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

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009; Page C01

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

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"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?"

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