Nothing is more subjective than art. Is it a masterpiece, or is it an eyesore? Here’s a list of 10 great sculptures that have become emblems of their environments. Most are big pieces in public places, rather than roped-off works in admission-only sculpture gardens. If you haven’t seen them in person, your opinion of them might change if you do. You don’t have to love them but, if you have a heart, perhaps you can muster up some bona fide appreciation.
10. Her Secret Is Patience (2009), by Janet Echelman
First up is the most recent sculpture on the list. Echelman’s works are made from galvanized steel and polyester twine netting. This one, the title of which derives from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is suspended above Civic Space Park at Arizona State University and moves with the wind, a process Echelman deems “wind choreography,” which simulates a cumulus cloud. At night, it is lit with colored lights, giving it the air of a giant jellyfish or a terrestrial version of the aurora borealis. For more on Echelman’s vision, view her TED Talk.
9. Metalmorphosis (2007), by David Cerny
Cerny is a Czech sculptor who specializes in big heads and controversy. His TowerBabies is a work installed on the 709-feet tall Zizkov Television Tower in Prague. As the name implies, it’s a series of cast bronze infants climbing the main tower. Another sculpture in Prague features two nude men facing each other, peeing. It’s a fountain, naturally. But Metalmorphosis, at Charlotte’s Whitehall Technology Park, is something else entirely, a fountain made of multiple slices of reflective stainless steel plates that rotate independently. When they align, the plates form a man’s head that is 30 feet tall. The layers move in different directions, forming patterns that become familiar upon repeated viewings. Want to see it in action? Check it out on YouTube. You can just picture the local kids hanging out and getting high watching this thing.
8. Watts Towers, aka Nuestro Pueblo (1921–1954), by Simon Rodia
From a distance, these giant folk art structures look like steampunk Christmas trees. All together there are 17 structures, and two of them are 99 feet tall. Essentially, the towers are made of found objects—the detritus of urban life, such as bed frames, bottles, and steel pipes. They spiral into the sky, a lacey exoskeleton that is at once futuristic and medieval. Rodia wrapped some of the towers with wire mesh and coated them with mortar, embedding in them little bits of ceramic, sea shells, soda bottles, and especially broken pottery from the factories nearby. It’s a bit like a DIY Sagrada Familia.
Like many eccentrics, Rodia was not well-loved by his neighbors, and he left in 1955, permanently fed up with their scorn over his artistic vision in 1955. The structures came perilously close to being razed, but posterity won out and they were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. As the work of one untrained man, the Watts Towers are a monument to bringing one’s vision to fruition.
7. Cloud Gate (2004), by Anish Kapoor
Chicago’s public art scene has so many famous images to choose from: Buckingham Memorial Fountain, Calder’s Flamingo stabile, the Chicago Picasso, Dubuffet’s Monument with Standing Beast, etc. You have to admire the city’s commitment to art in public spaces, no matter how you feel about post-modern metal monstrosities. With the inauguration of Millennium Park in 1004, the city’s residents have a host of new sculptures to enjoy. The most recent favorite statue is Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. A shiny metal bean arising from a concrete plaza, Cloud Gate attracts visitors like a picnic does ants. You want to touch it, gaze into it, whip out your iPhone and take all sorts of pictures as you walk around and through it. You stare at the reflection of your surroundings, picking out details you never noticed before. It’s art with looking-glass precision, kind of like the world’s biggest bathroom mirror: reapply your lipstick, check for parsley in your teeth!
6. Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–1988) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
This beauty is part of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, adjacent to the Walker Art Center. It’s a giant white spoon, with a perfect cherry perched precariously on its tip. Oldenburg and his wife van Bruggen were a fun couple. Their oeuvre includes a giant typewriter eraser (thank god those are extinct), Clothespin outside Philadelphia City Hall, and Free Stamp in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s kitsch with a point. The sculpture is also a fountain of sorts, with a fine mist spray moistening the gazing faces of summer visitors to the park. In the winter, the sculpture, caked with snow, continues to be simultaneously incongruous and integral to the environment.
5. Crazy Horse Memorial (1948– ), by Korczak Ziolkowski
It’s the politically correct neighbor of Mount Rushmore, this massive, and unfinished, monument being carved from Thunderhead Mountain in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Depicting the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, when finished (don’t hold your breath), it will dwarf Mount Rushmore. The presidents’ heads are 60 feet high, and Crazy Horse’s will be 87. The whole sculpture, consisting of the warrior’s torso, his arm, and his horse’s head and chest, will rise 563 feet. That’s much bigger, and much further from completion, than the ode to the Presidents. A nonprofit endeavor, work has continued since Ziolkowski (who also worked on Mount Rushmore) died in 1982. Like many works of art, this one is not without controversy. Many Lakota oppose the memorial based on the fact that destroying a mountain to honor a man is a perversion of Native American culture.
4. Spiral Jetty (1970), by Robert Smithson
One of the original earthwork sculptures, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is also one of the most enduring. On the shores of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point, the Jetty is a great curlicue formed of mud, rocks, salt, and earth, that is a total of 1,500 feet long. Despite its massive size, it took only six days to construct. For most of its existence, the Jetty has been submerged beneath the lake, but visible from the air. Fluctuating water levels, based on drought and snow melt, mean that viewing the work is based on the whim of Mother Nature.
Smithson was inspired by his love of geology and paleontology. In recent years, the work has been threatened by the possibility of oil drilling nearby. Whereas many have rallied to protect Spiral Jetty, Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 35, would more than likely prefer that nature take its course, rather than have people take extraordinary measures to preserve it.
3. Gateway Arch (1968), by Eero Saarinen
You can see it from miles around; it’s a perfect beacon for navigation if your GPS craps out while you’re cruising downtown. Best of all, you can go inside and travel to the top via tram. The Gateway Arch is the tallest stainless steel monument in the world, as well as the tallest memorial in the United States. Memorial of what, you ask? Well, the long form of the park’s name where the arch was built is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which commemorates the Louisiana Purchase and the westward expansion of the United States. Finnish architect Eero Saarinen died just as work began on his soon-to-be beloved monument.
2. Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982), by Maya Lin
When you’re talking about the National Mall in Washington, everyone’s got an opinion. Many of the statues are really memorials to past Presidents (Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson), or wars (World War II,Vietnam, Korea). What is undeniable, no matter what your opinion of the current elected officials, is that this grassy expanse will make any US citizen’s heart swell with pride.
Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is notable for the controversy surrounding its design and construction. The upshot is that Lin’s minimalist design, and inclusion of the names of the war’s fallen, made it an instant cultural icon and destination for the bereaved. Its remarkable power is unusual and undeniable for a work of public art. Its placement in the mall, and its stark design, are in contrast with everything else in the vicinity. Rather than a typical chest-swelling ode to heroism, the memorial is a contemplative, somber manifestation of a historical event that still arouses strong feelings after all these years.
1. Liberty Enlightening the World (1886), by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi
Lady Liberty is one awesome gal, and her place at number one is anti-climactic for its obviousness. A gift from the French, she has aged like one of their fine wines. We gave her an island, and you can visit her by boat. You can climb into her crown for a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. What more could you ask for? This venerable depiction of hope and freedom is the most enduring symbol of how Americans view themselves.
Written by Kathy Wilson Peacock.