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Amazing Public Sculpture

sculpture of cast bronze horse by Deborah Butterfield at Nevada Museum of Art
Photo caption
Deborah Butterfield's Untitled Bronze Horse stands at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.

Black Sun | Crouching Spider | Bronze Horse
Samson | Stone River | The Flashlight
Three Dancing Figures | Spiral Jetty | I See What You Mean
Sentries | Champion Lane Frost | Ballerina Clown
Portlandia | Hammering Man | Electric Field
Field of Red Bison | Allow Me

To see how a compelling public sculpture can enrich the life of a community, consider Black Sun in Seattle's Volunteer Park. A simple nine–foot ring of granite has turned an otherwise ordinary spot into a destination with aesthetic pleasure, a place for children to play games and tourists to congregate, a beloved land–mark. When VIA sought other examples of fine public sculpture in the West, we limited ourselves to works made in the past 40 years and avoided traditional man–on–horseback monuments. The pieces you will see here range from the earthy Spiral Jetty on Utah's Great Salt Lake to the playful Flashlight in Las Vegas and the creepy—or is it affectionate?— Crouching Spider on San Francisco's Embarcadero. What, you might ask, is the point of these creations? They offer the chance for surprise and delight, and an opening, in the midst of a busy day, to stop and reflect for a few moments on the world around you.

By Jennifer Reese

Black Sun
ARTIST: Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988)
DIMENSIONS: 9' x 3'1'' (diameter, depth)
MATERIAL: Brazilian black granite
LOCATION: Outside the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 E. Prospect St., Volunteer Park, Seattle

Black Sun, next to Seattle’s oldest reservoir, frames the Space Needle. The American–born Isamu Noguchi was a towering figure in modern sculpture and design. His public works grace a number of cities out West—Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Bellingham, Wash. But you'd be hard–pressed to find a Noguchi creation anywhere that is more important than this monumental ring overlooking downtown Seattle, Puget Sound, and the Olympic Mountains. Hewed from a single block of stone, with irregular curved and polished indentations, it was Noguchi's first collaboration with Masatoshi Izumi, a stone carver from Mure, Japan. "In the last phase of his career, Noguchi went from a studio practice to working in Mure with traditional stone carvers," says Bonnie Rychlak, curator at New York's Noguchi Museum ( and the artist's former assistant. "It was a huge shift in his work, and Black Sun is what started it."

Crouching Spider
ARTIST: Louise Bourgeois (1911– )
DIMENSIONS: 8'10 ½'' x 27'5'' x 20'7'' (height, width, depth)
MATERIAL: Bronze, stainless steel, silver nitrate
LOCATION: The Embarcadero at Mission Street, San Francisco

This not-so-itsybitsy spider has siblings in Ottawa, Seoul, and Tokyo. A 4,333–pound spider inspired by the artist's mother? The New York City–based Bourgeois, born in France to a family of tapestry restorers, has written that, like a spider, her mother was "deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful." Intended as a temporary installation on the Embarcadero until June 2008, with a possible 10–month extension, this arachnid stands poised within steps of the Ferry Building's gourmet food purveyors and about a quarter mile from Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's giant bow–and–arrow sculpture. "We'd love to make it permanent," says Jill Manton of the San Francisco Arts Commission, which contracted for the spider, "but the city simply can't afford the $6 million price." Any deep–pocketed arachnophile art patrons out there?

Bronze Horse
ARTIST: Deborah Butterfield (1949– )
DIMENSIONS: 7'11'' x 10'7'' x 3'6'' (height, length, width)
MATERIAL: Cast bronze
LOCATION: In front of the Nevada Museum of Art, 160 W. Liberty St., Reno

Horse images are "a self-portrait one step removed," Butterfield says. For more than three decades, the horse has been Butterfield's only subject. "Horses are what I am truly interested in, and have been since I was old enough to think," she told an interviewer in 1988. Early in her career, the Montana–based Butterfield used humble materials such as mud, clay, twigs, and scrap metal. Though this mount appears to be created of sun–bleached sticks, it's actually a bronze casting of a wood original, which was burned out in the process. A woodlike patina completes the eye–fooling effect, to the delight of visiting schoolchildren who clamor to touch the horse. In the adjacent Arts District you'll find galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and more sculpture along the Truckee River's banks.

ARTIST: Brian Goggin (1966– )
DIMENSIONS: 23' x 7' x 7' (height, width, depth of each pillar)
MATERIAL: Steel, wood, old suitcases, luggage carts
LOCATION: Sacramento International Airport, Sacramento

Internal steel bracing steadies the towers of reclaimed suitcases. Two precarious–looking pillars, each made of some 600 old suitcases dating back to the dawn of motorized air travel, greet occasionally bewildered passengers in the baggage claim area at the Sacramento airport. "Some people take one look and wonder how they're ever going to get their bags out," says an amused Goggin. Sacramento residents donated many of the pieces. Another Goggin work, Defenestration, can be seen in San Francisco's South of Market area.

Stone River
ARTIST: Andy Goldsworthy (1956– )
DIMENSIONS: 445' (length)
MATERIAL: Ocher–colored sandstone
LOCATION: Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, 328 Lomita Dr. at Museum Way, Stanford, Calif.

Goldsworthy used stone to convey a sense of movement, time, and light. Acclaimed for his intricate, ephemeral works of leaves, icicles, and other found objects from nature, Goldsworthy raided Stanford University's "boneyard"—a repository of salvaged materials that has sandstone from buildings damaged in the 1906 and 1989 quakes—to make this 128–ton sculpture at the school's Cantor Arts Center. Eight British dry–stone wallers worked more than three weeks to execute the serpentine design, which sits in a trough like some colossal artifact unearthed during an archaeological dig. Other Western works by Goldsworthy (who is the subject of a film, Rivers and Tides) include a red sandstone version of Stone River at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, an ovoid limestone cairn at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla, Calif., and a continuous crack—a reminder of the state's seismic proclivities—in the pavement leading to San Francisco's de Young Museum.

The Flashlight
ARTIST: Claes Oldenburg (1929– ) and Coosje van Bruggen (1942–  )
DIMENSIONS: 38'6'' x 10'6'' (height, diameter)
MATERIAL: Steel painted with polyurethane enamel
LOCATION: On the plaza between Judy Bayley Theatre and Artemus W.Ham Hall, University of Nevada–Las Vegas, Las Vegas

You can see silhouettes of local mountains in the "on" switch. This 74,000–pound version of a hardware store staple glows at night (no batteries required) and features 24 fluted segments that echo the ridges on a cactus. The campus landmark joins other equally puzzling and smile–inducing Oldenburg–van Bruggen creations around the West. Among them are three gargantuan cowboy hats in a Salinas, Calif., park and 45–foot–tall binoculars at a Frank Gehry building in Venice, Calif.

Three Dancing Figures
ARTIST: Keith Haring (1958–1990)
DIMENSIONS: 10' x 12' x 18' (height, width, depth)
MATERIAL: Painted aluminum
LOCATION: Third and Howard streets, San Francisco

Exuberant and genderless, Haring's Three Dancing Figures cost $194,000. In 1980, fresh from art school, Haring captivated seen–it–all New York commuters when his spontaneous white chalk drawings began popping up on disused subway billboards. By the end of his short life 10 years later, Haring's easily recognizable images—barking dogs, radiant children, flying saucers—had acquired color and moved from subways to museums and to clothing, magnets, and other everyday objects. Also called Three Dancing Figures, this bright, joyous work at Moscone Center serves as an apt emblem of a thriving arts district that includes such cultural highlights as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Gardens.

Spiral Jetty
ARTIST: Robert Smithson (1938–1973)
DIMENSIONS: 1,500' x 15' (length, width of the line)
MATERIAL: Black basalt, earth from the site
LOCATION: Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah

The earthwork curls counterclockwise in water colored by algae and bacteria. "The most famous work of American art that almost nobody has ever seen in the flesh" is how one New York Times critic described this much photographed, pivotal piece of environmental art on the lake's eastern shore. Reached after a bone–jarring, 15.5–mile drive over dirt roads from the Golden Spike National Historic Site, the 6,650–ton earthwork achieved immediate icon status thanks to Smithson's poetic, sci–fi–like film of its construction. For most of three decades, the installation was under rising waters. It reemerged in 2002, glistening with white salt crystals, but higher lake levels again threaten it with submersion.

I See What You Mean
ARTIST: Lawrence Argent (1957- )
DIMENSIONS: 40' (height)
MATERIAL: Steel substructure with blue fiber-reinforced polymer
LOCATION: Colorado Convention Center, 700 14th St., Denver, Colo.

Lawrence Argent’s Big Blue Bear watches convention goers in Denver. Standing on prodigious, lapis-hued haunches, peering quizzically into the convention center, this is not your average bear. “It's humorous and dangerously close to kitsch,” says Argent, who was reared in Australia and teaches at the University of Denver, “but it's also about native wildlife and serious environmental issues.” Kids and art connoisseurs alike have taken a shine to “the big blue bear,” as it's been dubbed by the vox populi, and Denverites already have adopted it as a favorite downtown rendezvous point. While in the neighborhood, follow your bear sighting with traditional afternoon tea in the opulent lobby of the grand old Brown Palace Hotel, or a visit to the Denver Art Museum and its new wing, a virtual explosion of sharp, titanium-clad angles by starchitect Daniel Libeskind.

ARTIST: Jay Polite Laber (1961- )
DIMENSIONS: 11' (height)
MATERIAL: Scrap metal
LOCATION: Blackfeet Reservation, about 10 miles north of Dupuyer, Mont.

Jay Polite Laber, created Sentries, life-size horsemen from old car parts and other recycled materials. Wanting to alert motorists they were entering the Blackfeet Nation, the tribe commissioned Laber to create a pair of life-size, Indian horsemen for each of the four main gateways to the 1.5 million-acre reservation. Like the other three statues, this duo—on Highway 89 about 50 miles from the southeast corner of Glacier National Park—is made mostly of parts from junked cars, with old sickles for staffs and bits of discarded barbed wire and cable for hair and other small details. To make sure the sculpture could withstand the area's legendarily strong winds, Laber strapped it to the back of his flatbed truck for an endurance test. "Speeding along at 75 and hitting a pothole here and there lets you know if the welds will hold," says the artist, a tribal member who teaches art at Salish Kootenai College. "And these guys are solid."

Champion Lane Frost
ARTIST: Chris Navarro (1956- )
DIMENSIONS: 15' x 11'' inches (height, width)
LOCATION: Outside the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, Frontier Park, 4610 Carey Ave., Cheyenne, Wyo.

Chris Navarro's tribute to bull rider Lane Frost shows him atop a wild one. This dynamic statue celebrates the life of Lane Frost, an engaging, 25-year-old champion bull rider who was killed in 1989 by a bull's horn at the running of the Cheyenne Rodeo, known as "the daddy of 'em all." "When Lane died, I got it in my head there should be a monument to him," says Navarro, a Casper, Wyo., resident and former bull rider himself, who raised funds for the project by making and selling small versions of the sculpture. Cheyenne's bounty of Western-themed public art includes "Spirit of Wyoming," an 18-foot-high bronze bucking bronco and rider on the state capitol grounds, and 15 colorful, eight-foot-high fiberglass cowboy boots painted by local artists and found around town.

Ballerina Clown
ARTIST: Jonathan Borofsky (1942- )
DIMENSIONS: 30' (height)
MATERIAL: Aluminum, steel, fiberglass, and electric motor
LOCATION: 245 Main St., Venice, Calif.

Ballerina Clown, a beloved and once controversial figure, looks down on Main Street in Venice Beach, Calif. Borofsky makes attention-grabbing art, and none more so than this lithesome-legged figure whose sister (brother?) statue in Aachen, Germany, also sports a serious five o'clock shadow and a Bozo nose. A mixed reaction originally greeted the piece, with some critics feeling the artist was thumbing his nose at the community. But Borofsky, who says the work symbolizes Venice's fine art-Bohemian mix and the male and female in all of us, begs to differ: "If you have ever walked the Venice Boardwalk on a Sunday afternoon, you might understand why this figure is right at home." Versions of another other well-known Borofsky figure, "Hammering Man," features moving arms and towers over pedestrians in Seattle, Los Angeles, and other world cities. For his 60-foot-high "Dancers" in Denver, he cowrote and performed a song that plays on a recording from surrounding speakers.

ARTIST: Raymond Kaskey (1943– )
DIMENSIONS: 36' 10" (height)
MATERIAL: Hammered copper, steel
LOCATION: 1120 SW Fifth Ave., Portland

The outer layer of hammered copper is about the thickness of a dime. Is she a Greek goddess? Is she trying to catch a salmon? This gargantuan damsel located on the Portland Building, a postmodern downtown edifice designed by architect Michael Graves, is actually based on the Lady Commerce figure in the city’s seal. She is the second-largest hammered-copper statue in the country (only a certain majestic female in New York Harbor is bigger), and her arrival by river barge and truck brought out Portlanders by the thousands. She has since become an icon of the city—there is even an official ode to her—but don’t expect to find her neoclassical form on coffee mugs, key chains, or other tourist trinkets. As many other artists do with their public works, the Maryland-based Kaskey still holds, and zealously guards, all rights to reproduce and sell her image.

Hammering Man
ARTIST: Jonathan Borofsky (1942– )
DIMENSIONS: 48' x 7" to 1'9" (height, thickness)
MATERIAL: Hollow fabricated steel, aluminum, electric motor, black paint
LOCATION: Outside the Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle

The hardest-working man in Seattle rests only on Labor Day. One of several similar creations of varying height—including a shorter Los Angeles version—this hardworking fellow methodically raises and lowers his hammer four times a minute every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. He joins a cadre of other mobile and immobile Borofsky men throughout the world (Molecule Man, Walking Man, Singing Man), as well as the cross-dressed Ballerina Clown in Venice, Calif.

Electric Field
ARTIST: Dennis Oppenheim (1938– )
DIMENSIONS: 50' x 21' x 21' (height, width, depth)
MATERIAL: Aluminum, LED lights, dichromatic acrylic
LOCATION: Outside Reser Stadium, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore.

Oppenheim likes the geometry of a football and used it to score with fans. Oppenheim must know how a scrambling quarterback feels. The original plan for this giant football called for it to spin, like a pass in flight. When the spin was nixed as too expensive, that left the multicolored X’s and triangles, resembling the symbols used on a coaching diagram. During the day, however, the lights’ acrylic covers reflected yellows and greens from nearby trees and, those being the colors of archrival University of Oregon, Beaver fans saw red. The artist and the sign company ate the cost of modifying the covers. "An artist in his studio answers to his own voice," says Oppenheim. "But on a project like this you’re engaging the public, and you simply have to listen to them." Oppenheim also created a flock of 12 pterodactyl-like birds for the international airport in Sacramento and a monumental chair and lamp for Portland’s Metropolitan Exposition Center.

Field of Red Bison
ARTIST: John E. Simms (1937– )
DIMENSIONS: : Bull 12' x 18' x 10"; cow 11' x 16' x 10"; calf 6' x 4' x 5" (height, width, depth)
MATERIAL: Rolled steel I beam, red automotive paint
LOCATION: Teton Arts Council, 8 Rodeo Dr., Driggs, Idaho

Simms was influenced by Indian petroglyphs and prehistoric cave art in Lascaux, France. What the buffalo you see here (two of a family of three) might lack in shaggy mass they more than make up for in pure shapely elegance. "It’s like magic to be able to construct such recognizable forms out of just three circles each," says Simms, a sculptor in Jackson, Wyo., who is fascinated by the possibilities inherent in simple shapes such as circles, triangles, and rectangles. With the Teton Range forming a dramatic backdrop, the bison graze in a field about a mile off Highway 33, not far from Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park. In Jackson itself, another of Simms’s mathematically inspired bison poses along Highway 390. You can also view a pair of his abstract metal sculptures— including a shiny stainless-steel disk that pivots in the wind—at the Teton County Library.

Allow Me
ARTIST: J. Seward Johnson (1930– )
DIMENSIONS: 6'6" x 4' x 3'6" (height, width, depth)
MATERIAL: Bronze with patina
LOCATION: Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland

He may be the most photographed guy in all of Portland. Known simply as Umbrella Man, this red-tied fellow has graciously posed with countless tourists over the years. "People often interact with Johnson’s manon- the-street sculptures as if they were real people," says Paula Stoeke, curator and director of the Sculpture Foundation. Pioneer Courthouse Square, often called "Portland’s living room," is one of the country’s great public spaces, with 26,000 visitors dropping in daily. People-watching constitutes an art form of its own here, especially during the 300-plus concerts, festivals, and other community events that take place in the square each year.

Photography courtesy Nevada Museum of Art


This article was first published in January 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.