Abstract architectural expressionism and the American Midwest
have often not gone hand in hand. But slowly, the two are forming a
Last fall, for example, Michigan artist David Austin's latest
sculpture was unveiled to a warm public reception. Though New York
art critics aren't necessarily beating a path to the Portage Public
Library to see Austin's piece, his untitled work highlights two
trends in the evolution of public art: Abstract expression seems to
be gaining public acceptance. And, art for public places, by its
very nature, is a more-collaborative effort than most forms of art.
Christine Berro, director of the Portage Library, says the
abstract nature of Austin's sculpture is the result of an effort to
enhance the existing architecture. "The abstract goes with the
contemporary style of the building," she says.
There are a variety of ways that abstract public-works
artists are finding greater acceptance. In Grand Rapids, Mich., for
example, a 32-year-old Alexander Calder sculpture - "Le Grand
Zitese" - has gained acceptance by standing the test of time.
The piece was the first public artwork funded by a National
Endowment for the Arts grant. When it was unveiled in 1965, it
ignited controversy as city officials and residents questioned its
relevance to their community. In recent years, however, images of
the sculpture have been used to identify the city, and it has even
become part of the city's official logo.
In Detroit, public-art officials and the artists they
commission have found community involvement plays a key role in the
acceptance of abstract expression.
Diane Van Buren Jones, a private consultant who has worked
closely with Detroit's public-art programs, says the city's current
Art on the Move program makes use of local high school students for
the five projects a year it sponsors. The program, which produces
temporary outdoor sculpture along the city's people-mover train
system, has gained public and financial support for involving
at-risk students from tough inner-city schools.
Dennis Nawrocki, a professor of art history at the Center for
Creative Studies in Detroit, is working on a book about public art.
He says the growing acceptance of abstract expression in the public
realm doesn't necessarily signal a new enlightenment.
"There is a funny double reaction," Mr. Nawrocki says.
"People still think abstract is strange and weird, and say it is
something their five-year-old could do. But abstract has also
become benign and harmless if it doesn't seem to have a
content that will stir people up."
Austin tries to draw people to his work by creating a context
that stimulates more than just the visual senses. The day of the
unveiling, a young girl was drawn to the pool below the waterfall. …