STREET ART: Outdoor Public Sculpture for the UT Campus
by Erika Huddleston
Standing on the sidewalk in January below a crane and a cherrypicker, Nancy Rubins directed the installation of her sculpture, Monochrome for Austin, commissioned for the University of Texas (UT) Public Art Collection. “Here was this petite woman with a walkie talkie and a loud voice directing workers hoisting canoes and row boats,” recalls Andrée Bober, Founding Director of the UT Landmarks public art program, which curates and manages the UT collection. Bober says, “The crane would put the boat in place and then the cherrypicker moved in with her crew. Nancy has this explosive artistic vision. It takes strength and stamina to spend three weeks directing 16,000 pounds of metal assembled from 70 fishing boats, cable wire, and support armature.“
To see Nancy Rubins’ new piece on Speedway is to be astounded at how a piece of public sculpture can punctuate and give legibility to motley street design.
The placement of the dynamic Monochrome for Austin is part of Landmarks’ implementation of a larger campus urban design plan for Speedway. The 55 foot-tall and 52 foot-wide sculpture, which opened with a celebration on March 5, now dramatically stretches to the sky at the corner of 24th Street— within the labyrinthine campus area between Guadalupe Street and San Jacinto Boulevard. The most recent campus plan—created in 2006 by Peter Walker Partners Landscape Architects and based on the earlier 1999 Cesar Pelli campus plan—recommends that Speedway become non-vehicular in the future. The Public Art Master Plan, also by Peter Walker Partners, was formally adopted in 2007 and details new guidelines for placing artwork on campus. The plan divides the acreage of the campus spatially into experiential areas. In the Public Art Master Plan, Speedway became “The Speedway Mall” and “the primary north/south pedestrian spine of the campus, linking the science facilities along Dean Keeton Boulevard at the north to the Blanton Museum of Art to the south . . . . This active pedestrian core will provide many opportunities for public art of varying sizes, scales, and types.”
Clearly, The Speedway Mall has become a public art priority for Landmarks. The Speedway Mall has received eleven pieces from Landmarks’ collection and four of pieces sit outdoors on the street, preparing for the transition to pedestrian- only. Monochrome for Austin along with the other three outdoors pieces is accessible 24 hours a day, though the indoor pieces are easily approached because they are mostly in the lobbies. The James Turrell piece is on the roof of the Students Activities Center (SAC) and is open throughout the day and with free online reservations for early morning and dusk “Light Sequences” viewings. “We acquire about one to two new pieces a year. Twenty-eight pieces are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on long-term loan. As long as new buildings keep being built on campus, new art pieces will be added to the collection,” Landmarks External Affairs Director, Nick Nobel says. Landmarks began commissioning new artworks for the collection in 2008 and seven of the eight new acquisitions in that period have been installed on Speedway between Dean Keeton and Martin Luther King Boulevards.
Pieces are funded entirely through 1-2% of funds from capital improvement projects and solicited private donations. Rubins’ piece is tied to the construction of the Norman Hackerman Building, for example. The process of artwork selection is the work of Landmarks’ standing advisory committee, which endorses an artist for each capital project. Their selection goes to final review and approval from the Campus Master Plan Committee, the Office of the Vice President for University Operations and the President’s Office, depending on the location of the piece. After artist selection, Landmarks, which is a non-academic unit of the College of Fine Arts, is tasked with installation, maintenance, conservation, and programming education. Director Andree Bober and her three- person team work full-time alongside part-time specialists in conservation and other fields. Certain art pieces require additional part-time workers such as the attendants that staff the James Turrell site-specific installation, The Color Inside (2013).
The existing conditions of Speedway today still include plenty of faculty cars parked outside academic buildings and a variety of landscape maintenance trucks and construction vehicles, as well as campus security on patrol. Along with the cars along its length, the street is visually disjointed with no clear defining street-design vocabulary. One block of an old-growth shady live oak allee is followed by a block with no street trees at all. To see Nancy Rubins’ new piece on Speedway is to be astounded at how a piece of public sculpture can punctuate and give legibility to motley street design. “Landmarks and Nancy talked about what kind of sculpture would fit on that corner, taking into consideration that it should fit nicely into the space as it is now and that it will fit into the space when Speedway becomes pedestrian only,” says Catherine Zinser, Landmarks Education Director. The Public Art Master Plan calls for a typology of artworks for the campus: “Large Gesture,” “Small Gesture,” “Serial Work,” and “Preserved Open Spaces with No Art.” Presumably, Nancy Rubins’ work is “Large Gesture”! The piece is located at the end of a unified block of distinguished 1940s brick Beaux-Arts academic buildings. The sculpture’s height is perfectly placed as it careens and dances with the high, sharp roofline of the new Norman Hackerman Building and usefully diverts the eye from the transition between architectures.
The bulky lashed boats cantilever out from the support post almost forty feet over the sidewalk and street—just like the live oaks that inspired Rubins on her site visits.
Over site visits and during the three-week installation period, Rubins planned and assembled her artwork to fit the particular streetscape of Speedway. She has installed other recent Monochromes—in Buffalo, Paris and a temporary version in New York City in front of Lincoln Center. Landmarks External Affairs Director, Nick Nobel says, “The installation was an involved artistic process. A lot of preplanning went into Monochrome for Austin… the number of boats involved, structural engineering, etc. but as far as the actual specific placement of the boats and the anchor base, that was left to the installation process and informed by the site. Ten boats had been installed by the time I saw it. Even with ten boats on it, the piece looked fantastic but with seventy boats it looks spectacular.” Here in Austin, Rubins was inspired partly by the arching live oaks on Speedway. She arranged the boats to lift off their vertical pedestal and extend from the building entrance magnanimously . . . up, out . . . and far over the public sidewalk and street. To experience the sculpture during the break between classes is to see the full vision. The boats hanging in the air give the impression that the fast-moving students and faculty walking between classes are schools of fish swimming rapidly through the water. All of a sudden, the horizon shifts and the whole street could be underwater with the boats overhead and the glaring Texas sun higher still in the shimmery heat. The sculpture casts a large shadow over the sidewalk, benches, and the street. The bulky lashed boats cantilever out from the support post almost forty feet over the sidewalk and street—just like the live oaks that inspired Rubins on her site visits. “When I first saw the Nancy Rubins piece, I felt like this was a new city. It was like nothing I had experienced in the city before. The monumental aspect and the excitement about the piece . . . . I am not a student but I run a route through campus and it is incredible to see how public art at this scale and caliber can impact not only the student body, but the city as a whole, “ says Meredith Powell of Public City.
Rubins’ piece joins the ten other pieces which stretch south on Speedway from Dean Keeton: Robert Murray Chilkat (1977), Deborah Butterfield Vermillion (1989), Joel Perlman Square Tilt (1987), Sol LeWitt Circle with Towers (2005/2012), Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #520 (1987/2013), Casey Reas, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, (2014), Seymour Lipton Pioneer (1957), Guardian (1975), and Catacombs (1968) and James Turrell Skyspace(2013).
“The incredible surprise of coming up along Congress Avenue from Lady Bird Lake to the Capitol to the beginning of UT campus to the collection is there. Cut right through to the Blanton plaza and start north and you are in this accessible collection of public art.”
The street culminates in the south at the Blanton Museum of Art Sculpture Park. The Park is curated by the Blanton Museum and currently has two permanent pieces: Richard Long’s Summer Circle and Meg Webster’s Conical Depression. In February 2015, the Blanton announced that it would be acquiring an Ellsworth Kelly structure called Austin to add to its Sculpture Park. Incredibly, through the effective work of Landmarks executing the Public Art Master Plan and the Campus Master Plan in the last ten years, UT has transformed its tucked-away Speedway corridor into an outdoor tour of museum-quality artworks open to the campus and to the public. Once the street becomes non-vehicular, the vision of outdoor art within a “place of social interaction for students and faculty in transit to other areas on campus, with spaces to gather along the mall” will come to fruition. “When you think about how Speedway will connect to Waller Creek and Shoal Creek, all of a sudden an amazing thread of greenspace comes into focus. Hopefully, art will be a focus of these public space projects and join to tell a story,” says Meredith Powell. “The incredible surprise of coming up along Congress Avenue from Lady Bird Lake to the Capitol to the beginning of UT campus to the collection is there. Cut right through to the Blanton plaza and start north and you are in this accessible collection of public art.” Gagosian Gallery NYC, which showed Nancy Rubins’ work in 2014, described her sculptures as “rhizomatic,” and certainly Monochrome for Austin is a visualization of individuals in a large network growing as dynamically as the exquisite 55-foot bundle of anti-gravity canoes. Hopefully, the citizens of Austin will visit and, through public art, witness the landscape architecture master plan being realized in the heart of campus and the city.
VISIT the Collection:
-Join a monthly guided walking tour led by current UT students trained as volunteer docents. Typically at 11 am on the first Sunday of the month. Each Landmark Docent designs a tailored tour topic and route so each month is unique. Bike tours are also available.
-Take a self-guided tour: an online interactive map, a downloadable map, and streaming online audio tour available. Also, downloadable activity guides for three ages of children and adolescents are available.
Tour dates and contact information listed online www.landmarks.utexas.edu.