Thursday, January 31, 2008

Keeping time in the snow, along Lake Monona near the Monona Terrace

Keeping Time in the Snow
Public art is often the art that people love to hate, and finding new ways to mock it seems to inspire many Americans to new heights of creativity. One work that has certainly inspired its share of abuse, some of which I quoted in this post last summer, is "Timekeeper," the 1983 installation by American sculptor Robert Curtis.

Partly it's the location: Sandwiched into a narrow strip of land (Law Park) between Lake Monona and a busy thoroughfare, for most people the sculpture is something they observe in passing, when it's easy to mock -- "What the heck was that?" -- since it's hard to tell what it's about in a quick drive-by. It needs to be experienced by walking in and around it.

Another reason it doesn't get more respect is that Robert Curtis (born in 1948) is not a Nationally Known Famous Artist. In fact, as I found when I researched my earlier post, he's damn near unknown, at least on the internets. Consequently, there's no Robert Curtis industry of gallery owners, critics, professors and other authorities to explain why his art is important, why it will dazzle you with its beauty and improve your soul. Or to make you feel like a loutish philistine if you don't know and appreciate the art of Robert Curtis. And so it languishes -- art to be seen, and forgotten, at 45 miles per hour.

However, I've loved this installation ever since it went up. Maybe it's just my contrarian sympathy for the artistic underdog, but I think it's more than that. This is how I put it last summer.
Among other things, I really groove on Timekeeper's playful allusions to such Neolithic "timekeepers" as the monument at Stonehenge -- the observatory of its time that marked the crucial passing of the seasons. To me, the upright rod is suggestive of a sundial. The circular concrete arc suggests the circular shape of other prehistoric monuments (also emphasized by the stone in the center) and recalls the movement of planets around the Zodiac with the passing of the seasons. And above all, Timekeeper is playful. Under its own bright blue bit of stylized, sculpted sky, it seems to invite the viewer to participate in some mysterious, whimsical ritual. Plus, you can sit on it.
This year is the installation's 25th anniversary. I hope it prompts people to take a new look, but I'm not holding my breath.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of public art, have you been following the "Bronze Fonz" controversy that's been brewing [add rimshot here] in Milwaukee? Just curious what your take is. It seems like a done deal now that Visit Milwaukee has apparently raised the money.

Madison Guy said...

Hadn't heard of it till you mentioned it (some of us are so insular here in Madison). Just checked it out on the web. Yikes. Could be worse, although not much worse -- at least it's not a giant, phallic stack of footballs.