Seattle has, on the surface, always valued art highly. In the middle of the Boeing recession of the 1970s, Mayor Wes Uhlman and his city council wrote in Section 1 of Ordinance 102210:
The City accepts a responsibility for expanding public experience with visual art. Such art has enabled people in all societies better to understand their communities and individual lives. Artists capable of creating art for public places must be encouraged and Seattle’s standing as a regional leader in public art enhanced. A policy is therefore established to direct the inclusion of works of art in public works of the City.
Local arts supporters were delighted. One of the great patrons of Seattle, Virginia Wright, noted “They passed it in the wink of an eye: It seemed like apple pie and motherhood. Everybody thought it was a great idea without questioning who was going to make decisions, the nuts and bolts of the whole thing.”
The “nuts and bolts” were very much the issue when the Seattle Arts Commission (now the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs) commissioned their first work of public art, Michael Heizer’s Adjacent, Against, Upon.
In typically Seattle fashion, complaints arose before the work was even installed. The site chosen for Mr. Heizer’s sculpture was Elliott Bay Park. The Seattle Arts Commission had chosen the site for its natural beauty, and the artist agreed the location between the rickety railroad tracks and the unspoiled water of the bay added to the meaning of the piece. That year, however, Elliott Bay Park was renamed Myrtle Edwards Park, after the deceased president of the Seattle City Council, who had died in 1969 in an Idaho car crash. The family of Myrtle Edwards (minus her husband Harlan, who had died in 1975) complained that the new artwork was inappropriate for the park.
Others from the Seattle Parks Department itself complained “the common man” (whoever that was) could not understand such an abstract piece. Perhaps there was some justification in that, because the largest number of complaints by denizens of Seattle was that it was too expensive for just a bunch of rocks. They wanted a justification.
Seattle Arts Commission and the city council came up against the painful reality of modern art in a democratic society. Proceeding from the belief that art is necessary for the public — to understand their communities and individual lives, as the ordinance reads — how does one determine what that art should be? Should the work be chosen by experts and guarantee the occasional controversy? Should it be chosen by consensus and guarantee the inevitable mediocrity?
For numerous reasons, hierarchical institutions are not the place to debate the merits of arts, yet the “democratic process” almost demands that they do so. Finally vexed by it all, the council passed a resolution that inelegantly removed the city council from decisions about public art in the future. The 1% for Art program became the sole province of the Seattle Arts Commission and its accompanying citizen boards.
Mr. Heizer became disgusted by much of the process. In an interview with The Seattle Times, “I never worked with so many rules before.” Little did he know that he would be one of the last artists to work so directly and with so few rules.
Three years later, the arts commission had to install a piece at the new Seattle City Light Viewland/Hoffman Substation at North 105th Street and Fremont Avenue North. Instead of a single artist, they chose three: Sherry Markovitz, Andrew Keating and Buster Simpson collaborated on the project, which became one of the most successful works of public art in the city. The lesson taken from this? Committees are always better than individuals.
And so began the “design team approach” under which public art still labors to this day. To simplify the process of choosing artists, city and county administrators formed their own “public art rosters,” lists of artists they considered qualified to work on public projects. Bureaucracies form under the guise of meritocracies. Consequently, an entire class of “public artists” has arisen, where the job description has more to do with working the system than actually producing work, good or bad. Instead it is largely indifferent.
As Professor John Young at the UW used to say, “Controversy is a critical part of acceptance and any good art brings debate.” Politicians who rely upon consensus as a measure of effectiveness avoid controversy like a sparrow avoids a sharp-shinned hawk. Avoiding controversy, they aim not for possibly disruptive art but for certainly inoffensive decoration. The more invisible, the better.
Michael Heizer had no idea that the course of public art throughout the nation would go this direction. His work is not inoffensive decoration. Though it is nothing like the massive City project in the desert of Nevada, or even the more modestly scaled Levitated Mass, Adjacent, Against, Upon is an archetypal bit of Heizeriana. Too large for a museum yet simple in its design, it uses no fancy or expensive material and is ecologically friendly — city officials loved to point how most of the money for the sculpture went back to local contractors, equipment-rental houses, material suppliers and so on.
Viewed sequentially, one can interpret it easily as the relationship between the elegantly manufactured concrete polygons and the rough and heavy rocks. There are three pairs: Adjacent, in which the smooth polygonal form is at its most complex, with five sides, with a large unhewn boulder beside it; Against, with a four-sided concrete polygon supporting a leaning slab; and Upon, with a simple triangular concrete shape supporting the full weight of a slab of granite. The rough, uncarved slabs represent a natural, non-human form; the concrete forms by definition are man-made, and their mathematical shapes reaffirm this. As human forms become more complex, the natural forms move away. An easy parable, if you will, about homo sapiens and nature: the price humans pay for complexity and industrialization is an increasing separation from the natural world.
The catch, however, is the title. It is not Upon, Against, Adjacent, but rather Adjacent, Against, Upon. Reading the sequence this way leads to another interpretation: that as nature encroaches on the industrial world, it absorbs humanity and its pretensions along with it, reducing it once more to a primordial state. That one can read the work both ways gives it complexity through irony.
Even when I was a rather less art-savvy kid, it was cool to climb on it and to feel the natural textures of the granite under me. With the sharpness of the concrete forms, I always found the rocks more inviting, which undoubtedly would make the artist smile. Now that I am a none-too-savvy adult, I find it quite fitting that the artist’s own history has been quite unlike the other artists associated with Earthworks or Land Art or whatever they choose to call it next. While Mr. Heizer has remained most true to his principles of environmental art, he has never received the acclaim of other around him, such as James Turrell and Robert Smithson. Instead, he has continued to create the most ambitious work in the field, work that no one will notice for its brilliance until it is long gone.
And how very, very like Seattle itself that is.