Page 3 of 5   <       >

Artist Maya Lin's 'Systematic Landscapes' at the Corcoran Have Monumental Scope

"You get known for making monuments, then okay you go on to do architecture and art," she says. "You're equally confusing everyone, because, well, make up your mind: Are you an architect or an artist? And, oh, by the way, why aren't you acknowledging the monuments?

"I've always seen my work as a little bit of a tripod: the monuments, the art and the architecture. It's going to take my entire lifetime before you see enough of a body of work in any three to maybe understand I love all three."

"Systematic Landscapes" shines a new light back on the Vietnam project, recalling the memorial's embrace of the land, and the land's embrace of the memorial. It also looks forward to what Lin plans as her last great memorial work: a monument to life itself on Earth, and what we've lost.

Turning the conversation back to "Systematic Landscapes," Lin says: "I'm really, really proud of where my voice is as an artist, and this show was a real breakthrough for me. So, to me, it's wonderful it has its final showing in D.C., where I sort of started."

* * *

Twenty-seven years ago this month, ground was broken for a radical new vision of what a memorial could be. It would go in a gently sloping glade not far from an established masterpiece, the Lincoln Memorial.

Forever after it was dedicated in November 1982, the white marble Lincoln and the Washington Monument would be reflected in the polished black granite walls, superimposed with the faces of the living contemplating their own visages within the names of the dead.

Lin's submission out of more than 1,400 blind entries had been designed as a project for her architecture class at Yale. She was 21. She visited the site beforehand, and within the first half-hour of walking and sketching, she felt her inspiration. "I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth," she wrote later. "I never looked at the memorial as a wall, an object, but as an edge to the earth, an opened side."

From submission to shovel, there were months of politics. In archival television footage of a fiery hearing where a veteran excoriates the design -- "Are we to honor our dead and our sacrifices to America with a black hole?" -- Lin sits in the audience, wearing a broad-brim hat with a bow; her face seeming stricken, she looks down at her lap.

She left Washington tougher, wiser and suddenly a young art superstar. Her new burden was that of T.S. Eliot, Orson Welles, Bob Dylan -- how to escape the suffocating shadow of the acclaimed early work?

It took nearly 15 years before she would talk publicly about her Washington experience. She was busy processing the precocious success and controversy, trying to figure out who she was as an artist. And she was working hard at her art -- "obsessively," she says. Her instinct was, don't look back, keep creating.

"It's not bad memories," she says now, recalling her first artistic foray in Washington. "Let's put it this way: I didn't have a really nice time."

<          3           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company