By Karen Cord Taylor
You know it when you see it.
For Lucas Cowan, public art curator for the Greenway, it is the bean, or, more formally, “Cloud Gate” by Anish Kapoor in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
For Julie Burros, chief of arts and culture for the City of Boston, it is the 1971 Corita Kent painting on the big gas storage tank in Dorchester, so visible from the Southeast Expressway. She sees it as perfect for the site, but being youngish and not living in Boston during the Viet Nam war, she doesn’t see the same Ho Chi Minh profile I do. I see Ho Chi Minh so prominently that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that the gas tank painting supposedly has a name—Rainbow Swash.
For Todd Lee, FAIA, former head of Boston Society of Architects Urban Design Committee and president of LIGHT Boston, it is Edgar Allen Poe’s statue, complete with raven and telltale heart, at the corner of South Charles and Boylston streets.
For most people good public art is also probably Maya Lin’s Viet Nam memorial, Nancy Schön’s Make Way for Ducklings statues in the Boston Public Garden that entice children, their parents and seasonal hats, and the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln’s sitting statue hosts marches and demonstrations. It wept at John Kennedy’s assassination and, in a recent cartoon took a knee in front of Donald Trump in support of the NFL players who protested the sorry treatment of African American men and women. It follows Burros’ rule for being site specific. Positioned at the opposite side of the mall from the Capitol it is as if Lincoln is challenging that building’s occupants to remember that they serve America, not themselves.
For everyone I interviewed it was also Janet Echelman’s 2015 colorful woven sculpture magically billowing above the Greenway.
It seems a good time to consider public art since the Esplanade Association has installed its first piece of public art—a new mural along the bike path, and there have been murmurs of a memorial to Martin Luther King.
Cowan, who pointed out that the Greenway mostly hosts temporary art, said he looks for art that enlivens spaces, that helps onlookers experience an environment in a new way, as Echelman’s tapestry did. “It transforms space in a way you never understood,” he said. “It should be strong, something that stops you in your tracks.”
Visual artist Ann Forbush of Watertown agrees. “Good public art is arresting,” she said. “It makes you pause to ponder both the formal qualities and the conceptual aspects of the piece.”
She also mentioned that it should be indestructible.
Lee was interested in art that amuses. The Poe statue does that for him, and he said Harbor Fog on the Greenway is another piece that surprises you if you’re sitting near it eating a sandwich and it suddenly starts to puff out mist. Cohen said Harbor Fog was successful also because it spoke to the history of the Wharf District.
Art that invites interaction is another desirable characteristic. That is, of course, one of the attractions of Nancy Schön’s animal sculptures, but it can also take place in more formal settings. Lee pointed out that the Appeal to the Great Spirit, the statue that depicts a Native American astride a horse, sometimes gets adorned with a Patriots’ jersey.
I wonder if some people see that as disrespectful. I see it as embracing, but everyone is hyper-alert these days to every metaphor.
Holocaust memorials are typically not site-specific unless they are in Germany. But the one in Boston is beautiful and moving, so maybe that makes up for having no connection to the site. Mayor White’s statue seems right in its space. It’s big. He’s caught in mid-stride, looking at City Hall. It can’t get more site-appropriate than that.
The statues in the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall run a gamut of a product of their era, okay, and pretty good, said my informers.
What most can agree on are the pieces of public art that don’t work. Remember the Polish horsemen who appeared on the Common, causing bewilderment? Apparently they found an obscure resting place in South Boston.
Burros remembered Richard Serra’s 1981 Tilted Arc in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan as an example of noticeable failure. It blocked views, interrupted walking paths, was declared ugly and eventually removed.
At least two others in Boston attract scorn and need to find a resting place out of sight. The fallen fire fighters who stand behind the State House and the Irish famine statue on Washington Street seem more suited to comic strips than to memorials and should be replaced by something better. They are too literal, said Lee, and something more abstract might work better. But then there are the ducklings, literally copied from a children’s book. So it depends.
Meanwhile, Lee reminded us that public art is more than statues. He points to the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Now that is a wonderful piece of public art.