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Simple Pleasures Adrift Without Monumental Meaning

For all its scale and its very pleasant effects, Lin's "Wavefield" feels tasteful to a fault.

So where did Lin go wrong in the decades since her Vietnam memorial, so widely praised for its power and such a favorite of so many different kinds of people?

The answer isn't in any decline in the quality of the art itself. By the time she submitted her design for the memorial, abstraction had already been infected with the gentility bug. Judged purely as sculpture, her design for the memorial was sleepy and derivative -- an easygoing hybrid of minimalism (the plain black solids of the wall) and earth art (their placement in the ground) that weakened both earlier art forms by crossing them.

But the memorial wasn't just sculpture. It was sculpture on a mission, with a subject. It was about war victims whom most Americans cared about, one way or another. And it seemed to do justice to all the conflicting views about them.

Lin's first work wasn't abstraction at all; because of the commission, it became a portrait -- an unusually sensitive, effective one. And, like all portraits, it stood to profit from our feelings for its subjects. After all, subject matter affects what we make of art: A painting of the field of Gettysburg is a very different thing from a painting of any other rural land. Any kind of monument to Lincoln means more to us than one to Harding.

Even the best subject can't salvage absolutely lousy art. (In writing this review, I took another look at the World War II Memorial on the Mall, and confirmed that it would take a bulldozer to improve it.) But it can add greatness to art that starts out only good.

It wasn't the artistic excellence of Lin's memorial that honored the noble dead. It was the dead who lent their weight to Lin's art. They gave content to a type of work that, without it, can become charming decoration for a park.

Storm King Art Center is off Old Pleasant Hill Road near Mountainville, N.Y., about an hour's drive north of New York City. The center is open 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday through Nov. 1, then to 5 p.m. through Nov. 15, when it closes for the winter. Call 845-534-3115 or visit http://www.stormking.org.


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