Author Archives: Meridith Mckinley

Quiktrip in Ferguson

Quitrip antimonument2

In her book Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, Erika Doss writes about the memorializing mania in the late 19th century as the American nation state started to solidify with the far-flung boundaries of the country finally wrested from the native peoples who lived here. Busts marking wars won, Indians killed and towns founded were slowly supplemented by bronze statues to abstract ideas such as honor as well as toga-clad busts of great European leaders.
This colonizing land grab is the pivot point upon which the country’s sense of self rests, and it is uniquely embodied in the landscape of St. Louis.

At Sculpture City Saint Louis 2014’s recent conference Monument / Anti-Monument, St. Louis’s two great, conflicting man-made objects as markers of place and of St. Louis’s place in the originary myths of America were the central, ghostly heart of our conversations. The man-made construction recognized the world over is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, aka the Gateway Arch (1947-1965), by Eero Saarinen, which presides over the Museum of Westward Expansion (1976), buried beneath the Arch’s glorious gleaming legs. The Arch, a spectacular sculpture (although this claim was challenged during our conference, with building and infrastructure arising as ways to understand the Arch), proclaims the good accomplished when Thomas Jefferson purchased land from Napoleon and, by extension, the Spanish, both of whom had slipped the continent-sized carpet out from under the feet of the Native Nations.

The other man-made works that persist in asserting their presence (despite tremendous effort to erase them) are the ancient mounds of the Mississippean peoples scattered around the St. Louis region. Archaeological digs have established that this culture flourished around 1,000 years ago, not as an outpost of the empire in Mexico City, but as a fully self-determined cultural, social and political community with its own traditions. Early Americans knew of the mounds, but later immigrants destroyed them with vengeance, thinking they were more likely made by aliens than the broken and corralled peoples of late 19th century America. The yin and yang of these monuments / anti-monuments (which is which?) provide an interesting backdrop to St. Louis’s newest monument (or anti-monument), another emblem of the past that America wishes to forget.

A visit on September 9 to Ferguson showed the Quicktrip, burned in the initial response to the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, surrounded by fencing and no protests to be seen. While many on-going peaceful protests have moved indoors to the churches and meeting halls of our area, the Quiktrip is left exposed to natural forces (of nature and cheap building materials). One recent article posted on Facebook reported that neighbors want to preserve the Quiktrip as a marker of a new civil rights movement; the fencing suggests that this damaged building will come down shortly, although recent news footage has the Quiktrip as a backdrop to a now-international outcry against our country’s persistent discrimination against people of color, particularly African Americans.

Rebecca Solnit posits that “landscape is the victim of history” in her book Savage Dreams, and indeed, St. Louis is unique in how our landscape bears the scars of our collective past while being a place where, perhaps, we might begin to reconcile to our future.

A version of this article was first published on-line in critic Mary Louise Schumacher’s Art City blog for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, inspired by Monument / Anti-Monument,

St. Louis’ Monument to the Lost Cause

George Julian Zolnay, Confederate Monument, 1914, Forest Park, St. Louis, MO. Photo courtesy of Chris Naffziger, St. Louis Patina

St. Louis’ Confederate Memorial (1914) is located in Forest Park, a little east of the Missouri History Museum. Funded and promoted by a branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, it is one of many outdoor sculptures installed across the South commemorating the tradition of the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause was a movement “that sought to reconcile the traditional Southern white society to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War.” Many involved in the movement were inclined to portray the cause of the Confederacy as noble and its leaders as “exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry.”i After Reconstruction many throughout South, including Missourians, believed themselves to be victims of federal tyranny—states-rights’ advocates versus those who believed in a national government. To honor their bygone era, promoters glorified the Old South through special holidays, post-war sermons, veterans’ reunions, and ceremonies.ii Southern women helped promote the Lost Cause through the formation of memorial associations that raised funds for monuments to a vanished way of life–northern victory being viewed as an assault on southern customs and culture.

Enshrining this ethos is Forest Park’s monument to the Lost Cause designed by the Hungarian-born sculptor George Zolnay. The monument, 32-feet high, is a broad-based granite obelisk with two carvings on its face. Near the top is a barely discernible figure of the Angel of the Confederacy. Placed below is a large bronze tablet carved in high relief that depicts an emotionally charged moment of a soldier’s departure. In the center an elegantly dressed Confederate soldier stands bravely anticipating his destiny,. Surrounding him are three figures—an allegorical female image of valor and, one assumes, his mother and younger brother. Valor is the soldier’s determined guide while the hooded maternal figure views him with painful acceptance. Below and to the left, a young boy holds the Confederate flag and gazes upward with stalwart admiration. On the reverse of the monument are quotations by a St. Louis soldier who fought for the Confederacy and a second by Robert E. Lee.

Zolnay was a popular artist in nearby University City where he was director of the newly formed Art Academy of the People’s University. Familiar to most residents of U. City are the lions (one is actually a tiger) he carved for the city’s entry gates. He also served as art director for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and was a much sought after sculptor of Confederate monuments.

But what is the meaning of Zolnay’s monument today? Is it just a relic of a bygone era or can it be seen as a potent reminder that the tensions of the Civil War era are still with us? While the era of the Lost Cause represented by St. Louis monument may be over, the fight for civil rights remains.


A pool, a pavilion, a decoy: Mary Miss’s Pool Complex


Mary Miss, Pool Complex at Laumeier Sculpture Park. Photo courtesy of Ken McCown.

At the end of a path in Laumeier Sculpture Park, where the borders of the park begin to blur with its suburban surrounds, sits a complex by Mary Miss. The permanent installation Pool Complex: Orchard Valley (1983-1985) is built on and with an abandoned pool, her own wooden lattices extending its life by a generation at best. Centered around the inverted earthwork of the concrete Depression-era swimming pool, Miss lined its outside rim with paths, fences and covered pavilions that is today at various stages of wear and weathering. Pool Complex in both its form and material is more suggestive of scaffolding than a finished structure, as if it is meant to not just be maintained, but expanded. It neither transforms the ruin into a new use, nor passively accepts the rubble; it finds some other path in which the ruin itself expands outward into an unstable present. The piece is surprising, a discovery after you thought your work as a viewer at an institution was over. When you are just walking along on a path; when you think both the sculpture park and the city may have ended.

Mary Miss, Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys at Nassau County Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Mary Miss’s iconic Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys (1977-1978 ) at the Nassau County Museum of Art, with its underground courtyard, towers and embankments, points to the pool, whose own depressed form is balanced by her aging wood structures filling in where swimmers stood, filling in where backyard partiers posed, filling in for an estate aged out. Her work benefits from a blurred border, a true vernacular in which her voice may be missed and we find ourselves activated by the idea of a ruin, the unfailing surprise at rediscovering a human hand and its failure of persistence. The ruin’s failure foregrounds our will to build, to fill all empty spaces. To make a mark, to articulate our presence. Pool Complex builds outward in order to remind us of the absence that envelops it.

Navigating a St. Louis city street, you will inevitably see a brick building buckling, ready to collapse, or a slight swell on an otherwise empty lot where our inherited histories have been cleared away. Art extends beyond our borders, stretches where we thought the institution ended, to a ruin and an extension of that ruin that delays the inevitable collapse of structure. Pool Complex‘s legacy is interesting in a city whose ruins are still expanding. How do we extend, not erase them? What structures could they support that do not exist yet? To build from a ruin as a ruin. Not to transcribe but to transform. Pool Complex reminds us that there are still structures to build in a hollowed out earth. A pool, a pavilion, a decoy.

Accept No Substitutes: “Placebo” by Roxy Paine


Photo courtesy of Kiku Obata

*This article is the second post of a two part series about Roxy Paine’s “Placebo”

At the end of her beautiful essay Molly Moog mentioned how Placebo by Roxy Paine raises contradictions. She wrote, “They expose the paradoxical line between art and nature.” And that’s where I’d like to begin.  

Placebo is a brainteaser of an artwork, a stainless steel tree set in a park, the sight of which is part appealing, part appalling. Through its exposure of ambiguities between art and nature it leads us to play a game, questioning what criteria we want when we call something ‘natural.’

But let’s first clarify definitions. What is the purpose of a placebo? The dictionary lists three ways to frame it: “to reinforce a patient’s expectation to get well.” And “to test the effectiveness of a medicinal drug.” And “Something of no intrinsic remedial value that is used to appease or reassure another.”(i) Collaging them all together, a general definition could be “something that one group substitutes clandestinely for another substance, to achieve a benefit, mainly of reassurance, for another group.”

A placebo tests its own efficacy as well as that of the reagent. But the relationships between placebo and active ingredient, between testers and those tested upon, are porous and can interchange. For instance, the placebo is selected because it is functionally neutral but with some sleight of hand – or rather, mind – those unaware of the substitution will experience some of the benefits offered by the “real thing.” And if the placebo doesn’t work, they can become those who now know of the substitution.

Most often placebos are benign substitutions for potentially powerful drugs. What is Placebo a placebo for? An obvious possibility is: a natural tree. Is the artist trying to have his artwork accepted as a tree? Is it a test to see what is sufficient for a tree-ness? A game: how is it a tree; how is it not a tree? But, if he wanted to, he could have slipped in an artwork molded into a perfect facsimile of a tree. With technology these days, the trompe l’oeil (fool-the-eye) factor could have been nearly perfect. Had he made a fake tree look just like a real tree, our discovery of that deception would have been the end of the story.

But instead Paine went in a different direction and couldn’t have made this object more different from a natural tree- the shiny metallic surface just can’t be overlooked. Oh yes, he added the realistic detail of tree fungi! But going to the extent of that detail, but not adding the detail of, say, a leaf or two only emphasizes the illusion of the work. Although permanently suspended in skeletal state, even in the wintertime, when all the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, it won’t blend in. Its shiny and polished shiny trunk, its fabricated limbs: not even close. Plus, he titled it Placebo!

The artist couldn’t have gone to greater lengths to make it clear, although his piece is very like a tree in form scale and context, it is not a real tree. And really, we never thought it was! We might enjoy the vacillating tree/not tree experience, but at the same time, we resist it. We already always know that we are playing a game. That tree can never be neutral – whereas placebo is neutral and blind.‘Placebo’ in this case could only be an oxymoron because it is unanimously known to not be a real tree. The title could only be meant ironically.

Unless. Unless we answer that the tree is a placebo not for nature but for art. This gets more complex. When we tried to fit Placebo into nature as ‘tree’ we ended up viewing it more and more as art. But imagine the comparison not between the treeness of Placebo to other trees but the artfulness of Placebo to the artifice of “nature.” Placebo fails as a placebo only if we try to bend this artwork into nature. But it hasn’t failed when we recognize the placebo as a substation not for nature but for art. We are testing to see if it can be accepted because of its artifice.

Let me clarify. Placebo is situated in Forest Park, surrounded by trees and grass. A wild setting would be more natural but far less comfortable, nontraversable, not conducive to joggers. So we have no trouble accepting the manicured knolls as an uncultivated habitat as we mow, clip, and spread them with chemicals. In fact we don’t even perceive them as a substitution for the mud and dirt and weeds of an actual natural environment.

We even accept grass as indigenous! But Placebo just went too far. With its reflective material – and its self –reflective name –it showed itself as art and gave the game away.

This takes us away from the match game we played at first: metal tree = natural tree. It makes us regard context. Placebo turns the question around, away from itself, to question the naturalness of the planted trees. Looking around, we realize these trees are not indigenous to this place. Well, even if a few are, they are all completely domesticated.

We suddenly see it. All these trees and the park itself are placebo. We are surrounded by art functioning, placebo-like, for nature. They have been slipped in, part of our built world but appearing to be a natural landscape, to grant us that feeling that we can get away from the human constructions, a respite from civilization and its discontents and into something more genuine. A return to nature, the peace and ease of a verdant world.

In every use of “placebo” two realities are created. One is that of believers. The other is that of those in the know, those privy to the substitution. Placebo places us all in the privy situation. The artist wants us to be in this position. Not the deceived audience but the enlightened audience. He wants the half-life of the placebo effect, the belief in the sameness of Placebo and nature, to be very short, if at all. Placebo does its best to augment our incredulity, which anyway was almost immediate. It situates us on the side of knowing. We try to imagine ourselves (back) in the believer state of mind. But we’ve seen the ‘man behind the curtain’ and can’t undo that knowledge.

Through this art play we find that we had actually been in the unaware group. And with that knowledge comes a dawning suspicion. We wonder: what else have we missed? Can any placebo placate forever?

Researchers emphasize the positive side of placebos. That, although placebos are “based on false information,” nevertheless “their use in the correct place is to be encouraged.”(ii) They are a temporary measure, an expediency. A bridge to a better situation.

But currently, all kinds of artificialities are being substituted under the name ‘natural,’ and generally in processes that seem out of our control. How much technology do we want in our nature? Genetically modified foods for instance: it looks like a tomato but might trigger fish allergies. What is “unadulterated?” How much can be altered before we protest that the original is gone?  Like that riddle: a boat with 100 passengers travels around the world and at every port, something on it is removed and replaced- the first port all the masts are changed, the next the hull, and so on. By the time the ship returns nothing on it is the original. Have the passengers returned on the same ship that left the port? Is there a moment when the ship is no longer itself?

has both quick-acting and time-release effects. Its slick surface and its title take us directly to the end game – we start at the point where we know it’s not the real thing. Through its artifice it calls into question other substitutions. This lets us play another game – seeing everything is both real and not quite so. How do we define nature and real? Placebo demonstrates that everything is relational. Our categories of “real” and “placebo” depend on what else is in the group.

Ultimately, we test our own limits and desires. How much ‘real’ do we want? Where do we want something natural and when is artifice preferred? It’s the game we play unconsciously with all art the interplay between illusionism and being a thing in itself.

Artworks test categories, they cross boundaries, expose ideology. With works of art we are all put in the position of those in the know.  Placebo is an invitation to play – and playing cuts through categories and rearranges the world.

(ii) Archie, Cochrane, A.L.: Effectiveness and Efficiency: Random Reflections on Health Services. The Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust 1972, p 31. Cited in Wikipedia

Placebo Effect


Roxy Paine, American, born 1966; Placebo, 2004; stainless steel; 56 ft. x 46 ft. 6 in.; Saint Louis Art Museum, Commissioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum with funds given in memory of John Wooten Moore 38:2004. © Roxy Paine

*This article is one of a two part series about Roxy Paine’s “Placebo”.

Stretching its tangled metal limbs up toward the sky, the 56 foot tall sculpture Placebo stands in a small clearing on the west side of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Placebo is one of a series of stainless-steel tree sculptures made by the artist Roxy Paine. Paine refers to these sculptures as Dendroids (the word dendroid means tree-like). Placebo was commissioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2004 at the suggestion of donor Terry Moore, who funded the commission in memory of her late husband, John Wooten Moore. As the title indicates, Placebo is not a tree, but rather an imitation of one. A placebo is an inert medication or treatment prescribed to a patient, sometimes as an experimental control.(i) In other words, it is not the “real thing.” Extraordinarily, the “placebo effect” occurs when a patient’s misinformed anticipation of greater wellbeing actually leads to the alleviation of symptoms, proving the connection between mind and body. The word placebo originates from the Latin word for “I shall please,” begging the question, in the case of Roxy Paine’s Placebo, can a replica be as pleasing as the real thing?

Placebo’s elegant and attenuated branches are made from stainless steel tubing, cantilevered and welded in place in the tree’s smooth, metal trunk.The industrial material and systematic construction of the Dendroid suggest humankind’s desire to control and replicate the natural landscape of which we ourselves are a part. Look no further than Saint Louis’s Forest Park, where Placebo is situated, for an example of this. Although the name would indicate a wild, wooded tract, Forest Park was originally designed as a driving park in the 1870s by park superintendent Maximillian G. Kern. Early visitors in horse-drawn carriages could take in carefully-arranged vistas and enjoy eleven man-made lakes.(ii) Placebo is, like Forest Park, a man-made amalgam that could never exist naturally. A single sculpture, it displays the features of several distinct species of North American deciduous trees.

The various titles of Roxy Paine’s Dendroids allude to the relationship between the sculptures and the natural and built environments in which they are situated. The first Dendroid, Impostor, was commissioned in 1999 by the Wanås Foundation in Sweden. Another sculpture previously installed in 2002 in New York City’s Central Park bears the title Bluff. With their cold stainless steel trunks they stand out as alien among the trees that encircle them. Their spindly branches frozen as though swaying in the breeze, the Dendroids exist permanently in the present. They will remain standing long after the surrounding trees die and are replaced by new saplings. In this respect a Dendroid, like a still life painting or a photograph, is a representation and a perpetuation of a single moment. In sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch still lifes, a withered flower or a fly perched on a piece fruit served as examples of vanitas, or the fleeting nature of earthly life. Placebo also exhibits the symptoms of decline and decomposition. Upon closer examination, several of the tree’s leafless branches are roughly broken off and metal shelf fungi sprout invasively from its trunk. Like the decaying fruit in a Dutch still life, these traces of the process of deterioration serve as memento mori—reminders to the viewer of the inevitability of death.

Roxy Paine constructs his Dendroids from stainless steel because of the material’s connotations of permanence, preserving the tree in a state of enduring decline.(iii) Living and dead, real and fake, natural and unnatural, Roxy Paine’s Dendroids are full of contradictions. They expose the paradoxical line between art and nature. In the artist’s words, Placebo represents “the idea that someone’s mental state in relation to an object can change that substance.” Isn’t this, after all, a foundational concept of contemporary art?(iv)

(i) Olivia Judson, “Enhancing the Placebo,”New York Times, May 4, 2010, A3.
(ii) Carrie Loughlin and Catherine Anderson, Forest Park (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press and the Junior League of St. Louis, 1986), 15-16.
(iii) Lynn M. Herbert, “Interview with Roxy Paine,” in Roxy Paine: Second Nature (Houston: The Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 2002), 19.
(iv) David Bonetti, “The ‘Placebo’ Effect,”St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 5, 2004.

Looking Upward to Look Outward: Olafur Eliasson’s Your Imploded View


When walking into the atrium of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, looking upward may not seem like the first thing one should do, but taking more than a cursory glance at Olafur Eliasson’s Your Imploded View (2001) is certainly worth the effort. The first time I encountered this work I was visiting the museum for an undergraduate class assignment, and only momentarily noticed the 660-lb polished aluminum sphere hanging from the ceiling as I walked into the building. Now, as a graduate student in the art history department of Washington University, I have the opportunity to see Your Imploded View as I enter the building almost every day, and each time is a completely new experience. The highly polished surface of the 51-inch diameter sphere reflects and transforms the world it inhabits, both activating the museum space and being activated by it. The work not only softly mirrors the physical bodies and artwork surrounding it, creating visual associations with objects in the space, but also encourages various conceptual associations. The large sphere, hanging like a pendulum, calls to mind a wrecking ball in all of its weight and destructive power. Simultaneously, the reflective surface and placement are unavoidably reminiscent of a large disco ball. Such disparate referential imagery encourages complex reactions in viewing it, while the continuously altering reflected landscape compels one to spend time with it and watch it change.

Walking by the sculpture on a regular basis, I cannot help but smile when I glance up and see the distorted artwork and architecture of the museum around me. The view varies depending on the art currently on view and on the presence of others in the space, and my experience varies with it. Consistent, though, is the reminder to be conscious of my surroundings and also of my interaction with it. In this way the work provides a comfortable feeling of awareness and enlightenment. If standing directly under or very close to it, however, the sculpture invites very different feelings. The solid aluminum sphere looms only a few feet above the viewer’s head, suspended by a cable that never seems to the person standing beneath it to be as thick as it should be. The uneasiness felt by the pregnant space between the sphere and one’s body underneath only increases if the sculpture is pushed. As it swings back and forth, tension heightens while the surface constantly changes and disorients. Eventually returning to stillness, though, any possible feelings of trepidation fade away, and the sculpture again becomes an integral part of the museum interior.

It is the power of Your Imploded View to inspire diverse, layered, and vital responses that make seeing it, whether for the first time or almost every day, worth looking up.

Photo Courtesy of Kemper Art Museum, Washington University

Where the air is rarified



Lambert St. Louis International Airport Terminal, interior, wall decoration. Ezra Stoller Archive. Artstor,

A little girl in saddle shoes, feet barely touching the ground, sinks into an Eames DAX-style armchair. The back of her head, covered in a demure cap, brushes one of the many colorful squares of an airy partition shielding coffee shop patrons from Lambert’s main terminal. She is dwarfed by Yamasaki’s soaring arches, enveloped in a sea of geometry—squares of terrazzo underfoot, rectangular panes of glass overhead.

It is 1956. Lambert-St. Louis International Airport is freshly minted the “Grand Central of the Air” by Architectural Forum, a model for future airport terminals. By 1966, just a decade later, it will have expanded (as it was always meant to with initial plans for up to three additional vaults).[ii] Somewhere in the shuffle, it will have lost three of its most memorable assets—two reclining figures by Henry Moore that languidly guarded the main terminal entrance and a forty-eight-foot screen by artist and designer Harry Bertoia composed of hundreds of metal squares, solid foils and intriguing frames suspended on thin chrome poles.  The Moores were yanked in 1970 by lenders Isabel and Howard Baer, after Howard Baer who served on the airport commission from 1954-1970 concluded the airport environment with its constant commotion and construction made the sculptures “almost ill at ease.” [iii]  The Bertoia disappeared during a renovation in the late 1960s, allegedly hacked apart and buried in a south city dump—“three-and-a-half months of continuous work” by a modern master lost.[iv] Albeit achingly brief, Lambert’s golden age of public sculpture must have been beautiful.

In this period, often presented under a haze of nostalgia, TWA agents wore uniforms designed by the Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain. Kitty Hawk diners sat in shiny chrome-legged chairs covered in orange naugahyde.[v] There was no such thing as an oversold flight. You could travel from St. Louis to Los Angeles direct without ever being patted down or patronized or forced to take off your shoes.  What you could not do was have a martini. Due to some shady political negotiations, alcohol was forbidden in St. Louis Lambert-International airport in its early years.[vi]  And although you may have heard of the fresh-faced flight attendants in pill box hats and white gloves, chances are you had never actually laid eyes upon them: “In 1965, no more than 20 percent of Americans had ever flown in an airplane.”[vii] Before the deregulation of the airlines in 1978, tickets were grossly expensive.

So while you are enjoying a beer at the Schlafly Tap Room, examining an electronic ticket whose price (adjusted for inflation) is about half of what is was in the mid-1950s, consider what may turn out to be the true heyday of air travel. Accessibility often comes at the cost of glamour. Thankfully, it is still nearly impossible to suck all the wonder out of air travel. Flying, for most humans, remains a marvel. 

Lambert energetically continues its tradition of public art installation—the luminous glass panels designed by local artists in concourses A and C are a personal favorite—but however unfairly (after all, it’s hard to compete with the dead), I can’t help but yearn for the sense of spectacle that dazzling Bertoia screen must have had. That kind of presence is often best conveyed through sculpture, particularly the forty-eight-foot fluttering variety.   For now, one of Bertoia’s delicate four-foot long maquettes for the screen and Ian Monroe’s 2011 colorful vinyl collage memorializing the fallen artwork, appropriately titled ghost, will have to do. They, as well as Henry Moore’s Reclining Figures, are in the collection of another barrel-vaulted St. Louis institution: Lambert’s loss, I am happy to report, is the Saint Louis Art Museum’s gain.    

Lambert.Henry Moore. Reclining Figure_web

Henry Moore’s Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 1, 1959 and Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 2,  1960 at Lambert St. Louis International Airport.  Image courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum   © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2014 / *

 Ian Monroe_web

 Ian Monroe, American, born 1972; ghost, 2011; vinyl on acrylic; 12 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, The Henry L. and Natalie Edison Freund Charitable Trust  147:2011 © Ian Monroe

[i] Sammy Cahn, “Come Fly with Me” (song lyrics), 1957.
[ii] “Grand Central of the Air. From the ground and from above, its three sweeping cross-vaults extend an air-age welcome to St. Louis. Inside its great room travelers are treated to efficiency and spectacle.” Architectural Forum, May 1956, 106.
[iii] Howard F. Baer, St. Louis to Me, (St. Louis: Hawthorne, 1978), 250-251. The Baers acquired the sculpture for Lambert from the artist in 1961 at the behest of a selection committee that included architect Gyo Obata and Saint Louis Art Museum Director William Eisendrath. Coincidentally, Isabel Baer’s mother Edith Aloe financed Carl Milles’ Meeting of the Waters in front of Union Station, another of St. Louis’s public sculpture gems.
[iv] From an undated list of Bertoia’s expenses in the artist’s archive.
[v] Rolf E. Kuenter of Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber to Harry Bertoia on November 3, 1955. 
[vi] Howard F. Baer, St. Louis to Me, (St. Louis: Hawthorne, 1978), 93.
[vii] Derek Thompson, “How Airline Ticket Prices Fell 50% in 30 Years (and Why Nobody Noticed),” The Atlantic, February 28, 2013.
* Reproduction, including downloading of Henry Moore works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Re-envisioning Richard Serra’s “Twain”

I first encountered Richard Serra’s public sculpture Twain, in 2006 after I moved to St. Louis. I was exploring the city on foot when I approached the silent and seemingly impenetrable steel
monolith.  It felt like the ruins of a post-apocalyptic landscape with marks of a past civilization etched onto the structure’s oxidized metal walls.  As I walked through the austere site towards the plaque that identified the piece, I let out an “a-ha” as I read the name of the artist.  It began to make sense to me why Serra is frequently criticized for creating imposing and intimidating sculpture in unfriendly environments.  Little did I know that eight years later I would be organizing an exhibition of Serra’s drawings related to Twain and culling through archival material only to discover that, back in 2006, I was looking at a shadow of the artist’s original vision for the sculpture’s site.   

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

Serra was awarded his first public commission in the United States by the city of St. Louis in 1974.  A full city block was allocated for the commission, just east of the Civil Courts Building on the Gateway Mall.  It was an opportunity that attracted the young artist 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. 

Sculpture in the early 1970s was defined by site-specificity.  Artists, like Serra, were more interested in integrating artworks into the surrounding environment than creating free-standing sculptures on pedestals. For the St. Louis commission, he imagined a sculpture within a park-like setting that would draw people in off of the street to spend time exploring inside and around the large structure.  The tall steel walls would provide physical refuge from the sights and sounds of traffic when inside the sculpture, while the 2-foot openings between each of the steel plates framed strategic views out towards the surrounding intersections, civic buildings and the Arch. 

The St. Louis project proved to be a challenging undertaking for Serra.  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.   

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

Final approval came at the end of 1981, and shortly thereafter, he began carrying out his plans for the landscaping around the sculpture, which was an integral part of the artwork.   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.  

Serra recognized that it would take at least two years before the trees matured enough to provide shade and character to the site.  Sadly, within that two year period between the sculpture’s dedication in 1982 and 1984, 11 of the 30 trees that had been planted died.  The grass also became patchy and in need of regular watering; the benches and lamp posts were never installed.  An accumulation of graffiti and drainage issues have further diminished its overall appearance.  For the past 32 years, the city has been in charge of its maintenance and care, but ongoing budget constraints have left the Serra Park in a state of limbo. 

The Saint Louis Art Museum is in possession of an important group of drawings by Serra given by the artist, as well as documents relating to the Twain project, thanks to the Arts and Humanities Council and Emily Rauh Pulitzer.  These manipulated photographs and drawings, along with invoices, letters, engineering schematics, architectural drawings, and models tell the story of Serra’s intentions for the city block just east of the courthouse.  As one can observe today, the present appearance of Twain and its surroundings are vastly different from what the artist originally conceived.  With its proximity to Citygarden, the successful new sculpture park run by the Gateway Foundation, perhaps it is an opportune time for the Serra Park to undergo a revitalization of its own.     

Sight Lines: Richard Serra’s Drawings for ‘Twain’ is an exhibition of drawings, photographs and a steel model detailing the extensive planning for Twain. It will be on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum from March 28 through September 7, 2014. 

Ecology of the Pruitt-Igoe Forest


Vacancy is part of the everyday in North Saint Louis where vacant buildings and lots dominate chunks of neighborhoods and interrupt blocks. While living with vacancy can have negative effects on the surrounding communities and the city as a whole, to observe beyond this blight has the potential to inspire dialogue, build community and develop a vision for the future.

The former Pruitt–Igoe site is currently an impressive urban forest that grew over the 33-acres that remained after the housing project was leveled. Through my exploration of the history and space, Pruitt-Igoe began influencing my art practice in 2010. Researching the ecology of the Pruitt-Igoe forest inspired me to transform a vacant site in the Old North neighborhood into a green space to serve as a safe haven for bees with plenty of sources of nectar from growing flowers. This action created an ecosystem on this vacant site, and now serves as a living classroom for community art and educational workshops. Once residents, visitors and passers-by could see all this activity taking shape, the site itself began to engage the public by encouraging conversations and interactions with the potential to strengthen the community. Observing vacancy in this manner can begin to reveal interventions like this as public art.

Creative Placemaking, Socially Engaged Practice, or Community-based Art can all be used to describe an artist working within a community to address issues or needs. Much like our lot in Old North, the Pruitt–Igoe site today can also be viewed as public art by redirecting the conversation surrounding its history to both memorialize the past and embrace the future. Together as a city we have the ability to transform one of the worst failures of public housing into a leading example of revitalization.

Juan will be one of the panelists at the upcoming Monument / Anti-Monument Conference, April 10-12 in St. Louis.


Photos by Juan William Chavez

Daniel Chester French’s “Peace and Vigilance”


There is a hidden gem of public sculpture just two blocks north of the outstanding offerings at Citygarden and Serra Sculpture Park in downtown St. Louis. Beautifully restored and displayed in the central atrium of the Old Post Office at 815 Olive Street, Daniel Chester French’s Peace and Vigilance (or American at War and Peace) is a link to St. Louis’ cultural and architectural past. With a highly prolific career that includes two of the most recognizable sculptures in American art history, the stalwart champion of the American Revolution the Minute Man (1874) and the iconic statue of the seated President Abraham Lincoln (1920) in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., French stands amongst the most respected names in nineteenth-century American sculpture.

One of three commissions that French accepted for federal buildings in three major American cities (Philadelphia, Boston, and St. Louis) designed in the French Second Empire style by architect Alfred B. Mullett, the St. Louis commission was to be located at the base of the quadrangular dome of St. Louis’ United States Customs House and Post Office, which opened its doors to the public in 1884. With no specification as to subject or theme, French began work on Peace and Vigilance in November 1876, and the half-scale plaster model of the figural group was delivered in April 1878 to the renowned Philadelphia stone carvers William Struthers & Sons, who executed the full-sized composition in marble. Flanking an imposing bald eagle with outstretched wings representing the United States, the allegorical figure of Vigilance to the eagle’s left clutches her respective attribute, the sword, and appears tense and prepared for action as she vigorously scans her surroundings, while Peace on the right loosely grasps her symbol, the olive branch, as she stares dreamily at the street below with her head resting languidly on the back of her hand. The arrangement of the group certainly owes a debt to Michelangelo’s tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici in the Medici Chapel in Florence, which French no doubt experienced firsthand during the eighteen months he spent working in the studio of the esteemed American sculptor Thomas Ball in Florence between 1874 and 1876.

Weathered by over a century of exposure to the environment before it was brought indoors and replaced by a cement replica in 1990, Peace and Vigilance is now accessible in a way it never was before. Installed just feet away from the viewer and lit by the enormous skylights above, this remarkable statuary group gives one the sense of what it would have been like to float above the streets of St. Louis a century ago, where the larger-than-life expressions of powerful figures surveyed the emerging city’s rising skyline. 

Thanks to the websites of the Old Post Office ( and Jamaica Plains Historical Society (, as well as the highly informative book Sculpture City: St. Louis by former Post-Dispatch art and urban design critic George McCue.

Photo by Bradley Bailey