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What Monument Would the Lion Design?

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BmoreArt’s Picks: July 7-13

Walking through the BMA’s recently reopened sculpture gardens is a surprisingly complicated experience. It offers a welcome chance to return to more than thirty works, their roster and positions long unchanged, in a bucolic setting: an appealing prospect in the middle of a pandemic, and one that may spark nostalgia in many museumgoers. Ultimately, though, when considered closely the works feel irredeemably remote, or even dully irrelevant. After visiting the gardens twice last week, I was reminded of the experience of seeing my modest childhood home as an adult. It’s hard to reconcile my rich memories of the place with what now reads as a limited and parochial landscape. What once seemed inevitable and full of excitement now seems finite.

Let’s be clear, though: the facilities are still inviting. The generous fountain in the Janet and Alan Wurtzburger Sculpture Garden (which primarily features figural, mid-century works) burbles amicably. Dappled sun illuminates Jacob Epstein’s The Visitation, and the neatly cropped grass surrounding Rodin’s magisterial Balzac contrasts with the figure’s priapic, proprietary swells. In the larger Ryda and Robert H. Levi Sculpture Garden (which includes a number of larger works from the 1970s and 1980s), irregular paths, varied elevations, and partial sightlines yield an engaging series of anticipatory views and momentary revelations.

Certainly, too, some of the works reward. The obvious urgency of Pablo Gargallo’s bronze prophet, from 1933, is exhilarating: Constructed out of sinewy arcs of cast bronze, the haranguing figure embodies the intensity of a shrill oracle. Not far away, José Ruiz de Rivera’s Construction 140 quietly whirs and slowly rotates on its plinth, fostering a series of evolving reflections of the tree canopy and the sky above. Below that, the fall of light on the varied planes of Alexander Calder’s 100 Yard Dash results in a remarkable series of shadows and gradations that recall the swells of a Baroque church.

Close-up of Alexander Calder sculpture in BMA sculpture garden
Rodin at BMA sculpture garden

But these are undeniably delicate and fugitive pleasures: formalist nuances that feel indulgent or insubstantial in a moment marked by widespread disease, national schism, and mass protests. Can these works really speak to us meaningfully, in the present tense? It’s a struggle, at best. No doubt, a number of them tackle issues that were widely discussed in their day: some of the mid-century pieces embody existentialist angst, Mark di Suvero’s massive, rugged composition is informed by Abstract Expressionism, and Germaine Richier’s 1953 Tauromachy responds to the ideas of Picasso. Those were all pressing issues, two generations ago. But in 2020, Sartre’s ideas, mythic violence, and codes of heroic masculinity can feel rather long ago and far away. As di Suvero himself has said about the era in which he became an artist, “It was such a different world then.”

And so we stare at the works, just as Rosalind Krauss did in a famous 1979 essay, “and think we both do and don’t know what sculpture is.” Is sculpture really so… dated? So passive and inert? So emphatically white and so male (remarkably, only two of the pieces in the sculpture gardens are by female artists)? But as soon as we ask the questions, the answer comes to mind. Krauss herself provided it: “The logic of sculpture is inseparable from the logic of the monument.” And, by extension, “a sculpture is a commemorative representation. It sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place.”

Viewed from such an angle, the works in the BMA’s sculpture gardens snap into a certain focus. They sit in a particular place and they speak in a symbolical tongue, constituting a paean to 20th-century modernism, in all of its hubris, conviction—and sexism. True, modernism was never a single, unified ideology, but it was a dominant idiom, and the sculpture gardens commemorate it in a straightforward and uncritical manner. (Strikingly, there are no explanatory labels accompanying the works, which simply stand on their own, uncontextualized). If a monument is, as the poet Caroline Randall Williams has proposed, a standing memory, then the sculpture gardens are a monument: a monument to a bygone artistic era.

Admittedly, that makes some sense, given the dates of the gardens. For while modernism would eventually give way to a range of diverse alternatives (hinted at in some of the later works, by Michael Heizer, Barry Flanagan, and Scott Burton), the nature of those futures was not yet entirely clear in the 1980s, when the BMA’s gardens were designed and opened. Isamu Noguchi was still alive. David Harvey had not yet published The Condition of Postmodernity. The Berlin Wall still stood.

But then it was torn down. And in the years since 1989, both physical monuments and the very idea of monuments have been repeatedly attacked. Statues of Lenin, Hussein, Columbus, and Lee; monuments to colonialism, racism, and the Confederacy. Bronze crumples under the pressure of the protesting crowd, and marble surfaces carry new slogans unforeseen by their creators. To be sure, as Erin Thompson has noted, people have been purposefully tearing down monuments since antiquity. But the erosion of faith in the very concept of a monument seems something recent, and notable.

When Dan Flavin made, between 1964 and 1990, 39 so-called monuments for Vladimir Tatlin, his use of the term was at once lightly ironic (given his use of fluorescent bulbs, on a modest scale) and earnestly sincere (given his real admiration for the Russian modernist). The concept could be gently mocked, but it still held. By 1999, however, Thomas Hirschhorn was trying to re-imagine it entirely, as he sought “to establish a definition of monument, to provoke encounters, to create an event.” The results—a series of four celebrated monuments to famous theorists—were iterative and participatory: communal projects that emphasized public space and education. And then, as planned, each was disassembled.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m certainly not suggesting that the BMA’s sculptures should be attacked or defaced. The problem here is not racist content or white supremacist messaging. Instead, it’s subtler. The ground—the sociocultural and artistic contexts—beneath these works has shifted so dramatically since they were made that they no longer read as vibrant and wholly pertinent. Rather, they come across as esoteric and self-absorbed. When Tim Barringer recently wrote, regretfully, that “a heroic history of Franco-American modernism, long abandoned even by its most retardaire academic exegetes, lives on as a zombie ideology among museum goers”—well, this is more or less what he had in mind.

Clearly, many older works of art can speak powerfully to us across the decades or even the centuries, as Jason Farago’s enthusiastic ode to Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic recently implied. And museums can show such works to real advantage. But as the BMA itself has taught us in recent years, in a series of groundbreaking shows and bold reinstallations, relying upon an inherited canon can be restrictive, or even alienating. Eventually, replacing even a few of those mid-century white men’s works can support a more encompassing vision.

Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument during 2020 protests and prior to its removal (photo via NPR)
Pablo Gargallo sculpture in BMA sculpture garden

After all, as Paul Farber and Ken Lum recently explained to Artforum, “monuments are not timeless and universal. They have an aura of permanence, but to keep them up requires maintenance and mindsets.” Inertia may not be thoughtful policy, but it is a policy—and as public views evolve, it can also be a sign of institutional stagnation, or of a lack of imagination. In his 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi tells the story of a man and a lion: As they pass a monument depicting a man subduing a lion, the man boasts, “See there! How strong we are, and how we prevail over even the king of beasts.” Reasonably, the lion points out that the monument was designed by men. One designed by lions would presumably look quite different.

But what, exactly, might a monument designed by lions look like? That’s an open question, and one that only the future will answer (although recent works by Raqs Media Collective, She Built NYC and Wangechi Mutu all offer strong hints). We’re clearly living in a dynamic moment, as longstanding practices and ideologies are being openly pressured. We’re also living in a historic moment, as more Americans have now died of COVID-19 than were killed in World War I. It’s a moment, perhaps, more suited to protest and action than to calls for proposals and committee deliberations. But if ropes, spray paint, video projectors, and sheer neglect have offered immediate expressive possibilities in the last few years, it remains to be seen what sort of durable, intentional legacy will take shape in our public spaces.

The reopening of the BMA’s sculpture gardens, though, does offer a chance to think upon such futures. Bring a mask and a notebook, take some time, and enjoy the environs. Look closely at the pieces; register their forms; open yourself to the ideas that they propose, both individually and collectively. And then see if you can imagine an alternative: a monument that might speak even more meaningfully to our experiences, embrace more fully our ideals, and reflect more ambitiously the larger world in which we now live.

 

The BMA sculpture gardens are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. 

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