In Chicago they say, “I’ll meet you under the Picasso.” In Philadelphia the Clothespin is a geographic term. In Grand Rapids they hold an annual festival around “the Calder.”
Pablo Picasso’s monumental untitled cubist sculpture in Daley Plaza, Claes Oldenburg’s towering homage to the humble household laundry utensil, and Alexander Calder’s big, bright red, organic La Grande Vitesse are all iconic public sculptures that initially evoked ridicule but have gone on to become beloved landmarks. To rise to the level of “landmark,” a sculpture has to be more than just large and visible. It needs a visual hook, something that commands public attention. Cities are littered with derivative “plop art,” whose unimaginative abstract forms seem dropped into urban settings as afterthoughts that draw little attention. Even relatively great art can fail to engage the public. Kenneth Snelson’s Coronation Day—located in Buffalo’s City Court Plaza on Niagara Square—is a visually and technically dazzling work that nevertheless seems somehow dwarfed and cheerless against the massive City Court Building and surrounding monuments.
Finally, there is a viable contender. Located on the campus of the Albright-Knox Gallery, smack in front of its Elmwood Avenue entrance, the sculpture by Topanga Canyon-based artist Nancy Rubins goes by the official name, Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Monochrome I, Built to Live Anywhere, at Home Here, 2010–11, but it’s obviously destined for a popular nickname. “Look for the canoe tree,” people might say as a way of telling visitors how to spot the Albright-Knox. “Turn right at the flying boats,” Buff State students might text their friends trying to locate Rockwell Road.
Rubins’s eye-grabbing sculpture rises to the level of landmark because the aluminum canoe and steel cable assemblage captures the imagination. To begin with, the very idea of a work of art constructed largely of utilitarian objects creates a bit of cognitive dissonance as functionality is sacrificed for visual gratification. Rubins, who has long been noted for her trussed and welded sculptures made of airplane parts, house trailers, and other scavenged objects rich with social iconography, has lately turned to boats as her institutional materials of choice. Like airplanes, boats have an aerodynamic quality and carry metaphoric associations of fluidity, passage, and the human body. The resulting modular constructions—including the one at the Albright-Knox—evoke the imagery of flight. The sculpture appears to be lifting off from the earth, straining diagonally against the thin, slanting welded base structure that seems more tether than support.
As tempting as it is to find representational associations in Rubins’ work (it’s a tree; it’s a flower; it’s a bomb blast), the artist deals more in the visual language of abstract expressionism. It’s key to note that Rubins made many decisions about the arrangement of the boats while she was on the site supervising construction. Scale is her most obvious visual tool, but movement, repetition, and other design principles contribute to a work that manages a delicate balancing act between chaos and poetic grace. Here’s a must-glance moment for drivers passing through Buffalo’s Museum District.
Bruce Adams is a WNY-based artist, educator, and writer.