I have never been a big fan of Philip Johnson, but one day I saw him outside my building amid that gaggle of university officials that signifies the presence of a donor or celebrity. He was looking over the site for “Turning Point,” a public sculpture that would soon break up a long walkway in interesting fashion. Walking in and around the Futurist forms was fun, like exploring one of Richard Sera’s Cor-Ten canyons, and I photographed the ensemble several times from several angles.
Ten years later a new donor arrives, and his Student Center displaces Johnson’s installation, which is squished over to the side behind this meshy grill (also by Johnson), and a florescent orange sign warns bulldozer drivers “CAUTION –SCULPTURE.” Makes you think: when was the last time that public sculpture attracted your caution, or made you pause to wonder? There is a fair amount of it in Cleveland and, aside from the “Free Stamp” by Claes Oldenburg and “The Politician: A Toy” by Billie Lawless, I don’t look at it unless a red light forces me. Public sculpture has come to be about color, light, forms, balance, negative space — all those qualities we associate with cubism in painting. Most of it tells me the same things that Mondrian, Leger, and Stuart Davis do inside a museum. Which makes one, cautiously, quietly, wonder if realistic statues were not more worthy in their historicity. Real wo/men and real battles. Read the plaque: those who died for the cause, who led the way, who founded the town. They lived, and their statues have a ‘truthiness’ that no 3D grammar of light and planar geometries can ever replicate. Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” which I wrote about recently, needs a plaque to launch its narrative, and no doubt for every French kid it’s as familiar as Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ is for us, but the pathos does come flooding. Is that not worthier than the “soothing, calming influence on the mind” (as Matisse said) that dominates modern public sculpture?