What I Didn't See

The other weekend, I pigeonholed former Washington Post art critic Paul Richard after his talk, titled "What I Saw," at the National Gallery of Art. I said that I'd been interested to hear his take on public art over his 40-year career, and he answered back, "What public art?" "I guess that was my real question," I said.

Richard then made a quick and familiar explanation that public art is outdoor art, outdoor art is sculpture, museums in town focus on painting, and so sculpture generally and outdoor sculpture specifically is marginal[ized].

I had this exchange in my mind when I watched the Post's current art critic Blake Gopnik effuse over his "favorite new discovery," a massive Alexander Calder sculpture that has been sitting on one of downtown Washington's busiest intersections for almost 30 years.

Gopnik said that in a series of Post web videos called, "The Wonders Around Us." He opens another, featuring the chair-shaped granite sculptures of the late Scott Burton, thus: "I'm at the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery, looking at works I don't often look at--the ones they keep outside."

In another video, discussing Richard Lippold's 100-foot-tall steel starburst sculpture Ad Astra, in front of the National Air and Space Museum, he ends on what he imagines is a poignant and/or ironic note:

Amazing how you look at this thing, and you realize that almost no one but you is looking at it. Not a single head turned up to look at poor Richard Lippold's magnum opus.
[Let's ignore the fact that if Lippold has a magnum opus, it's probably Orpheus and Apollo, which glitters across the atrium lobby of Avery Fisher Hall. Gopnik was going for pathos, and couldn't very well call Ad Astra a "masterpiece" so soon after calling it a TV antenna.]

Days later, Gopnik was writing about Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek's proposal to renovate the museum's sculpture garden on the Mall and add indoor exhibition space to/under it, since the current sculpture setup is "dormant," rather than "lively," and [anecdotally, at least] is always empty.

Which may be true, but that's not [quite] the point. And [for once or twice] I don't want to pick on Gopnik; in this case, I think his forthright ignoring of outdoor sculpture is probably in sync with the general population of DC. The city is stratified and carved up into ghettos for tourists and locals alike. Commuters, whether in cars or trains, on bike or on foot, rarely venture off their routes.

Outdoors, art, or sculpture in a drive-by situation quickly becomes invisible, receding into the landscape passing outside the window. But is that actually just a DC thing? I don't think so. Is it even just a city thing? Is it even just an art thing? How quickly does something become invisible, and why? What happens to art in such a context? Has someone written about this with intelligence or insight?

Is it even just outside? We like to think that art rewards close or considered looking. But how long do most people look at most artworks in most museums? [answer: for less time than it takes to read the label next to it.] Do professional art lookers sit through every blackbox video installation they enter, or do they only watch long enough to "get it"?

When I started, I thought I was writing this about DC, its critics, its particular context, sculpture, outdoor art. See how the circle keeps expanding to include everything? Now I'm a little bummed out.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: October 13, 2010.

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