What makes a great painting? Sometimes it is the technical skill of the artist (Mona Lisa), sometimes an innovative technique (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte). Other times it is the subject matter (Guernica). What makes a great outdoor artwork?
Some outdoor art is iconic because of its meaning and history. Another measure is how much fun people have with it. After I’ve experienced an artwork, the art historian in me sits and watches people engage with it. Of course, it is always nice to watch children running around and laughing. But it is not hard to make a child have fun. After all, a netted area filled with colored balls does the trick every time. The real challenge comes in getting adults to have fun.
And your challenge? When you see outdoor art, step up…literally and figuratively.
Of the many outdoor artworks I have walked around, under, inside, or through, here are some of my favorites.
#5 Spidey Sense
As you walk from the light rail at the river to the Guggenheim Bilbao’s doors, you encounter this huge spider by Louise Bourgeois. If you are arachnophobic, you might run back to the light rail. I know the artist intends Maman to be about maternity, with a sac full of marble eggs and a French name that translates to “Mommy.” But that’s a stretch given that most people have an aversion to even little spiders; this one is thirty feet tall. I find it creepy, in the way Halloween decorations are. I love artworks that play with scale, that are much bigger than IRL. They are amusing and let us look at familiar things in a new way.
This Maman is one of six in bronze; there’s an original in stainless steel at Tate Modern in London.
#4 Silly String
From 2011 to 2017, you could find Penetrable, an artwork on loan outside LACMA’s Ahmanson Building. It’s a kinetic work by Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto, made of yellow plastic hoses hanging from a steel grid. It is interesting enough just to look at, but then you see people milling about inside it. The last time I led friends to it, it took a little coaxing to get them to walk in.
Remember when we talked about never touching an artwork? The exception is when it is meant to be touched. In this case, the artist wants you to dive right in. Ever walked through a beaded curtain? This is like walking through endless beaded curtains, in front of you, to your left, to your right. It is not a profound experience, but it sure is fun navigating through the hoses and other people. When you get out, stand back and see how the people inside have become part of the artwork.
Don’t worry if you missed seeing this yellow Penetrable. LACMA bought a blue version last year, still to be installed.
#3 Enlightening the World
This artwork is so iconic it might sound odd to call it one. First, let’s call it by its real name, Liberty Enlightening the World. France gave it to the United States, the best gift idea EVER (so much better than that Trojan Horse). The copper statue was designed by Frederic Bartholdi with a framework by Gustave Eiffel (yes, the Tower guy). It was built in France, shipped across the Atlantic, and assembled in New York harbor in 1886. It has meant so much to so many people for 135 years. When a person sees Lady Liberty, whether from an airplane or a boat, out a high-rise office window, or standing at the water’s edge in Battery Park, it can be a moment of excitement and emotion. Every time, I think of immigrants who put up with horrible conditions crossing the ocean on a crowded ship. Many left behind everything they had and everyone they knew, facing an uncertain future. I imagine the intense feeling they must have had when she first came into view. Hope.
#2 Here’s Looking at You
Like most things in Chicago, this artwork is best experienced in warm weather. Jaume Pensa’s Crown Fountain in Millennium Park consists of two fifty-foot glass towers facing each other. In between is a reflecting pool, which to a kid means a place to run into and stomp feet.
The towers use LED screens to show 1,000 large-scale faces of every day Chicagoans. Regularly, water spouts out the mouths, wetting the kids. It is fun to watch the rotating images, the water, and children having a blast. When winter arrives, the water stops but the images continue. The towers are beautiful at night.
Walk five hundred feet to
#1 A Bean, by Any Other Name…
Once you put something out in public, you can’t control how people use it or what they call it. This polished steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor is named Cloud Gate, but most people call it The Bean. They are fascinated by the reflections of themselves, the buildings on Michigan Avenue, and Millennium Park, and how the reflected shapes bend as they walk around and under. Cloud Gate is popular, always surrounded by people. As with the border art we looked at before, I am amazed when an artist seems to know in advance how enthusiastically people will respond to the work.
I added this one because I get a kick out of the forty-foot bear looking into the convention center every time I drive down Denver’s 14th Street. It is by Lawrence Argent, called I See What You Mean.