As a More Mature Artist, Maya Lin Brings Vision That Still Redefines Expectations

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Presenting new ways of thinking isn't easy for any artist, even if -- or maybe especially if -- you're Maya Lin.

"Could we drop this down like three inches?" she asks, and the installation crew at the Corcoran Gallery of Art complies. She stands back, brings her hands together at her chin, and considers.

"Go up an inch."

This is the first time she has shown art in Washington in more than a quarter-century, and she of course wants to get it right. The last time, in 1981, she was an unknown undergraduate at Yale whose anonymous submission won the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

That work sparked a cultural brawl that weirdly echoed the domestic strife over an unpopular war. Young, female and Asian, she was, some opponents sneered, the wrong person for such a job. Her proposal was hailed by art critics, but some veterans called it "nihilistic," a "black gash of shame and sorrow."

Earth was turned, history rolled, and the memorial became one of the most popular monuments on the Mall, visited by 4 million people per year. Lin opened a sacred new space in the soul of Washington, and Washington launched Lin's career.

The tides of imagination and opportunity never brought her back. Was she bruised by the attacks back then? Did she worry she could never top her first great sensation?

"Down a little," she tells the installers. "Okay, we're set."

Her exhibit, titled "Systematic Landscapes," opened Saturday at the Corcoran and runs through July 12. It marks her attempt to bring indoors the type of monumental landscape work she has been doing for the past 15 years. Lin considers the show a "huge breakthrough" in her art.

The Ohio-born artist, who turns 50 in October, also knows it's a professional homecoming of sorts. She can imagine all of Washington craning to see what she's up to now.

"This is it!" she says with a smile to that invisible, demanding audience. "What do you think?"

* * *

Climb the marble stairs to the upper galleries at the Corcoran, and feel the quality of the light change from the brittle emission of bulbs to the limpid liquid breath of the sun.

When Lin got up here for the first time, she noticed the skylight ceilings were covered in black plastic. It's a standard precaution against natural light damaging the artwork.

But Lin knew that most of her art would thrive in natural light. "We took her up to the roof and she was running across," pulling the black plastic covers from several of the skylights, says Corcoran chief curator Philip Brookman. "She had half of it off before we could keep up with her."

The sun shines upon an exhibit that asks viewers to think about the land and water in new ways. "Pin River -- Potomac" is a map of the river, a dozen feet long, made of hundreds of pins pushed into a white wall.

"Silver Chesapeake" is a three-foot rendering of the bay cast in silver reclaimed from the waste of photographic etching processes. It resembles a shimmering tree root. And there are the "sketches" -- actually three-dimensional wire landscapes -- that Lin was positioning so carefully on the wall earlier this week.

But the three stars of the show, like most of Lin's work, would never fit on any wall. Each piece has a room of its own, fragrant with the bouquet of cut wood.

A work called "2x4 Landscape" is a rolling hill or swelling wave, about 10 feet high, constructed out of more than 50,000 fir and hemlock boards -- sustainably harvested, of course -- cut to different sizes and bolted upright. It begs to be climbed on. When Lin's daughters, ages 9 and 11, saw it last week, they scrambled to the top. Lin is urging the Corcoran to allow visitors to climb with special booties on designated days. Corcoran officials are still discussing how to accommodate the artist's wish.

The piece began in Lin's New York studio as a desktop model of 4,000 sticks "that she would be minutely modeling with her hand," says Richard Andrews, former director of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, where the traveling "Systematic Landscapes" first opened in 2006.

In another room is "Blue Lake Pass," based on a mountain landscape that Lin hikes near her Colorado summer home. She has modeled the terrain in sheets of formaldehyde-free particle board, then pulled it apart into a grid, allowing visitors, in effect, to walk through the scene.

In a third room is "Water Line," a kind of drawing in space using aluminum tubes to map the contours of an underwater ridge that rises to Bouvet Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. The piece seems to float in the air, and the viewer's perspective is from beneath the ocean floor.

"When this show came out, I knew that I was coming to be whole," says Lin, a petite woman with a deep voice, as she walks among the new works.

What she means is, with "Systematic Landscapes," Lin could clearly see -- and she hopes others will see -- that three distinct strands of her work are beginning to make sense together.

"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."

"I do think I have this big white elephant right here," she adds, pointing over her shoulder. "Like, 'Oh God, she did that, it's so great. You know, this stuff is crap.' It's going to happen."

After the memorial was built, she went to graduate school in architecture, then designed another high-profile monument, the Civil Rights Memorial (1989) in Montgomery, Ala. Then she branched into the other legs of her creative tripod, the outdoor art and the architecture, while returning to memorials from time to time.

"I was desperately trying to move past the memorial as fast as possible as an artist," she says. "I was trying to prove to myself that I could balance out my life in a different way. After the Vietnam Memorial, I don't think you can prove it to the world to the degree that you would need to, so I'm just not interested."

She says it was 15 years before a stranger came up to say he loved one of her pieces without mentioning the memorial.

"It made me so happy," she says. "It's not that I don't love the memorial. But you do feel it's like this big galumphing elephant. And I think you move on. And yet, at the same time, it's a big piece. It will always be my biggest piece, and I'm very proud of it."

"Now," she says, "I kind of have found a voice and I want to slow down."

She does not approve of the realistic statues that were added near the memorial as compromises to critics.

"They felt abstraction wasn't representative enough," Lin says. "I would always argue, 'What is more representative than a person's name?' "

She declines, however, to say anything about the latest proposed addition, an underground visitors' center that has received preliminary federal approval.

Lin lives in New York with her husband, Daniel Wolf, an art dealer and film producer, and their two daughters.

One night last week she visited the memorial again with her family. She likes to go in the evening, when everything is quiet and there are fewer people.

"It was really magical," she says. "In a funny way, the popularity of it is a sign it's working. But when you're dealing with intimacy and connection, there's something when you see it with a lot of people that's different from when you see it on your own."

* * *

Lin continues her stroll through the new exhibit.

" 'Silver Chesapeake' is a no-show," she says, indicating a blank wall that was to display her newest piece in -- and about -- Washington. The delivery company sent it to the wrong city. She sounds tranquil about it. But the next day when the work finally arrives she'll be so excited she'll run down to the gallery's delivery room to see it removed from the wooden crate marked, appropriately enough, "Fragile."

How does "Silver Chesapeake" look, anyway? "It's beaut-- " she says, catching herself from sounding boastful. "It's pretty nice."

In these rooms, her sculptures of threatened bays, disappearing seas, hidden ocean floors get her riffing widely on environmental subjects like fertilizers, deforestation, certified sustainable lumber, green turtles and river dams.

"Sorry, I'm preaching again," she says periodically.

But the preaching gets her thinking about her next memorial work, the fifth and, she says, the final one of her career. (Besides the Vietnam and civil rights memorials, she also designed a women's monument at Yale University and an ongoing Native American project along the Columbia River Basin in Washington and Oregon.) The new project is called "What Is Missing?"

It will be dedicated to extinct and endangered species, and to threatened habitats. More subtly, it will highlight "landscape amnesia" and "shifting base lines," the notions that we don't know what is missing because we have forgotten the way things were -- the lost sound of songbirds in the yard when we were children.

Where will this memorial be?

Nowhere, everywhere, says Lin. An installation in San Francisco is scheduled to open in the fall, followed eventually by a book, a Web site, iPod content, contributions from experts, talk-back from viewers, calls to action. It is the first memorial project Lin conceived from the start, rather than being commissioned. Support has come from the San Francisco Arts Commission, and Lin is raising more funding through her own nonprofit group.

"Let's rethink what a monument can be, and what if a monument can, in a funny way, be formless," she says. "A memorial that can go wherever it wants to go. It's basically free."

She talks on enthusiastically, next to her wooden indoor hill, sketching a new vision of multimedia artistic remembrance. It makes the Vietnam Veterans Memorial seem terribly old-school.

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