Saturday, April 26, 2014

Serra Sculpture Park

The Serra Sculpture Park is one of a series of six parks along Market Street in the Downtown West Neighborhood.  Working west from Tucker Boulevard and Market Street you have Poelker Park, Washington Square Park and Kaufmann Park, then Memorial Plaza Park (including Eternal Flame Park and the one across from the Park Pacific which is not listed on the city website), Aloe Plaza and Aloe Plaza West.  The beautiful and peaceful Soldier's Memorial Military Museum is also part of this stretch of land and I will include that in a separate post.

The 1.14 acre park, placed into ordinance in 1981 is bound by Market Street to the south, 11th Street to the west, Chestnut Street to the north and 10th Street to the east:




The park's name and claim to fame is owed to artist Richard Serra sculptor of "Twain".  




Serra is an American minimalist artist born in 1939 in San Francisco, educated at Cal-Berkeley and Yale, and was commissioned to do Twain:


                                         Richard Serra

I came across an excellent essay:  "Re-envisioning Richard Serrs's "Twain"" written by Meridith Mckinley that beautifully describes the history of this public work of art.
It was an opportunity that attracted the young artist (Serra) due to its proximity to the groundbreaking design of the Gateway Arch by Eero Saarinen, which was less than 10 years old at the time.  Serra thought of his proposed structure—a quadrilateral arrangement of eight steel plates—as the dark horizontal counterpart to the bright vertical arch. (source)
More from the Regional Arts Commission:
His massive sculptures, which mostly consist of slightly curved plates of steel, tower vertically over the viewer or extend horizontally along the flat landscape, such as in Twain, located on a square patch of grass in downtown St. Louis. Commissioned specifically for the square-block site, Twain resembles a peripheral fence that, when viewed from above, takes the shape of a skewed triangle. The piece is composed of eight plates of weathering Cor-ten steel; seven of the plates are 40 feet long and the eighth is 50 feet long, which throws the triangle slightly off kilter. (source)

Twain was riddled with controversy from its begins when the sculpture was seen as non-traditional and challenging.  This work was planned and discussed back in 1974; although, through many delays, it didn't come to fruition until 1981.  
Nearly a decade passed before final approval was granted for Twain.  Evolving ideas about the Gateway Mall slowed the process, as well as public concern.  Many in the community were wary of Serra’s design, which was neither commemorative nor ornate in a traditional sense.  The sculpture required something new from its viewers: participation and a spirit of curiosity. 
Welcome to the Show Me State.  Maybe the saddest thing to me is the unfinished nature of the 1.14 acre tract.  Serra had a full vision for the property and sadly through neglect and apathy that vision was never realized.
Serra's first impression when he visited the site was how the flat landscape created an overwhelming sense of sky. He chose to emphasize the land and highlight its subtle changes by making the tops of the plates level, mimicking the slope of the land. Serra designed the piece with the narrow eastern end pointing to the Mississippi River like the prow of a boat; the other end widens out in recognition of Western Expansion. Between the plates are gaps that are two feet wide, through which people can pass. Viewing the piece from the inside provides glimpses of the surrounding architecture and street activity.  
Each detail from the plant material to the furniture was hand-selected by Serra.  The site was leveled and the eight steel plates were anchored into place.  The city block was then re-graded to the original slope of the Missouri Plateau, which subtly falls southeast towards the Mississippi River.  Sod provided an instant lawn inside and around the sculpture.  No paths were planned except those made by future foot traffic.  Serra had no objection to the worn paths eventually being paved, but he did not want to determine how people would navigate the site.  30 high-leafing trees—sycamores, pin oaks, scarlet oaks and red maples—were eventually to rise 80 to 100 feet above the sculpture.  The trees were strategically planted around Twain so as not to block the views of the city.  24 Victorian-style benches and a dozen elegant lamp posts were chosen to light the surrounding area.  From its current appearance in 2014, it is hard to imagine that Serra intended Twain, with all of its hardness and geometry, to be surrounded by the softness of what he described as an “English-style” landscape.  (source)


Photograph of “Twain” during construction, St. Louis, 1982  © Robert Pettus  © 2014 Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY


Detail of an architectural plan generated by the St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry for the landscaping of “Twain”, 1983, Saint Louis Art Museum Archives

11 of the 30 trees planted died and were never replanted.  No love, no attention.  Today the property has some trees remaining with scattered mulch and tulip and daffodil bulbs. 




No fancy benches nor lights as originally intended.  Just a simple plaque in the ground:




Serra has another sculpture in St. Louis at the Contemporary Art Museum called "Joe".  It seems easier to get behind due to its size, placement and setting.  


"Joe" photo source:  St. Louis Regional Arts Commission

I too have personally struggled to appreciate Twain as it sits between the Civil Courts building and the fantastic, fully realized and cared for City Garden.


Civil Courts Building to the west

City Garden at night to the east

City Garden at dusk

In fact in my anecdotal experience, it's pretty much a consensus that Twain is one of the more controversial works of public art in St. Louis.  It is misunderstood at best or disliked at worst.  Ghost graffiti, dying grass and urine from the scads of homeless concentrated downtown mark the piece today.



If I was calling the shots, I'd arrange a one-for-one trade of sculptures with the sprawling outdoor Laumeier Sculpture Park is suburban West County.  Twain would seem to have a better context in that serene setting among the rolling grass lawns flanked by woods, as opposed to lurking in this forgotten block like a jealous sibling in the shadow of the whimsical City Garden right across the street.

The city could use something more bold in this stretch of Market Street.

Twain could use some love, and I tried to let my curiosity settle in and appreciate it. I feel Serra's effort was noble and just...maybe now is an appropriate time to share a quote from another Twain:

"There are no accidents, all things have a deep and calculated purpose; sometimes the methods employed by Providence seem strange and incongruous, but we have only to be patient and wait for the result: then we recognize that no others would have answered the purpose, and we are rebuked and humbled."  -  Mark Twain
Maybe Twain is perfect and perfectly placed and I just haven't seen it in the right angle, right light with the right song playing in my head to make it all click...most seem to walk right by like it's not even there.

4 comments:

Kevin B said...

Was eagerly waiting for this one, Mark. Count me among those who dislikes (is "despises" too strong?) Richard Serra's "Twain." I've walked through it, I've sat in the center of it, I've contemplated it (rust and urine streaks included!)...and I just can't see its value, either in today's environment or in its original context.

It's presence creates a total dead-zone (and not in the "quiet escape from a bustling city" sense of the word) between the gorgeous courthouse and spectacular City Garden.

If not for accusations of not "getting" art, I'd simply recommend the Streets Dept. utilize Twain's panels as work lids for larger sub-street utility/sewer jobs, but I'll gladly concede the art to Laumeier or some bluffside park.

Anonymous said...

lyighheSerra's structure should be moved to the east side park in Il, or lowered underground with an alice in wonderland experience with lighting and a plexiglass top.

Michael B said...

It’s admirable that you’re so open to the artwork. I think it’s just a stunning piece. Even in your (sorry) so so photos—just look at it! My problems are with the landscaping. Sitting within a ruin doesn’t work for it. It needs to spring from color. It should be green green green all around it. No puddles in the corners. The site requires maintenance.

Mark Groth said...

Hi Michael B, thanks for reading. I would love to see your photos of Twain that exemplify the beauty of the piece and help you characterize it as "stunning". Please send them to me at groth_stl@hotmail.com I found this to be a particularly hard thing to photograph. Or better yet, post your impressions and experiences here on this site. Cheers-Mark