john powers :: email: info [at]

Indicator Spaces *

by John Powers


1 David W. Dunlap, "In City Canyons, Slivers of Public Space Erode," New York Times, Thursday, 28 September 2000, Metropolitan Desk.

2 This is a species that is reliant on the complex web of support that only its environment can provide. If this very specific set of conditions is threatened, these fragile species are the first to show stress. The spotted owl is an indicator species because its diminished numbers were said to indicate the ill health of the entire Northwest old-growth forest system.

3 Chave uses these terms to describe minimalist work in her essay, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," Arts Magazine (January 1990): 53.

4 Tony Smith, "Talking with Tony Smith," interview by Samual Wagstaff Jr., Artforum (December 1966): 18-19.

5 Anna C. Chave, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," Arts Magazine (January 1990): 53. 6 Warren Roberts, Revolutionary Artists, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000). Robert's discussion of the role of open urban space in forming public thought and its importance to the creation of modern democracy is telling.


Police riot, Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention


Martin Luther King speaking on Washington Mall


Columbia University protests, 1968


Frank Gehry, Millenium Park, Chicago


WWII memorial National Mall, Washington DC


Daniel Burren's installation at Gugenheim


Daniel Burren's installation at Gugenheim


Union Square, May 1, 1937


Union Square, Auguest 29, 2004


Union Square, "war-meeting" May 4, 1863


Golden Calf.


Taj Mahal cenotaphs


Rachel Whiteread, Trafalgar Square London, Plinth on plinth action!


A. Rodin, Balzac


Rosalind Krauss, "open field" schematic


A. Rodin, Burghers of Calais plaster mock-up on scafold


Rodin with depilated bust of his father


A. Rodin, Burghers of Calais


New Yorkers terring down statue of George the III


Hans Bellmer Doll


Robert Morris Untitled (two columns) 1961


Arkadian victory stele


Eisenstein, October, film still of Czar's statue being destroyed


Carl Andre


Dutch public flattening work of Evert Strobose, Graffitti not shown: "Alles moet plat" ('Everything must [go] flat')


Demolition of the Bastille


Goya, 1814-17, "No sabe que hace"


Cartoon br Serguei, Le Monde (Sept. 1990)


Maya Lin, Vietnam War Memorial


Maya Lin, Vietnam War Memorial


M. Duchamp, Small Glass


Anish Kapoor "Cloud Gate" 2004 Millenium Park, Chicago


Brancusi, Inceputul lumii ( 1924?)


Donald Judd



Nuremberg Marching Grounds


Nuremberg Marching Grounds


Nuremberg Marching Grounds


Nuremberg Marching Grounds


Richard Serra, One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969


Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981 Federal Plaza, New York


Federal Plaza, New York 1989


Federal Plaza, New York 1999


Federal Plaza, New York detail


Night time destruction of Tilted Arc, March 1989


Night time destruction of Tilted Arc, March 1989


Hans Hacke, Germania 1993


Krzysztof Wodiczko, The Homeless Projection: A Proposal for the city of New York, George Washington Monument, Union Square


Destruction of Tilted Arc, March 1989


Federal Plaza, 1989


The National Mall in Washington DC


The Downtown waterfront, New York


WWII Memorial Proposal


WWII memorial National Mall, Washington DC


General Post Office on 8th Ave., its adjacent rail yards, New York


Penn Station Proposal


Penn Station Proposal


Downtown Guggenheim Proposal


Downtown Guggenheim Proposal

Common ground, an unrestricted physical place in which to move, is a rare part of civic life today. The public demonstrations of the 1960s took place in vast urban spaces. In 1968 masses of protesters moved unhampered in Chicago until the police riots; tens of thousands were able to stand together and listen to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C.; university quads around the country were the seedbeds of various mass movements. However, spaces like these, that became uncontrollable for authorities, have been partitioned and/or filled in. University quads were the first to go; there are very few large quads left anywhere in the U.S. The site on the Mall in Washington, D.C., that accommodated the freedom marchers is slated for division by a stepped plaza, and Grant Park in Chicago, where protesters first gathered in 1968 is getting a major facelift that includes massive architectural and landscaping changes. The decorative planters, benches, fences, and berms that now crowd these spaces are seemingly neutral devices used by urban planners to slow or completely prevent mass movements, both figuratively and literally. Green space and public seating are accepted universally both culturally and politically as features that add "humanity" to otherwise intense urban settings. However, these decorative elements should be judged not only by what they add but also by what they displace. These ubiquitous embellishments to urban spaces act aggressively and invisibly on our common life by girding, breaking, and otherwise impeding freedom of movement.

Additionally, the lack of areas free of prescribed activities or private control is a disastrous collective loss. The past forty years have witnessed an increasing privatization of public space. In New York alone, over eighty acres of contained and privately controlled "public space" has been created, displacing the unrestricted public space that might otherwise have been maintained. [1] Open ground is difficult to control and arduous to maintain in an urban setting, but it is precisely these characteristics that distinguish it as the indicator species2 of city life. The failure of these spaces is a symptom of a common life in danger.

What if art were capable of "seizing" and "occupying"3 areas of the city without filling them in? The possibility was raised by Tony Smith in a celebrated interview where he spoke of art as "an artificial landscape without precedent."4 Smith felt that the incomplete New Jersey Turnpike, which he explored on a famous midnight drive, foreshadowed such an art. However, as art historian Anna Chave has been quick to point out, Smith also alludes to the Nuremburg marching grounds as providing such a prospect. In "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power" Chave denounces Smith for advocating the loaded image of the Nazi drilling ground "without considering what constellation of forces might lead to the erection of comparable sites in the United States."5

This debate frames a dilemma. Should we condemn public space out of fear, or should we open it up in order to show confidence in the benefits of mass assembly? Since the Vietnam War protests, which were accompanied by brutal police repression across the country, urban planners have emphatically opted for the former. One only has to look at the Tompkins and Washington Square Parks in New York City, both broken up by landscaping and decorative fences, to see how they have become casualties of those social forces.

The changes our cities have undergone since Smith made his call for a vast new American art give his words new relevance and political import. Keeping in mind Chave's reservations, perhaps it is time to reexamine Smith's concept of art as something vast. I assert that one should not confuse open space with the very different uses to which it can be put. There is nothing inherently fascist about open civic space. Nor is there any reason to believe that its appearance would signal a revival of martial displays and state-sponsored triumphalism. I argue for a concept of open space as "contentious" and suggest that to seize and then occupy large uninterrupted space has become an important, difficult, and positive role that monumental civic art is uniquely prepared to enact.

To frame my argument, I will refer to Anna Chave's influential essay, mentioned above, along with three public works by Rachel Whiteread, Maya Lin, and Richard Serra. Over and beyond her remarks on Smith, Chave has mounted a far-reaching critique of minimalist art in general and developed a rigorous set of terms with which to interrogate what she calls the "visual rhetoric" of the minimalist aesthetic. She considers the meaning of minimalism's use of industrial materials and processes, as well as its weight and scale, its formal resemblance to certain architectural models associated with fascism, and its disregard for the comfort and well-being of its audience. I would like to offer a counterweight to this position. Whereas Chave characterizes minimalism as authoritarian and oppressive, I believe that work employing the minimalist visual rhetoric is interesting precisely because of its relationship to authority and domination. The three sites addressed in this paper, London's Trafalgar Square, the Mall in Washington, D.C., and Federal Plaza in New York, have a history of grassroots public protest. By discussing these works through the lens of Chave's critique, I hope to describe an art that is civic space. This is not to say that any one of these artists alone fulfills the promise of Smith's vast art but all three deal with contentious ground. While acknowledging Chave's critique of minimalism's identification with authority, I would maintain that the precedent for all civic art is the official art of ancient autarchy. Because these three artists engage this inheritance, they allow a discussion of what a vast civic art will have to contend with in order to appear. New solutions for social and political issues no doubt will best emerge, as they have in the past, in the swirling confusion of an unimpeded crowd.6 Civic art that maintains an awareness of its relationship to authority and that uses its authority to hold open contested ground is not in itself repressive. Rather, it calls our attention to an authority capable of taking an oppressive shape and provides room to measure and, if necessary, act en masse to shift the weight of that authority.

Altering Trafalgar

You must not make gods of silver to rival me, nor must you make yourselves gods of gold...

If you make me an altar of stone, do not build it of dressed stones; for if you use a chisel on it, you will profane it.

You must not go up to my altar by steps, in case you expose your nakedness on them.

- Exodus 20,23; 25-26

Like her past work, Rachel Whiteread's project for Trafalgar Square in London will be an object cast in clear resin. The object she has proposed to reproduce is one of two monumental pedestals, or plinths, designed in 1841 for Trafalgar Square by Victorian architect Charles Barry. These large, dressed stones were originally intended to support a pair of heroic equestrian statues. Instead, the northeast plinth supports a bronze of George IV that was erected in 1843. Due to lack of funds, the second work (probably another figure of George the IV) was never executed, and the monument has remained empty for over 150 years. The empty plinth's decorative flourishes are unremarkable; they are appropriate for the conventions of the times and the importance of the personage it was intended to support. Whiteread plans to cast a translucent, life-size copy of the empty plinth and turn her resin doppelgaenger upside down atop the stone original. She modestly describes this action as inserting a "pause" in a busy plaza. She will in effect be reproducing, symbolizing, and negating the plinth in a single gesture.

Whiteread's proposal has strong visual and procedural ties to minimalism. With an economy of means she has recast the meaning of a defining historical moment with special importance for minimalist art: Rodin's removal of the plinth from his monuments to Balzac and the Burghers of Calais. Rodin's removal of the plinth is one of the decisive turning points in modern art and an important precedent for minimalist practice. Within the discourse of minimalism, the removal of the plinth is characterized as a formal breakthrough, a matter of making the medium of sculpture more clearly concerned with itself as a discrete art form. But although Whiteread employs a minimalist visual rhetoric, it would be a mistake to interpret her work within the frame of minimalist formal innovation. Her new work will celebrate the social function of sculpture as marker, and in so doing engage a very different aspect of the removal of the plinth than either modernist or minimalist art has done. Whiteread's work will highlight the removal of the plinth as an act critical of concretized authority.

Rosalind Krauss has evaluated the importance of Rodin's gesture in the canon of modern art. In her 1979 essay "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," Krauss positions Rodin at the beginning of modernist sculpture because he removed the plinth from his (1891-98) monument to Balzac . According to Krauss, we find in Balzac for the first time the sense of alienation and mobility that characterizes modernism. Krauss chose the memorial for Balzac because it was refused by those commissioned it, which therefore made the work "siteless." Rodin had, by her account, made a siteless sculpture disengaged from its memorial function, creating what she terms "an absolute loss of place." Because Whiteread's new work will engage with and negate a particular, "sited" plinth, it will exist as a different art, an art that exploits traditional social function, upsetting and exposing historic structures that modernism and minimalism left unexamined. What is important about Whiteread's work is not its "mobility" but rather its criticism of the authority represented by the actual, historical plinth.

Predating Balzac and actually marking the shift in Rodin's practice was his commission from the town of Calais. With the Burghers of Calais (1885-95) Rodin acted against sculpture in a manner that was interpreted as implicitly disrespectful of authority. The people of Calais commissioned the monument at a time of heightened nationalism in France: the French had recently lost territory to the Germans, and the town's leaders wanted to resurrect a past moment of glory. They chose an event that took place in 1347. The English had demanded that the richest men in the city, the burghers, offer themselves as hostages in order to end a disastrous siege on the town. Rodin's sculpture was to memorialize these heroic, patriotic ancestors of the city's present fathers. But almost immediately Rodin abandoned his original composition of heroism. The maquette had included a massively high plinth and positioned the burghers in a phalanx, resolutely marching out to meet their fate. Instead, Rodin chose to show them as a confused and disordered mass. Rather than seeking heroic gesture, he revealed each man's individuated terror and suffering. The choice to remove the plinth from beneath the burghers and thus drop them into the common field of experienced space was not arrived at lightly. Photographs taken at the time show a life-size mock-up of the work assembled atop a high scaffold, replicating how the work would look on its plinth. Only after these pains did the sculptor decide that the work should be placed at ground level.

7 Fredric V. Grunfeld, Rodin: A Biography, (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1987).

8 Rodin's earliest work is a portrait of his father, Jean-Baptiste Rodin. It was completed while the artist was a student and still living at home. This bust is an important indicator of Rodin's later intentions as a mature artist. Rodin chose to sculpt his father but not to include the old man's beard--an omission his father resented. The senior Rodin must have understood the removal of his beard was a threat to his authority. See Grunfeld, p. 36, for a discussion of the bust and the removal of the beard.

It was indeed this removal of the plinth that caused the greatest upset. Of all the changes that Rodin sought to make, this was the least acceptable. The disrespect that was believed to be implicit in Rodin's action and the lack of understanding that still cloaks this event point to the depth of the blow he landed. Rodin wanted the work to be "more intimate and immediate, enabling the public to enter more easily into the drama of suffering and sacrifice."7 His removal of the plinth was not based on formal considerations; he sought to change the viewer's relationship to the work, to evoke empathy rather than reverence. The difference was a matter of authority and power.8 Rodin is a portal to contemporary practice because his decision opened up the potential for a critique not just of the powers that be but of power itself. Rodin challenged the invisible presence of power by placing the Burghers of Calais on the same level as its viewers. Whiteread will add force to that blow by turning the Trafalgar plinth upside down: she will invite us to examine authority as a sited, material presence. Rodin's removal of the Burghers of Calais from its plinth was a departure from aesthetic convention at the time, and Whiteread's inversion of the plinth is a departure now.

9 The fetish here is, of course, a metaphor. It in no way extends the history of art backward from the 1960s to a primitive ur-object. The fetishism Chave refers to does not belong to a primitive world, but rather has its origins in nineteenth-century Europe. As a metaphor it is indelibly linked to the biases of that culture. The fetish has strong associations to the ridicule of others for yielding to primitive, idolatrous impulses. Chave discusses the Freudian use of the term, its intimation of misidentification and impotence. This association is not, however, original to Freud. These negative and dismissive connotations were part of the common understanding of fetish at the time that Freud was writing. Marx used the term with similar connotations in his discussion of commodity. The associations made by Freud and Marx are a part of a more general nineteenth-century atmosphere of prejudice against non-Enlightenment culture.

10 Robert Morris, "Notes on Sculpture II," Artforum (October 1966). Reprinted in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkley: Dutton & Co., 1968).

11 T. J. Mitchell, Iconology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

12 Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge: October Books, MIT Press, 1998).

Chave is crucial to this discussion because her project is to upend formal readings, exposing the way they conceal or obscure relations of power and illuminating the loaded content of what is most often taken as solipsistic, formalist innovation. Chave situates minimalism in the context of fetishism.9 Although Chave's use of this metaphor is not unjustified, it has certain shortcomings. First, Chave's focus on fetishism suggests that minimalism's concern with authority and power should be viewed a shameful aberration. Second, the fetish is specific to private experience and thus is ill-equipped to frame minimalism's forms of mass address. A clearly stated aim articulated by Robert Morris for his minimalist work was to purge intimacy by means of scale and lack of detail or segmentation. He wanted his work to function purely on the level of a "public mode"10 of address. The fetish evokes a private relationship between viewer and object that never exceeds the intimate--a relationship that revolves around isolation and shame.11 The fetish implies what Thierry de Duve calls a "viewing trap."12 It is an object that holds its individual viewers within the simple, modernist binary of subject and object. But even Chave links minimalism not only to domination as a personal event, but also to the excesses of industrial and state authority. This is authority on an immense scale, far beyond the intimate relationships between individuals.

The fetish's strong correlation to the intimate makes it a less-than-satisfactory lens through which to view the relationship of Whiteread's plinth to its audience. Thus, I would like to propose an alternative metaphor: the stele . Perhaps one of the most ancient conventionalized forms of art, steles are predated only by the freeform art of Neolithic people. There is nothing freeform about the steles, however; they look every bit like formalized gravestones. They are freestanding, upright, oblong stone slabs often inscribed with pattern or relief. Steles were markers, and as such they held the surrounding area as their own. As public objects that expressed their relationship to a domineering, often brutal authority, steles set the stage for all Western art engaged in a public mode of address. All the trappings that would accompany power and domination for the next six millennia are already in place: hierarchical scaling and composition, idealized and individualized monarchs, ordered groups of men easily recognizable as armies. Finally (and most tellingly, in light of the fact that the steles were made by a culture that relied chiefly on mud and brick) these stones were carved in the hardest, most durable material their makers could find: massive, unitary slabs of stone. These telltale conventions of authority are a quotidian presence within the traditions of art, so much so that they are almost invisible to us.

13 Anna C. Chave, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," Arts Magazine (January 1990): 53.
The stele is extraordinary because it records the martial brutality that the conventions of art were employed to represent until the very recent past: the subduing of the differentiated subject by the autocratic whole. Steles mark the moment when Mesolithic art ended and the "architecture of autarchy,"13 as if from its father's brow, sprang fully formed into the world as the art of kings. At this moment the conventionalized trappings of empires brutally subsume the freeform, unorganized, conventionless art of small, scattered tribal groups. The stele sets the stage for Rodin's challenge to the heroes of Calais. Ironically, the invisible conventions of autarchy that Rodin revealed are registered so clearly that it is almost as if we were able to witness that brutal moment. By setting the stele rather than the fetish as a historical precedent, we acknowledge the brutality of our own history and can more clearly examine the historical site on which Whiteread proposes to place a "pause." After all, Trafalgar Square is not merely a matter of formal composition or traffic flow--it is a composite of historical and contemporary relationships of power. Like Rodin, Whiteread calls our attention to the personage that still haunts our civic spaces: the monarch.

14 Ibid., 44. This question is originally posited by Teresa de Lauretis.
Whiteread's "pause" is knotted within public controversy. Her proposal for Trafalgar Square was greeted with disdain and confusion, which nearly scuttled the project. However, responding to this controversy by simply dismissing or celebrating the work stymies the opportunity for any in-depth discussion of the deep confusion that arises when artists confront and challenge the public. To value controversy for its own sake is to avoid the difficult question of authority that this kind of public reaction is wedded to. The original stone plinth--empty or not--was never a neutral marker; it was a traditional means of protecting the presence of authority. Whiteread has upset that tradition and demanded that we consider "who is speaking to whom, and by what authority."14

15 Ibid., 55.

16 Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," (1979), reprinted in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster (New York: The New Press, 1998).

17 Hal Foster, Return of Real (Cambridge: October Books, MIT Press,1996).

Furthermore, by forgoing the conventional cues that signal an artist's own authority ("traces of craftsmanship or touch, signs of inventiveness or uniqueness--qualities that help conjure the aura of a separate, specially inspired class of objects"15), Whiteread presents herself as a different kind of authority: one that can be questioned. She has eschewed the inheritance of conventionalized artistic authority and allowed her own position to drop into a contentious, negotiated space. This shift in the role of the artist marks a shift in the role of the art. Whiteread has reentered the space that Krauss believes Rodin crossed: "the threshold of the logic of the monument,"16 a site that traditionally marks power. Whiteread will create a charged political atmosphere by directing our attention to the address of authority, not to an instance of its exercise or a personage, not even to herself. The depersonalized visual rhetoric of Whiteread's work locates her on a plane equal to that of her audience. This balance of authority between artist and "active" audience must be in place if a contentious, negotiated space is to be created.17 Whiteread effectively replaces the neutral experiential spaces of minimalism (spaces that assume a homogeneous audience) with a negotiated experiential space alive with contention.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to view Whiteread's proposal for Trafalgar Square as a solipsistic inversion. She will transform an empty plinth into a stele. What had been built to hold the figure of a monarch above question will be completed in a manner that upends that original intention and exposes the nakedness of that conceit. Whiteread's work will not be ambivalent to history, nor will it be unrealistic about the possibility of altering the vast cultural landscape into which she is introducing her voice. By means of metaphor, metonym, and metamorphosis, Whiteread's work will actively engage the inheritance of cultural authority and seek to alter its structure.

An Open Grave

"Why not put the work outside and further change the terms?"
- Robert Morris

Making use of minimalist visual rhetoric in a surprising way, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial is a polished, black-granite triangular cut in the earth . The cut is made so the two walls of the memorial reflect the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument respectively. The reflective stone faces of the cut are inscribed with the names of the 58,209 American men and women who died in the Vietnam War; the names appear chronologically, in order of the date of casualty. The list of names begins and ends at the deepest section of the memorial, where the two walls meet: if one were to read the list from beginning to end one would be led out of the memorial along one wall and then back in again along the other. The center of the cut is its deepest point and thus carries the greatest concentration of names. The Veterans' Memorial, Lin honored the veterans and their families while preserving the horizontal grade of the Mall as an important symbolic space for our democracy.

18 Maya Lin, "Untitled Statements" (1983), reprinted in Theories and Documents of Modern Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996).

19 Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge: October Books, MIT Press, 1998). "Art does not address itself to the masses but rather to an individual, and the work of art, whatever it is, chooses its viewers one at a time. However, once the spectator falls into this viewing trap, it is another viewer that he sees looking at him or whom he sees looking. There the viewers are always double; following Lacan, we might say that the individual viewer gets split there. It is to an Other that his gaze is addressed and from an Other that it comes back to him. . . . Art takes place in the fourth dimension. . . ."

20 Maya Lin, "Untitled Statements" (1983), reprinted in Theories and Documents of Modern Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles & Peter Selz (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996).

21 Ibid.

22 Anna C. Chave, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," Arts Magazine (January 1990): 49.

23 Ibid., 44.

In Lin's work the viewer's experience is in no way discrete. The wall of names is intended to dissolve into a mirror. As Lin has remarked, "The point is to see yourself reflected in the names."18 Likewise, as Thierry de Duve describes in Kant after Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp's installation of Small Glass begins as a "viewing trap" but then extends beyond the sterile experience of selfsame within which viewers of the fetish hold themselves to become something far richer .19 This is the experience of the Veterans' Memorial. It is to see past the names toward one's own reflection--to fall into a viewing trap--but then to recognize another person standing beside one's image engaged in a similar act of looking. This mirroring of the memorial's granite faces precludes an isolated or disinterested gaze. Any pretense of cool distance dissolves into the complexity of the heterogeneous group. We are confronted by meanings that are not our own in the faces that are reflected alongside our own. We are sensitized to our immersion within a contentious, negotiated field of meaning, and particularly to our relationship to power, not simply as a matter of relations between discrete individuals, but to authority on an immense scale. No matter what our politics are, war is an instance of power enacted upon us not as individuals but as parts of an undifferentiated mass.

"The monument may lack an American flag, but you're surrounded by America, by the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. I don't design pure objects like those,"20 says Lin. For Lin's art to succeed, no position can be held as special, free of criticism, discrete, or outside discourse. In her statement, Lin flatly asserts, "I work with the landscape, and I hope that the object and the land are equal players."21 Site and object are far easier to claim as undifferentiated in a work like this. But the memorial goes even further, willfully confusing itself with the mass of its audience. Lin's decision to allow only a single flag, offsite, and to exclude any other indications of state authority makes this work's and its audience's relationship to power a crucial part of its meaning. The memorial invokes not the kind of unambiguous relationship fostered by traditional representations of superiority but rather a contingent relationship to authority--one riddled with ambiguity.

Part of the way Chave frames minimalism's engagement with power and authority is as violence done on the conventions of art. It is by way of these formal means that she feels minimalism exhibits a ruthlessness towards its audience, "perpetrating a kind of cultural terrorism, forcing viewers into the role of victim."22 For Chave the familiar, conventional elements of art cushion and protect the viewer. Her reasoning is that by stripping the object of mediating conventions, the minimalists exposed the "architecture of autarchy." Chave feels that the disobliging look of minimalism--"the authority implicit in the identity of the materials and shapes the artists used, as well as in the scale and often the weight of their objects"--is an indication of its complicity with the harsh militancy of the dominant culture of the 1960s. "The minimalists' domineering, sometimes brutal rhetoric was breached in this country in the 1960s, a decade of brutal displays of power by both the American military in Vietnam, and the police at home in the streets and on university campuses across the country."23

For Chave this form of representation of power in art is extraordinary only because we are unused to seeing authoritarian power bared and unmediated. If we play out Chave's argument, art's conventions are not meant to disperse or dispense with authority, but rather simply to soothe us in its presence. But if the conventional elements of art are "the relations of power involved in enunciation and reception"--relations that "sustain the hierarchies of communication"--then those conventions also connect us to traditional values, ancient "ideological constructions" that uphold and sustain domination and mastery. These conventions are indelibly linked to an inheritance of the systematic oppression that has characterized most cultural history. However, although we are linked to that history and those conventions, we are not obliged to leave them intact.

24 The Washington Monument also employs a minimalist visual rhetoric. Both it and Lin's memorial are successors to the stele, but the memorial's relationship to the tradition of authority is critical while the Washington Monument leaves the tradition intact. Indeed, it exults in its power, binding us more strongly to an inheritance of domination. The memorial, on the other hand, offers us something unprecedented and challenging.

25 Anna C. Chave, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," Arts Magazine (January 1990): 44.

With its minimalist visual rhetoric, the Veterans' Memorial critiques our inheritance of domination.24 The conservative membership of Congress was outraged about Maya Lin's proposal not because they felt she was abusive of power, but rather because they believed she did not pay power the homage they felt was due. Lin's "disrespect" echoed that felt by the city fathers of Calais. Rodin's removal of the plinth from beneath their local heroes literally brought the burghers low. For Congress, the Veterans' Memorial did not honor the dead because it did not visualize them in a heroic manner.

The immediately positive public reaction to the memorial, despite Congress's protests, demands explanation. Lin's reductivist critique was indeed disrespectful to the authority of the memorial as an instance of the state's official face and voice. By excising all traditional indications of "enunciation and reception,"25 Lin refused to dictate meaning, leaving that task to her audience. She thereby engaged authority in a manner that altered its functioning. Lin received support from those who had been touched by the war as well as the veterans themselves not in spite of the confusion and ambivalence toward the power her work presents, but rather because of that confusion and ambivalence. Her work displays authority, but it displays it in a way that allows it to be contested and negotiated.

26 Paul A Bove, "Power and Freedom: Opposition and the Humanities," October 53, p. 85.
Lin's memorial never would have been built if she had insisted on its being a personal expression. It was only by forgoing artistic prerogatives that she successfully advocated her work. Lin was able to raise the level of discussion above solipsistic formal compactness and complexity or idiosyncratic personal expression. Her success deserves serious consideration: it was in her skillful use of minimalist visual rhetoric that she asserted the positive political function and value of that rhetoric. Lin's memorial has excited discussion throughout our society on the meaning of the Vietnam War and our relationship to that history. Lin's work is a touchpoint and an intersection--physical, psychic, and cultural. Her decision to refrain from invoking a higher authority has far more than symbolic importance. Lin has created an object that seizes and occupies a complex field--a field that maintains a "reciprocal incitation and struggle."26

Lin's work acts critically within its official role as memorial; it upsets not only our notions of how a memorial should function, but also and more importantly how official art functions in general. Until recently all monuments have been objects. In opposition to this tradition, the Veterans' Memorial is in many ways invisible; indeed, if the visitor does not have a map, he or she may never find it. Set in the landscape itself, the memorial preserves the mall as an unbroken space--and does this at a time when the Mall is being crowded with monuments and is set to be further divided by a massive new World War II memorial. Occupying this kind of space--seizing it and holding it open and uninterrupted--should be valued in its own right. Work that successfully accomplishes this task reflects on the significance of power rather than displays it.

27 Samuel Wagstaff Jr., "Talking with Tony Smith: 'I view art as something vast'" (1966), reprinted in Theories and Documents of Modern Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles & Peter Selz (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996).

28 Mike Kelly, "Public Art Controversy: The Serra and Lin Cases," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 54 (Winter 1996): 15.

The Lost Arc

"I think of art in a public context and not in terms of mobility of works of art."27
- Tony Smith

In 1981 Richard Serra erected his Tilted Arc . Ten years later, after a lengthy legal battle, the work was destroyed. Chave documents these events as part of her critique on minimalist work: "In its site on Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, Richard Serra's mammoth, perilously tilted, steel arc formed a barrier too tall to see over (12 feet), and a protracted trip to walk around (120 feet). In the severity of its material, the austerity of its form and in its gargantuan size, it served almost as a grotesque amplification of minimalism's power rhetoric." She also criticizes Richard Serra personally, characterizing him as a bully contemptuous of his audience. Chave condemns the testimony of Tilted Arc's proponents as elitist and insensitive, an attitude she believes is typical of the entire minimalist project. Her interpretation of the Tilted Arc hearings paints a picture of a rarified art world up against the interests of working people and democratic process.

Chave believes that Serra and his allies failed to prevent the destruction of Tilted Arc because the work was callous and wrongheaded in nature. She suggests that the public acted to expel a dehumanizing and antiegalitarian intrusion from its space. However, the failed defense of Tilted Arc had the virtue of exposing the legal and popular misunderstandings about what art is doing in public space at all. The popular understanding of public art is that it is nothing more than a decorative commodity. The New York Supreme Court agreed with this view by deciding that " (a) Serra's free-speech rights were not violated because he relinquished them voluntarily when he sold Tilted Arc to the [General Services Administration] and (b) that again, the GSA's decision was content neutral since its concern was to restore public space, not restrict individual artistic expression."28 I believe the court was wrong on both counts. It may seem odd to think of a huge steel barrier as opening up space, but that is what Tilted Arc did. Far from being a decorative commodity, the Tilted Arc represented a spectacular land grab. For the ten years this sculpture stood in the Federal Plaza, it held far more than its fair share of ground and its detractors made much of the inconvenient walk around it . However, the fact remains that it seized and occupied more open space than it displaced in a manner that gave the work an analytical and critical function that was never understood by the courts.

29 Ibid., 16.

30 Ibid., 18.

31 Hal Foster, "The Un/making of Sculpture," in October Files: Richard Serra, ed. Hal Foster (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

* The title of the show was originally the same as the above essay. Because the work is presented here a single document and because I have decided to enlarge on the three original projects I have changed the title.

* Anyone who took part in the New York protests against the Iraq War or against the RNC will understand the value of a large uninterrupted space free of traffic, and delicate plantings.

The author would like to thank Tifenn Aubert, Philip Glahn, Dru Oja Jay, Nell McClister, Robert Powers, Paul Rodgers, Casey Ruble, and Robert Stack for their support and patience. Without their help this entire project would not have been possible.

Serra had hoped that the Tilted Arc would act as a critique of sculpture's subordinate position outside buildings, "dislocat[ing] or alter[ing] the decorative function of the plaza." As the events played out, it is the failure of the Tilted Arc that forever delegitimizes sculpture's ancillary role. The Tilted Arc was destroyed because the Federal Plaza was deemed a "limited public forum" and because the sculpture was considered a commodity instead of speech. The Tilted Arc was interpreted by the courts as "an enclosure by a private person of a part of that which belongs to, and ought to be free and open to the enjoyment of the public at large."29 Serra had sought to establish a permanent freestanding public art, legitimate in its own right. He hoped to push his work back into the position of sited marker that Krauss identified as abandoned by Modernism. Serra attempted to reengage the tradition of stele, to make it his own. In short, Serra hoped to have his work treated as an architectural equivalent. This was at odds with the existing roles of commodity and decoration that is assumed in urban settings. Public art is property installed on property. In this case, the Tilted Arc was the property of the federal government standing on federal property. Thus, the work it was argued was no more a matter of free speech than any other artifact might have been. Clearly this caught Serra and those around him off guard.

Given the conditions that led to the destruction of the Tilted Arc, Serra's critique of sculpture's public role as decorative has been vindicated. His effort to protect his art as an instance of public speech could not have succeeded within the kind of space in which the Tilted Arc was erected. The plaza "was deemed a 'limited public forum' where restrictions on speech are allowed so long as they are content neutral."30 The one percent of construction budgets set aside for public art is legitimized by the presumption that art offers more than the "decorative function" Serra was at odds with. Presumably it is art's critical function that legitimizes its public role. If it has no critical function, "one percent for the arts" might just as well be spent on plantings, marble floors, and impressive light fixtures. There would be no need to involve the artist. Creating the context demanded by the Tilted Arc can only happen if that context is understood to have positive political value.

Chave's reading of minimalism holds artists accountable for their relationship to power. Her reading demands that these relationships be critical of domination and abuse. She emphasizes the importance of recognizing a lineage of visual rhetoric (like the more geometric Classicism of Roman imperial architecture adopted by the fascists) linked to the worst excesses of power. However, if art is to provide a space that permits complex relationships, artists will have to engage with authority. Serra's work involves a complex address and an ambiguous relationship to power. Serra also subscribes to the view that "the biggest break in the history of sculpture in twentieth century occurred when the pedestal was removed," dropping sculpture into the "behavioral space"31 --not the perceptual space--of the viewer. The behavioral space outside of a federal courthouse is more then a resting place for office workers, it is a powerfully symbolic space attractive to people with grievances to air.

The Tilted Arc was not a vast space but it does represent one small step, together with missteps, toward creating a new relationship between civic art and architecture, and between civic art and its urban audience. Serra wanted Tilted Arc to be freestanding art broken from its decorative role as ancillary to existing architecture, an art that instead could hold a space all its own. That, finally, is what a stele is: an architectural equivalent. Whereas architecture holds space by enclosure that controls movement, and the archaic stele achieved this same end by enclosing space within the highly conventionalized symbolic realm of autarchy, Serra sought to hold ground free of all enclosure. Art that by means of an ambivalent rhetoric of power occupies large open space that is meant to be inhabited by a roving audience has the capability of altering the urban landscape in powerful and positive ways. Such an approach to sculpture has an opportunity to safely reopen negotiated space, providing a physical setting in which to test the challenging values of urban democracy.


Invulnerable Spaces *

America today is best characterized as horror-vacui, giving rise to the desire to fill cites with heroic enclosures. This ambition is leading us towards an urban landscape of commercial malls, stadiums, and museums, which increasingly double as public space. These consumer destinations preordain activity and tightly control public use. The three sites chosen for this show are the General Post Office on 8th Ave., its adjacent rail yards, and the downtown waterfront here in New York; and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. All are public lands that will be substantially changed by development within the next decade. The post office is to be remodeled as a flashy new Penn Station and the yards are the most likely site for Mayor Giuliani's long hoped for stadium complex. The Guggenheim plans to build a forty-story signature exhibition space on the Lower Manhattan waterfront. The National Mall is to host a disputed, but inevitable, privately funded WWII memorial that will physically and symbolically sever the historic connection between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

The three counter-proposals presented here for these sites represent development plans for our public lands with very different aims. Far more than arrangements for destination shopping or mass entertainment, these proposals are efforts to imagine places for the people of an active creative city to enjoy opportunities to move en mass.

Penn Station

The vast interior of the original Penn Station was intended to evoke awe in those arriving into New York and to embody the city's ambition and importance. Like its nineteenth-century predecessor, my proposal for Penn Station will likewise celebrate the ideals and optimism of New York and create a heroic entrance to the city. I propose to alter a substantial area of Manhattan in order to create a large open plaza free of any sort of obstruction or division. The project will make a wholly contemporary urban statement by giving over one of the city's last important areas of open land the public. By extending the horizontal grade from Eighth Avenue between Thirty-first and Thirty-fifth Streets, and then gradually stepping down toward the water as a tiered extension over the Hudson River, an unprecedented open plaza can be created. Trains and terminals will be contained beneath this plaza. Most traffic will also be diverted below the Plaza, creating an underground area for through traffic. To avoid isolating the plaza, streets and avenues will be altered to provide gradual approaches to its plane from all sides as well as a two-tiered system of streets and avenues. This will create a level around the plaza for pedestrian as well as local and cross-town traffic and will provide much-needed relief for the express and tunnel traffic that now congests this area.

Washington DC
World War II Memorial

This proposal for the National Mall in Washington, D.C., would remove a 300 foot cubic volume of earth at the east end of the reflecting pool to create a deep shaft with sides of dressed stone. This massive aperture would be covered by a steel grate of sufficient strength to support a dense concentration of people. At the bottom of this shaft would be rushing water, flowing west toward the Lincoln Memorial. I propose to honor the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King's famous 1963 address on the Mall. That day, the crowd was orientated west making explicit this site's importance for expressing core national principals: in the first instance, the country's founding as a republic under Washington, representing a turning away from monarchy and, secondly, Emancipation under Lincoln which guaranteed freedom and equality as a birthright for all Americans. The day King made his "I have a Dream" speech, the crowd looked to a future that in many ways began with and extends from these choices. By evoking how that speech turned the nation while at the same time preserving the Mall as a stage for Americans to stand together and demonstrate against injustice, I hope to represent the generation of WWII as making a third fundamental choice. Like Independence and Emancipation this generation's resolve to oppose fascism and injustice can be celebrated without breaking the historic physical and symbolic connection between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Downtown New York
Guggenheim Plaza

I imagine this proposal for a Guggenheim Plaza on piers 9, 11, 13, and 14, below the Brooklyn Bridge on the East River, as one element of a larger park ringing Manhattan. My proposal is meant to follow in the footsteps of earlier efforts to shape city life, like New York's Central Park. I am proposing to drop the South Street Viaduct (an elevated expressway) below grade and create a 400,000-square-foot riverside plaza with an unobstructed entrance from downtown Manhattan on top of these piers. Boston has faced the fact that in order to revive its waterfronts it must remove the elevated highways that have acted as barriers throughout the city. New York should do the same. These highways act as a fire wall, isolating the waterfront from the crowds only a few blocks away. Connecting this plaza to the city by moving the South Street Viaduct is the most crucial part of the design.

© Copyright 2001, John Powers, please do not redistribute without permission