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Wednesday, May 19, 2010 - Page updated at 11:21 AM

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The art & artists, a walking guide

The sculptures reference nature, pop culture, Greek mythology. One weighs 300 tons. Another was feted in 1965 with a wild party in the home of — and to the shock of — the collectors who commissioned it. To inform your walk through the park, art critic Sheila Farr gives her take on the artists and their works, along with some stories behind the art. (Numbers correspond to the walking map and audio tracks.)

1. Paccar Pavilion and temporary exhibitions

You can begin your tour of the Olympic Sculpture Park at the pavilion, but I'd suggest walking the park first, then stopping back later for a snack at the cafe and to browse the temporary exhibitions. The opening show includes Seattle photographer Glenn Rudolph's images of the waterfront's evolution, along with sculptures and a wall mural by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes.

2. "Curve XXIV," Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923)

1981, weathering steel, 6 feet 4 inches by 19 feet by 4 inches. Pledged gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright.

What's there to see in a huge fan shape of rusted steel? The obvious part is the simple geometry of the form and the beautiful contrast of materials, rusted metal against raw concrete. But if you think about it, there's a whole progression of art history behind that simplicity. Beginning in the 19th century with the breakthrough of Impressionism, art stepped away from literal depiction. That paved the way for abstract art with its emphasis on spiritual or emotional content.

Ellsworth Kelly and other like-minded artists of the 1960s and '70s chose a more intellectual approach: They jettisoned emotion and reduced form to its bare minimum. For those who prefer art rich with symbolism, this minimalist style can come across as remote and unsatisfying. It isn't about something: It is something. But it's interesting to note that Minimalism first came into vogue in this country during the Vietnam era, and it's on the rise again — maybe in response to the violence and uncertainty of today's world.

3. "Split," Roxy Paine (b. 1966)

2003, stainless steel, 50 feet high. Pledged gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright.

If it weren't for the glossy manufactured material, you might easily mistake Roxy Paine's life-size and lifelike stainless steel tree for one of the hundreds of real trees growing in the park. Except that for Paine's tree, winter lasts all year: It will never leaf out.

So, what's the point? Maybe it will help to know that Paine also has created robotic artists — machines that make paintings — as well as synthetic garden scenes, complete with decay, that look utterly realistic.

A New Yorker, Paine can best be categorized as a conceptual artist — someone who relies on ideas to fuel his artworks. Here he seems to be prodding us to consider the limits of our ability to control and reproduce nature. So, we've accepted the idea of artificial hearts; how about artificial landscapes? Paine once said, "I don't want to make pieces that tell people what to think. But I do want to make them very fertile grounds for thought ... "

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I like that. Of course being thought-provoking isn't enough. "Split" is also very appealing to look at, like a piece of jewelry for the park.

4. "Riviera," Anthony Caro (b. 1924)

1971-74, rusted and varnished steel, 10 feet 7 inches by 27 feet by 10 feet. Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright.

Anthony Caro is probably the most influential 20th century British sculptor. He was knighted by the queen in 1987. Early in his career, he worked as an assistant to the great Henry Moore, an artist well-known in Seattle for his curvy bronze sculpture "Vertebrae," located at Fourth Avenue and Madison Street downtown. Caro went beyond Moore. He experimented with pure geometry, using industrial materials like I-beams and painted steel.

What I like about him is the way he can weave a hint of emotion into his elegant formal arrangements. In 1976, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a retrospective of Caro's work, and Seattle art patron Virginia Wright remembers "Riviera" as the centerpiece of the show. The following year, she and her husband, Bagley, bought "Riviera" for a house they were planning in the Highlands, north of Seattle. They asked their architect, Arthur Erickson, to design a place for the sculpture, which he did — and it remained there, on a deck outside the Wrights' house, until they donated it for the opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park.

5. "Wake," Richard Serra (b. 1939)

2004, weatherproof steel, 14 feet by 125 feet by 46 feet. Purchased with funds from Susan and Jeffrey Brotman, Virginia and Bagley Wright, Ann Wyckoff and SAM.

Walking among the five massive components of this 300-ton sculpture, you might get a little twinge of danger and awe — like you'd feel walking along a steep mountain ridge or next to an enormous ship. This is art you have to get next to and experience, not just look at across the field — although I must say, it looks pretty good that way, too. Serra's point is to have us become more than observers. He wants us to actually participate in the sculpture, as part of the shifting relationship of forms.

Serra — a native of San Francisco — is one of the preeminent sculptors of our time, with work in museums around the world. Artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney pinned Serra's status by casting him as a sort of a Freudian father figure in the film "Cremaster 3."

But Serra's career hasn't all been rosy. In the 1980s, when his vast steel sculpture "Tilted Arc" was installed on a public plaza in New York, it set off a storm of protest. From a strictly formal standpoint, the piece probably fit the location, but its disregard for pedestrian traffic and views pitted the sculptor against some angry New Yorkers. Eventually, "Tilted Arc" was taken down and scrapped, but not forgotten.

It's a different story here with "Wake." Far from being an obstruction, this impressive sculpture is a destination. At 125 feet long, "Wake" is huge, yet it has a fluidity that suits the nearness of Puget Sound. Its wavy parts seem to fishtail through space, held upright by their enormous weight and smart engineering. You might think of a ship's wake or its looming hull. Even though the sculpture wasn't designed specifically for the park (it was first shown at the Gagosian Gallery in New York), Serra chose this location and configured the piece to fit it. By the way: You don't need to worry about getting close to "Wake." It's installed to withstand earthquakes!

6. "Sky Landscape I," Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)

1983, painted aluminum, 10 feet by 10 feet by 6 feet 2 inches. Loaned by Jon and Mary Shirley.

Nevelson was the grand dame of 20th-century sculpture. She died in 1988, and in 2000 her work was honored in a series of five 33-cent postage stamps. As a sculptor, she's best known for her intricate assemblages of wood — like shallow boxes stacked with cut-out shapes. They were often painted black and meant to be displayed on a wall or viewed predominantly from one side. Although this "Sky Landscape" of painted aluminum is fully three-dimensional, it still wants a simple backdrop to silhouette its form.

7. "Perre's Ventaglio III," Beverly Pepper (b. 1924)

1967, stainless steel and enamel, 7 feet 10 inches by 6 feet 8 inches by 8 feet. Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley.

Beverly Pepper started her career as a commercial artist in New York before shifting to painting and sculpture. "Perre's Ventaglio III" is an early work from the 1960s, and its title seems to be geared to insiders. All I could figure out is that in Italian "ventaglio" means "fan" — and you can easily see the connection there.

Unlike Nevelson, whose sculptural forms tend to be more static and are sometimes meant to be viewed from the front, like paintings, Pepper here is reveling in sculpture's added dimension. This piece suggests motion through space and is meant to be looked at from all sides.

8. "Persephone Unbound," Beverly Pepper

1999, cast bronze, 10 feet 2 inches by 2 feet 7 inches by 1 foot 9 inches. Loaned by Jon and Mary Shirley.

This monolithic cast bronze sculpture references the Greek myth of Persephone, who was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of agriculture, neglected the earth and its crops as she mourned for her daughter. Eventually Persephone was allowed to return to her native land for part of each year, symbolizing the change from winter to the renewal of spring. The mythic story is fitting for Pepper, who once said: "What I am concerned with is working out a passage from one place, or one situation, to another. Final, ultimate questions don't interest me."

9. "Bunyon's Chess," Mark di Suvero (b. 1933)

1965, stainless steel and wood, 22 feet high. Pledged gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright.

In 1960, while working part time as a welder and crane operator, Mark di Suvero broke his back. He spent two years in a wheelchair recovering and was still having a tough time getting around in 1965 when Virginia ("Jinny") and Bagley Wright commissioned him to do a piece for their garden.

As Jinny remembers it, they were young and had never commissioned an artwork before and di Suvero was even younger and had never done a commission. He moved into the Wrights' house to create the sculpture while the Wright family spent the summer on Bainbridge Island. Maybe the Wrights got a premonition of what they were in for when di Suvero asked if they had ever read "The Horse's Mouth" — Joyce Cary's novel about an artist who could be as destructive as he was creative.

The arrangement turned into a fiasco. Di Suvero took over the house, rearranged their paintings and helped himself to the wine in their cellar. Over the summer he made a small sculpture he generously gave to the Wrights' children, but when the family moved back to the city after Labor Day, di Suvero still had not completed his commission. One evening the Wrights came home to find beer cans and clothing scattered in the driveway and the sounds of a party out back — di Suvero and some friends were celebrating the completion of his sculpture. By then, Bagley says, he lost it: "I just told them, the party's over — skedaddle."

For all that, the Wrights are still fond of di Suvero. Bagley describes him as "remarkable" and "charismatic." I don't know how di Suvero feels about it, but I see "Bunyon's Chess" as a very lighthearted piece, referencing the legendary logger Paul Bunyon. For a brawny woodsman — or a sculptor for that matter — figuring out how to manipulate those heavy criss-crossing logs might be the intellectual equivalent of a chess game.

10. "Eagle," Alexander Calder (1898-1976)

1971, painted steel, 38 feet 9 inches by 32 feet 6 inches by 32 feet 6 inches. Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley.

For the past few years, at its temporary home outside the Seattle Asian Art Museum, "Eagle" seemed awkward and out of scale. But here, perched on high ground at the sculpture park, the 39-foot-tall artwork looks perfect, its wings spread to the wind.

"Eagle" was a gift from Seattle Art Museum trustee Jon Shirley and his wife, Mary. Jon said that when he was in prep school, Calder was the first artist to capture his imagination.

Calder was born in Pennsylvania in 1898, and long before his death in 1976 had become one of this country's most popular sculptors. His work ranges from grand outdoor works like "Eagle" to the suspended kinetic sculptures that artist Marcel Duchamp dubbed "mobiles."

The Shirleys first saw "Eagle" years ago, outside a bank in Fort Worth, Texas, where they were living at the time. The piece was moved to Philadelphia, and Jon eventually negotiated a deal to bring it to Seattle. The Shirleys donated money to SAM to make the purchase.

"I felt if there was anything that would symbolize what we were trying to do at the park, it was this sculpture," Jon said. "It's just a soaring, beautiful piece."

11. "Bench," Roy McMakin (b. 1956)

2004, cast concrete, 5 feet by 5 feet by 3 feet. Gift of the artist and Michael Jacobs.

Roy McMakin is a designer and craftsman who also holds his own as a conceptual artist. In McMakin's hands even the most basic, functional chair will usually include some delightful twist. At first glance McMakin's designs often look utterly utilitarian, like something you'd find in a classroom. Here his double-sided bench resembles a booth in an old-fashioned diner, but McMakin has cast it in concrete for use outside.

12. "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X," Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) and Coosje van Bruggen (b. 1942)

1998-99, painted stainless steel and fiberglass, 19 feet 4 inches by 11 feet 1/12 inch by 11 feet 8/14 inch. Loaned by the Paul Allen family collection.

I love the way this piece looks here — like a wild-haired kid on a runaway unicycle! It's probably natural to anthropomorphize such an odd-looking object: something those who grew up on computers might not recognize. It's from the dark ages of the 20th century, when people still used typewriters. That's partly what attracted collector Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, to buy this sculpture, which his family has loaned to the park through 2009. He said in an e-mail: "I have spent a lot of my life working with text and its function in computer programs, I thought that a giant eraser was an interesting and brilliant conceptual piece."

Those of us who once used typewriter erasers will remember Oldenburg from the 1960s as a Pop artist and sculptor of the mundane. He knew that by drawing attention to unobtrusive objects, such as a water spigot or clothespin, they might begin to seem elegant and strange. In the late 1970s, Oldenburg began collaborating with van Bruggen, his wife. "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X" is one of several sculptures they created of the form. Another is on view at the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

13. "Wandering Rocks," Tony Smith (1912-1980)

1967, painted steel, artist proof from an edition of five, varying dimensions. Pledged gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright.

These five geometric forms of painted steel are nicely situated here along the path through a grove of quaking aspens. The artist saw them as a sort of homage to the famous Zen rock garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan. Smith, who died in 1980 in his late 60s, was a widely admired and multitalented man. He started his career as an architect and worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright before opening his own office.

14. "Stinger," Tony Smith

1967-68/1999, painted steel, 6 feet 6 inches by 33 feet 4 inches by 33 feet 4 inches. Gift of Jane Smith.

What did Smith have in mind when he called this piece "Stinger?" There used to be a trendy cocktail by that name, and Smith's take on the drink was that it goes down easily, but "comes around and nips you in the back of the neck."

It's an apt description of the scorpionlike curve of this open-ended geometric form. And, although Smith didn't plan it, the title also leads into an ongoing debate about the designation "original." "Stinger" is attributed to Smith even though it was fabricated in 1999, some 20 years after the artist's death. How can that be?

According to Sarah Auld, the director of Smith's estate, Smith created and exhibited a painted plywood "Stinger" in the late 1960s, but he wanted it to be made in steel. Smith's wife, Jane, who died in 2005, undertook to have this and other sculptures fabricated, in what Auld says are the same numbered editions and manner that Smith intended. Mrs. Smith donated this sculpture to SAM in 2004.

How can we accurately describe the artist's role if a sculpture is manufactured without his input or oversight? Smith's estate and those who own such works designate them as original — which establishes the value. But would it be more accurate to call Smith the designer? It's a contentious question, but the responsible policy is always full disclosure.

15. "Seattle Cloud Cover," Teresita Fernández (b. 1968)

2004-2006, laminated glass with photographic interlayer, 9 feet 6 inches by 200 feet by 6 feet 3 inches. SAM acquisition funds.

This glass bridge-adornment was commissioned from Fernández received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship in 2005. She often incorporates primal images from nature, such as fire and water, in her subtle installations. Here her cloud design plays off the Seattle stereotype of continual overcast while at the same time projecting a burst of vibrant color on the grayest of days. At night, illuminated with electric lights, "Seattle Cloud Cover" glows warmly.

16. "Love & Loss," Roy McMakin

2005, mixed-media installation with benches, tables, pathways, light and a living tree, 40 feet by 24 feet. SAM acquisition funds.

In this installation, McMakin points out quite literally the place where love and loss intersect, and leads us to think about the emotional extremes that branch out from there. McMakin often starts his work with some pedestrian image and then alters it in a surprising way. He might insert a mirror in the straight back of a chair or cobble together a sofa from unmatched cushions. The result: making the familiar seem strange.

A midcareer artist and designer, born in 1956 in Wyoming, McMakin has a strong following on the West Coast. Formerly based in Southern California, where he went to school, McMakin now lives in Seattle and heads a design company, Domestic Furniture/Domestic Architecture. To see more of what McMakin does, visit the Western Bridge gallery on Fourth Avenue South, which he designed. It's both functional and inspired.

17. "Schubert Sonata," Mark di Suvero

1992, partially painted steel, 22 feet by 10 feet. Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, the Virginia Wright Fund, Virginia and Bagley Wright.

This lyrical di Suvero sculpture is familiar to music lovers in Seattle. Before being installed at the Sculpture Park, "Schubert Sonata" was on view outside Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony. Like other works by di Suvero, it incorporates delicate motion and a grand scale. This sculpture is one of a series di Suvero did in honor of composers, including the towering "For Handel" at Western Washington University in Bellingham. With its gentle movements in the wind, "Schubert Sonata" is reminiscent of music.

18. "Eye Benches I, II, and III," Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911)

1996-97, granite, varying dimensions. Gift of the artist.

When the Seattle Art Museum commissioned Louise Bourgeois to do a major fountain for the Olympic Sculpture Park, the artist added these functional sculptures as her gift to the park. The benches were designed by Bourgeois and carved by Italian stone masons from black Zimbabwe granite. Just like the eyes they're modeled after, the benches come in sets of two. In this case it's not only OK to touch the art, you can also go ahead and sit on it.

19. "Father and Son," Louise Bourgeois

2004-2005, stainless steel and aluminum fountain and bronze bell, 36 feet by 26 feet (fountain). Figures 6 feet 5 inches and 4 feet 9 inches. Gift of the estate of Stu Smailes.

This fountain had an odd origin. It's the result of a million-dollar bequest to the city of Seattle from the late Stu Smailes. Smailes made his gift with the stipulation that it be spent for a fountain featuring one or more realistic nude male figures. You can imagine the blanched faces of bureaucrats when they got the good news!

If city administrators felt any discomfort, they solved it by handing off the money to the Seattle Art Museum to commission a work for the Olympic Sculpture Park. Lucky for us, because the museum arranged for a truly wonderful artist to fulfill the commission. Louise Bourgeois was born in France and has lived in New York since the 1930s. Even now, in her 90s, she is known for work that's bold and original. She looks deep into the human psyche for metaphors. In this case, she says, nudity is about vulnerability.

In her stainless-steel fountain, two life-size figures — a father and young son — reach for each other but are obscured by a cloak of falling water that shifts every hour to reveal one then the other.

Asked if she would visit Seattle to see the fountain, Bourgeois quipped: "I only travel in time, not in space."

20. "Neukom Vivarium," Mark Dion (b. 1961)

2004-06, mixed media. Greenhouse structure: 80 feet long. Gift of the Neukom family, SAM acquisition funds and other donors.

Mark Dion is an artist who pushes the definition of that word. He is known for works that can seem to be more about archaeology or nature than traditional art-making. That hasn't kept major museums such as the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York from commissioning projects from him.

This "Vivarium" houses a 60-foot chunk of fallen tree removed from a Washington forest. In a natural setting, the log would simply decay and provide a home for plants, insects and birds. Now, in its custom greenhouse, it requires a climate-control system to keep it properly growing. You can observe its living surface using the microscopes and magnifying glasses provided inside, and see wall tiles featuring drawings of the flora and fauna by local illustrators.

I asked Dion what makes this art rather than science. "No one from the scientific community would say this is science," he replied. "Maybe it will end up being art by default. I think most people will be less hung up with 'Is it art?' and more like, 'Is it interesting?' I hope people will find it worthy of contemplation. I hope they will find it has a particular beauty. It's about birth and death and renewal."

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