Analysis of the Steel Artworks in the Cullen Sculpture Garden The sculptures that adorn the acre-wide Cullen Sculpture Garden are not just an exhibit. They are an experience. They are to be walked amongst, and viewed as they are exposed to the elements. Light, shadow, weather, all play a part in how they are viewed throughout the day. In essence, no one sees the exact same sculpture. In full light the trees still dapple the sculptures with shadow. Metallic sculptures cast dark shadows. The steel sculptures especially challenged the viewer to interpret its meaning.
There was Alexander Calder’s The Crab created in 1962. It is made from a bright red painted steel. It has no realistic resemblance to a crab. Instead, it is a crab translated into geometric shapes. A prism represents the shell and back legs. Long ribbons of steel curve forward, in fancifully long pincers and legs. It stands on stark, flat stone. Another steel piece of art is Mark di Suvero’s truss piece sculpture simply called Trusspiece. Anyone who knows about Suvero knows he prides himself in “crafting” his work from objects, often taken from construction sites.
The truss piece resents on a peculiarly angled support. It is as if the truss piece has been a little distorted, as if it is a bit too bizarre to include in the normal world. While The Crab and Trusspiece seem shiny and modern, Richard Serra’s WWI is an aged monument. Far from trying to transcend the natural setting, the sculpture seems to already be beaten and worn by the elements. It is a slab of stone, slightly curved. It is corten steel, with different colors of black, blue, purple, white, and various other grainy shades.
Of all the pieces in the garden, this one seems least like a piece of art, and more like a misplaced piece of decor. The most surreal of the pieces in the garden is Frank Stella’s Decanter. It is metal affixed to a straight backdrop. There is a broad silver ring, with a backdrop of twisting blackness, and striped triangles created in such a way that they seem to have the depth of cones. Lastly that stood out is David Smith’s Two Circle Sentinel. It is a myriad of square sheets, curving scraps, and two circular adornments. The “sentinel” resides on a square podium.
Outside the ridges of metal cast dramatic shadows on the steel, and it would no doubt look amazing in the rain, with water running down one ridge to the next. The placement of the sculptures lends them grace and significance. Take for instance the positioning of a sculpture on stone. The Crab is placed on stone ground. The ground only emphasizes the hardness of the metal. Instead of being under a rock or on a podium, the crab is out in the open. Its arching legs give the impression that it is about to scuttle across the ground, legs clicking against the stone.
With its red color it stands out starkly, all the more vibrant against the flat, gray ground. By contrast, Trusspiece reposes on the grass. If it were to be placed on stone, it might be construed as ordinary, just a piece of construction in a manmade garden. Instead, it looks unnatural on the grass. It is no accident that such an artificial work is surrounded by natural settings. Two Circle Sentinel is exalted. Whereas The Crab and Trusspiece have a certain modesty, as if they are there by happenstance, Two Circle Sentinel looms on its own platform. The sculpture is more vigilant than any real sentinel could be.
It is angular and precise in its contours. The circle on the top is like an eye, eternally wide open. Regardless of the weather it does not bend, or deviate from its post. However, it is WWI that is both the grandest and humblest. It needs no words or fancy lines. It does not need a bright coat of paint, or even an attractive one. There are no words, no explanation, and it is more weathered and beaten than the pristine ground it sits upon. Whereas most abstract pieces of steel art in the garden seem to make a statement, this one does not seem nearly as outgoing.
Yet it is a monument and testament to a significant war. Both the war and the sculpture seem things long past. Finally, The Decanter acts as a function. Like the gardens it is an interactive piece. The silver ring represents the glass decanter. Black metal seems to spray from it, and bubbly, wavy shapes act like spills. The flat sculpture seems to have depth to it, and movement, since it may splash down at a moment’s notice. The artwork invites interpretation. It demands it. The setting is not static, it is made to change, vary, and affect the pieces throughout the season.
The steel works are abstract and boldly placed, all in the open rather than tucked into a corner. The Crab is one of the most prolific sculptures in the garden, and it conveys a great sense of freedom. The limbs are fluid and varied, as if it could move in any direction at a moment’s notice. It is spread out, huge, but also delicate, commandeering the full range of its space. It seems to emerge from its shell in full flight. Trusspiece represents civilization. In a garden filled with natural pieces, this sculpture is both mundane and utilitarian.
It serves a purpose, though this purpose is momentarily displaced as it resides in the grass. Its dimensions are slightly distorted, so that it is not a normal beam that is laid out. The distortion is intentional. It calls the viewer to examine something that has been seen as ordinary for so long, all its extraordinary qualities have long since been overlooked. In other words, it takes a piece of civilization outside its context, to invite the viewer to marvel at it. Two Circle Sentinel exemplifies that a piece can be a form of praise. It praises human vigilance. It immortalizes the dedication of the sentinel.
Sentinels get very little due. If all is well, their job seems inconsequential. When they finally act, it is after days and years of watchfulness. Two Circle Sentinel by contrast gives the sentinel the due it so rarely receives in real life. It puts the sentinel on full display, honored on a podium, and created in modern-day steel design. WWI represents the past, which may seem obvious, but it demonstrates this theme in multiple ways. Firstly, it resembles a headstone for a large grave in its shape. There are no words or pictures, as if all has been faded with time.
Moreover, in the clean, airy setting this sculpture looks old and decrepit. The title could be anything. So why is it WWI and not WWII? The artist has his own reasons. However, it is apparent that WWI was also Richard Serra’s past. He was born in 1939, after WWI, and would live through WWII. The fact that it is dedicated to the first WW may even say that this was the war that was less recollected. When he made it even the youngest WWI veterans would be in their late 80s. Perhaps, before they passed on, this was another way to honor them. The artwork was splendid due to its context.
Had it been shoved into a stuffy hall inside, each piece would not be allowed to loom large as life. Like planets, the actual textbook that shows each planet snuggling up to one another is far from the truth. They must be given room to move, breathe, and soar. The pieces were not put into neat sections of art forms. Instead, they were interspersed so that there was a natural randomness about the arrangement. Like a garden, it is not complete uniform. Nor does the beauty come by commanding order. Instead, as some describe it, it has a beautiful pattern that gives it a rhythm.