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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Book Reviews

Art Beyond the Museums

Dancing in the Landscape: The Sculpture of Athena Tacha essay by Harriet F. Senie, interview by Glenn Harper, and edited by James Grayson Trulove, Washington, DC, 144 pages, 2000, $29.95.

Public art places sculpture within the reach of the general culture. As such, its intention is at variance with the art object as commodity, something for sale. In the pursuit of public art, the problems of the art market are avoided, yet a new host of difficulties rises up in their place. The logistics of public projects are intricate, and years spent on proposals can be thrown away because of changes in their administration. Despite these challenges, however, the excitement of a successful contemporary public artwork, such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam veterans memorial, manages both to create a valid work of art and to establish a dialogue with a public that might not otherwise be involved in issues of art. The reactions, and interactions, of these viewers are basic to a public artist’s determination to reach as large an audience as possible; and to do so without communicating as an “insider,” namely, with that kind of ironic self-reference that one sees so often in art today.

Athena Tacha, the Greek-born sculptor, was one of the first to participate in the new movement for public art in the early 1970s. An art historian as well as an artist – Tacha received her doctorate in art history and esthetics from the Sorbonne in 1963 – she brings to the task of sculpture and public art a knowledgeable awareness of tradition. Yet she has always been uncomfortable with the traditional art world, especially the notion of a traditional venue such as a gallery or a museum, because such a context removes art from its real purpose: the direct communication of visual values into society. The white cube contextualizes the object so that its scrutiny in a public space determines its existence as art – the vitrine and larger holding areas are capable of turning anything into art. This is something with which Tacha disagrees; as she comments in the book’s interview with Glenn Harper, “I simply don’t think that whatever you put in a museum is art. To me, it has to be made or intended as art; the context is not sufficient.” Tacha turns away from the avant-garde notion of art as an elitist communication in favor of something more democratic, more available to people.

Indeed, she is adamant about the relations between an artwork and its audience:

I dislike the word, “exhibit,” because it implies you want to be in a museum. For me, museums feel so artificial. They were really created as repositories of past art. So I want my works somehow to be experienced by people, but in real life if possible. That’s why I went into public art, though I know the reality is that art gets seen and saved through the gallery/museum system.

Tacha recognizes that the art world cannot be perfectly evaded; however, she does the best she can to connect with people and life. With her sculpture as well as her public art, she addresses life concerns. One piece, Wings (1989), which is constructed of wine corks and feathers, addresses a friend who had slipped and cracked her spine; another work, Brain Cancer Headdress for Maro (1992), made of sprayed foam and shells collected in France, eulogizes another good friend who died from brain cancer. The point is to make contact with actual experience; Tacha sees her role as that of a mediator between the forces of art and the interests of people; she is equally involved with both. Her skill lies in giving public stature to private experience, an accomplishment made all the more difficult in public art by its tradition of monumentality. Tacha works to find a bridge between personal emotion and the often impersonal nature of public art; the concerns of the individual are not less important than those of the group.

Much has been made of the organic quality of Tacha’s work, which takes nature as both its starting-point and means. The shields she has made since the late 1980s owe their effectiveness to a resolutely organic construction; they are made of North Carolina oyster shells, Greek abalones and limpets, Florida cockles. Additionally, her armor’s shapes themselves are quite fluidly composed; the shells are arranged in concentric circles on many shields, while the pattern appears to be organically random in others. Chance plays a large role in her constructions. In a project such as Sealed Memories (1998-2000), the artist has taken the art postcards of a dead friend, written a memory each day on them, and covered the writing over with electric tape (to symbolize the memories’ loss over time). Finally, the postcards are hung in random fashion from the ceiling. The point of the arrangement is that something so personal as a private memory must be acknowledged not as a rational composition but as a nexus of thought and feeling.

Although Tacha is deeply interested in science, she draws from such material an intuitive sense of the world’s inter-relatedness. The postcards hang randomly because she has intended them to do so; an analytically arranged pattern would skew the emotions contained within Sealed Memories, which orchestrate its existence according to chance. There are geometric forms that regularly occur in Tacha’s art, but through repetition and accumulation; they feel as though they occur as form within a predominantly natural arrangement of imagery. As the artist points out, “I consider my work, even when I use rectangular forms, to be very organic, because it follows the methods of natural growth, like crystals and mushrooms.” The principles on which Tacha relies build upon each other incrementally; formally, the public sculptures tend to consist of shapes such as ovals, ellipses, and circles – forms that speak to the completeness of nature. This organic patterning does not mean that Tacha has lost her interest in science, which is a major involvement. Indeed, she continues to read science so that she can keep abreast of concepts that change over the course of time: “I have to keep up with [science], and accordingly my art changes because of our present perception of space and time and matter and energy and gravity.”

As a monograph devoted to Tacha’s life work, Dancing in the Landscape offers the reader a well-illustrated, highly informative background. Harriet F. Senie’s essay, “Glimpses of Infinity: Nature and Science in Athena Tacha’s Public Art,” is an excellent introduction, concentrating on the artist’s conceptual understanding of form. In the first page of the essay, there is a marvelous photograph of a terraced landscape on the island of Andros in Greece; the regularly stepped forms are remarkably similar to the layered pattern used so often in Tacha’s art. One can see from the essay how Tacha’s forms build through repetition and slight change. There is also a section devoted to problems that the artist encountered in maintaining and even saving her art. Marianthe (1985-86), a beautiful double whorl constructed of rusticated brick at the University of South Florida, was destroyed in 2000, the victim of poor maintenance; and Tide Park (1976-77), a complex vest-pocket park of terraced steps and accompanying planters in Smithtown, Long Island, was repudiated by the artist when local government made “improvements” that were unacceptable given the original plans. Senie points out the kinds of controversy that occur when public art is submitted to public opinion.

Glenn Harper’s interview, “Athena’s Other Selves” (from which the quotations above have been taken), skillfully reveals the often personal basis of Tacha’s sculptures; as we have seen, much of her art is made in response to the circumstances of friends. Harper is able to draw out, in exemplary fashion, not only a description of her art and public works, but also the concepts that preceded her forms. For example, we find out that walking is a favorite activity of the artist because it highlights the body’s symmetry:

...walking on irregular ground is an irregular beat that makes us conscious of our bilaterally symmetric body. The legs are forced to take longer or shorter strides, depending on the ground. That’s why I love mountains and mountain villages.

This information makes Tacha’s art more interesting, more complex. She is deeply involved with chance and asymmetry occurring as a contrast to and a reaction against the domination of analytic forms and casts of mind. As pointed out, this does not mean that Tacha has given up on analytic thought, only that she subsumes it to a larger, more intuitive understanding of process.

Dancing in the Landscape illustrates very well the complex push-pull in Tacha’s structures. In addition to an introduction, interview, chronology, and selected bibliography, the book is divided into eight sections: “Waterfronts”; “Parks, Gardens and Plazas”; “Steps and Walkways”; “Waterfalls and Fountains”; “Mazes”; “Arcades and Colonnades”; “Slab Twists”; and “Memorials.” These categories of expression are developed thoroughly by Tacha herself, who has written text to accompany the public projects. (Tacha includes projects that were rejected as well as successful works.) Many of the proposals that she has written about have been accompanied by small-scale models of the project, some in cast aluminum. One of the projects in the “Waterfronts” section is interesting. Tacha made a proposal for the Charles River Step Sculpture in 1974, while a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is an elegant work, with “angular, crystal-like forms” on one side and “curvilinear forms” on the other; the two patterns are separated by a wharf intended to go out into the Charles River. Although the piece was not realized, the small version in cast aluminum is exquisitely elegant.

In the “Waterfalls and Fountains” section, one comes across Merging, a project successfully realized in the years 1984-87 on the Mather Quad at Case-Western Reserve University. A large work (8 x 71 x 83 feet) composed of red and mahogany granite, Merging consists of terraced steps that rise toward a central plinth at the top; Tacha points out that it conjures up tectonic plates butting up against each other. Half of the piece is dry, allowing students to sit, while the other half, in the darker mahogany granite, consists of stepped water terraces. It is a remarkably attractive work that sits harmoniously in its surroundings. Double Stare: Antares (1986-88) documents Tacha’s deep involvement with astronomy; the sculpture comprises two overlapping star shapes, arranged so that V-shaped walls meet at points. The walls are created with an open-face brick arrangement and rise to five different heights, scaled in close relation to the human body. The visitor may investigate the constellation by walking through its narrow paths; the work sits near Mt. Lookout, the site of the Cincinnati Observatory. Despite the lyrical eloquence of the work, or perhaps because of it, there were difficulties: Double Star was vandalized – a wall was knocked down – and the city made changes in the work that were never authorized by Tacha.

Despite these difficulties, Tacha prevails as an artist, likely because she maintains her composure. She is determined to remain open to change and chance; it is a deep part of her methodology. She writes that,

I have so many interests that I want to leave my options open. I don’t want to get locked into any one position, not even public art, even though I have felt very strongly about that – because of my democratic ideal that art has to be for everybody and not just the educated elite, the museum audience.

Dancing in the Landscape does a very good job of not only introducing us to an accomplished artist; it is also revealing of the problems facing someone working intensively within the specialized field of public art. By the end of the book, the reader has a sense of how public projects work in both their initial and completed stages. Tacha is a particularly interesting figure within the public-art realm because she brings to it both a poetic sensibility and a strong feeling for the democratization of the art impulse. In a way, by virtue of her openness, she has been ahead of her time. It is hard to find someone with both flair and commitment, but Tacha demonstrates that she is in possession of both. This book goes a long way to proving that.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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