Abstract Art Gets a Warmer Reception A Recent Sculpture Unveiling in the Midwest Highlights the Evolution of Public Art

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Abstract architectural expressionism and the American Midwest have often not gone hand in hand. But slowly, the two are forming a closer bond.

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.

Abstract acceptance 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. …


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