sea on the other, between which this park becomes like a last wave between America and the Pacific.
This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue.