Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Once Madison's most controversial work of public art

Madison's Most Pathetic Work of Public Art Is an Oxymoron
The notorious Richard Haas Olin Terrace mural is an oxymoronic work of public art because it is no longer really public at all, and even when it was more public than it is now, it still wasn't all that public in the first place. (Best viewed large. Click through to Flickr and click on "All Sizes" above the image.)

It always was a drive-by mural along a busy highway -- one painted in a detailed, neo-trompe l'oeil style that made it especially difficult to take in from a moving vehicle, let alone read all the allusions to Madison history it contained. In its original incarnation the work was at least visible from Law Park, across the road -- though at that distance, the details were hard to see clearly without binoculars. Then the Monona Terrace was built.

MuralViewers-smbwMotorists now speed by in a dark tunnel, with even less of a chance to see the dimly-lit mural (it's brighter in the photo than in real life). There's no permitted pedestrian access at all (if you walk in, as I did, you're technically trespassing on railroad right of way). And in what one might call a post-postmodern irony, the trompe-l'oeil columns are now fighting for attention with the real columns supporting the overhead Monona Terrace walkway to the Capitol Square, which also cuts the top of the original mural from view.

It wasn't meant to be this way. Madison spent $67,000 on this baby, back when that was real money. It was a rare foray into the tricky territory of commissioning a work of public art by a trendy, nationally-known artist. And make no mistake about it -- Richard Haas was nothing if not trendy. Check out this over-the-top review by NY Times architectural critic Paul Goldberger:
Richard Haas has, in all but name, become an architect. He has not gone to school and got a degree, but no matter: Mr. Haas's art, which has long taken architecture as its theme, has now expanded to the point where it plays as much of a role in the cityscape as many real buildings.

Perhaps Mr. Haas should really be called a building doctor. The Haas murals that have been painted on blank walls of buildings in cities like New York, Boston, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Miami are extravagant and inventive architectural fantasies; they rescue us from the ugliness of empty walls and, in so doing, transform the cityscape around them.
I dunno. I guess you had to be there, back in the eighties, the heyday of the postmodern boom in architecture, back when "building doctors" like Haas were going to transform the face of American cities with their playful designs combining elements of fantasy, pop cultural references and ironic commentary.

Back here in Madison, the Haas mural was controversial from the beginning. A 2004 Wisconsin State Journal story about public art in Madison recalled the flavor of the controversy.
In 1985, Madison's program to put art in public places commissioned Richard Haas, an internationally known artist living in New York, to design a mural.

It should have been regarded as an artistic coup for CitiArts, Madison's arts program. Instead, it prompted two years of public bickering, with the mural at the center of a mud-slinging mayoral race between Mary Kay Baum and the incumbent and winner Joseph Sensenbrenner.Ironically, and emblematic of CitiArts' struggles, that $67,000 mural - the most the city has ever paid for an artwork - is now largely hidden by another controversial project, the Monona Terrace. What's left of the mural is in the only unlit portion of a tunnel on John Nolen Drive.
The people objecting to the mural at the time weren't just a bunch of ignorant hicks, or at least, not all of them were ignorant hicks. Some questioned the choice of artist and wondered if we were being sold a bill of goods. Some thought its location would make it a graffiti target (which proved to be true early on -- though now it's so forgotten the taggers don't even bother.) Many wondered why anyone would pay that much money for a complex work that could really only be viewed in passing from speeding cars. And a few far-thinking Cassandras actually raised the Monona Terrace issue. Wasn't it likely, with all the proposals we've had over the years, that someday something would be built here that would cover up the mural? Ten years later, it was.

I was never fond of the mural. The neo trompe l'oeil style struck me as pretentious and didn't fool -- or even please -- my eye. Since Haas was born in Spring Green in the shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright, I sometimes wondered if he was acting out some unconscious -- or perhaps even conscious -- rivalry with Wright's heritage, taking a kind of visual revenge. ("Ha! Take that, you overrated crackpot -- at least I got mine put up, which is more than you can say.") Who knows.

But that was long ago. The mural has now led the moist, subterranean life of a mushroom for more than half its lifetime. I'm starting to actually feel sorry for it. No art, even mediocre art, should be treated with so little respect and left to waste away in the dark.

Update: Stuck in traffic, a driver's eye view.

1 comment:

Citizen Reader said...

I'll say this: I'd a million times rather look at the mural than the godforsaken pile of ugly concrete containing ugly carpeting and few lake views that is the mistake on the lake, that urban travesty that cost a hell of a lot more than 67 grand: aka the Monona Terrace Convention Center.