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Simple Pleasures Adrift Without Monumental Meaning

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

MOUNTAINVILLE, N.Y. -- Imagine, for a minute, that the Lincoln Memorial was in fact a monument to the memory of Warren Harding, paid for by his scandalous friends in Teapot Dome, Wyo.

Or that the Washington Monument soared to the sky in honor of Millard Fillmore.

Would we still rate them as highly, as works of art?

Or does the glory of a dedicatee sometimes rub off on the monument that does the honoring?

A trip to see the latest work by New York artist Maya Lin, whose Vietnam Veterans Memorial shot her to instant stardom back in 1982 when she was still a Yale student, got me thinking along those lines. With this new piece, her career seems bracketed by works whose successes and failures depend as much on whom they're for as how they look.

First the new creation. Titled "Storm King Wavefield," it is a huge earthwork commissioned by the Storm King Art Center here in Upstate New York. It takes up 185,000 square feet -- more than three football fields -- in a far corner of the center's 500-acre sculpture garden. The project is not officially complete, but it's pretty close. It is only waiting for the grass that blankets it to take deeper root before it opens to the public, sometime next spring. (For now, visitors to Storm King see the piece from behind fencing.)

This "Wavefield" is the third in a series of similar works, with smaller versions at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a federal courthouse in Miami. It comprises seven elongated mounds or berms, each one about 300 feet long and 14 feet high, rising like frozen ocean swells from the bottom of a grassy hollow.

Lin's very simple piece takes the pleasures you get from crossing any pleasant piece of ground and gently amplifies them. That's partly because it gives us geography in miniature. It lets us crest a mountain range and view a vista of six more without losing our breath. It has the same relationship to nature as a doll's house does to architecture -- and the same fascination. Anyone who has struggled with a novelist's descriptions of landscape -- the walks in "Wuthering Heights," the heroic treks in "The Lord of the Rings" -- will appreciate the way that Lin shrinks the Earth for us in her "Wavefield."

The appeal of the piece also has something to do with repetition. Go for a normal nature walk, and a single cheery swell of land might be overlooked as you chat with your companions. Put seven swells across a stroller's path, and the reiteration commands attention. Such perfect repetition invokes a human maker, so that something that seems at first to be an accident of nature calls up issues of intention and meaning.

Lin's berms begin to recall intentions behind the other man-made swells we've seen. They become barrows, such as the ones that hide the bodies of Anglo-Saxon kings in Kent. And they evoke the remnants of a battlefield: Humans have often made their biggest impacts on the land by fighting for it. Abstract though it is, her piece gets caught up in a web of references and meanings that come in from outside.

There's a downside to this. If at first the piece looks refreshingly ancient and un-arty, like a landscape you've encountered by chance, it can soon start to call up fussy human artifice. The carefully calculated view from the trough of one wave to the crest of the next is the direct descendant of the made-up landscapes in Old Master paintings, with their immaculately planned recession into depth. Realize that, and the whole piece can start to have a kind of precious golf-course classicism. Its effects are too simple to compel long-term attention. They come closer to the "op" art of Victor Vasarely than to the complex, weighty abstraction of a Barnett Newman.

That comparison to abstraction, bad or good, is crucial. Lin's work may evoke things outside itself, but those references don't seem built into it. Instead, like all abstraction, it acts as a blank canvas for us to project onto. That makes it easy to live with -- too easy, especially given its bucolic setting. Out for a walk across the lovely Storm King grounds, we're not likely to scan the piece for associations that might mess up our day.

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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