Monday, September 23, 2013

Living with art in Madison's new Central Library

Kicked Upstairs
I love the way art has been integrated into the new Madison Central Public Library. That includes Hieroglyph, one of my favorite works of public art in Madison. It has been kicked upstairs, where it keeps a watchful eye on  the roof garden of the new Central Library. The iconic abstract sculpture stood at the entrance of the old library, but there's no room at ground level for the sculpture, which a lot of folks hated and a smaller band of admirers, myself included, loved. I still do, and it's great to see it on public display again.

Public Art Then and Now
Two works of public art that are separated by nearly five decades can be seen side by side in the new Central Library. In the roof garden there's the 1964 sculpture, Hieroglyph, by artist O. V. Shaffer. The abstract work occasioned a lot of negative commentary by shocked Madisonians at the time. A typical comment:
"Yesiree. I'm glad to see the good taste of Madisonians again comes to the fore. I’m speaking of course of the controversy aroused by the proposed city library sculpture. Now, I'm no artist, but like many of my neighbors if I don't know art I sure do know what I want in front of my new library, and this incomprehensible blob of metal isn't it."
On the Madison Public Library's website there's are stories about the history of MPL. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you'll find more about the Hieroglyph sculpture and people's reactions at the time. I love it, and the work now has more friends, but at the time it was created, it had many detractors

On the inside to the right, there's Stacked, a 2013 work by Niki Johnson, a sculpture installation made of book ends from the old shelves in the Madison Public Library. In contrast to the polarizing reactions that greeted the Shaffer sculpture, everybody seems to like Johnson's recent work. What's not to like? It's colorful, cheerful and fun. Many of us remember wandering the stacks and finding these book ends at the end of a row of books we were looking at. It speaks of history in a playful way.  And it has a marvelous tactile quality that is hard to convey in a photo.

History Repurposed

Attitudes toward public art seem to have changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. In 1964, in the heyday of abstract art, there seemed to be a wider gulf separating the art world and the general public. The Internet and other media have opened up the world. It's much harder to shock people today. Pretty hard to shock anyone these days without extreme violence, death or explicit sex being involved -- and sometimes not even then.

At the same time, artists seem to have found ways of meeting the public halfway without compromising their art or cloaking it in deliberate obscurity. Stacked is a beautiful work of art that works on many levels -- color, form, abstraction, symbolism being just a few. At the same time, it speaks to everyone about the library and its history in ways that everyone understands.

I'm glad the two works are so close together in their beautiful new home. And that's not all. Art is integrated throughout the renovated building. There's a wonderful new gallery space with great lighting, and there are wonderful visual surprises to delight the eye wherever you turn. All that, and books too!

Congratulations to everyone who made it happen.