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Karin Jane Langer

Site Unseen: Public Sculpture In Modern Plazas

        The symbiotic relationship between sculpture and architecture has often been overlooked in twentieth century building schemes. However, following Bauhaus director Walter Gropius’s tenet that “there is no difference between the monumental and decorative arts,” sculpture was adopted by International Style modernists as an extension of the building itself—one that interacts with the public in a way that the tectonics glass and steel architecture does not. Slab-style buildings and urban renewal efforts provided large, open plazas in city centers, as well as a place for modern and contemporary sculpture in the public realm. As a result, abstract (conceptual or nonrepresentational) art forms have become important fixtures in the urban landscape. Public sculpture in Modernist plazas and other contemporary environments charge the site with their presence, creating a unique space as well as a symbol for the government, corporation, institution, or individual that owns it.

The longevity of public sculpture is subject to many of the same factors that affect any other structure in an urban environment. Moreover, because of sculpture’s symbolic nature, it is also under the jurisdiction of corporate boards or government agencies—like the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art in Public Places Program—that encourage and manage the placement of public art. Unlike a building, however, public sculpture is usually regarded as far more disposable, replaceable, or mutable than structures. Public sculpture, often an integral part of building design, is therefore among the most threatened landmarks in a city.

There are only a few provisions that prevent the modification or destruction of public artworks. Most intriguingly, the Visual Artists Rights Act, a copyright law protecting the artist’s work, provides the right “to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.”  The efficacy of this law is questionable, however, especially when it is only effective during the artist’s lifetime.

Politics, favoritism, economics, public reaction, acquisitions and subsequent demolitions, use and abuse of the art as a public amenity, the design process (including both the integration of a sculpture the design of the building and the durability of an artist’s materials), and the popularized notion of site-specific artworks are common factors that endanger public sculpture. My thesis explores these phenomena, offers some case studies, and suggests some cultural constructs that might prevent Modern and contemporary public sculpture from demolition by neglect, distaste, or misuse.



           Karin Jane Langer received her BA in Art History from Carleton College and worked at the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden before moving to Chicago. Karin has discovered her inner Mies and worships all things of glass and steel from the MoMo, PoMoMo, and ContempoMo.


Thesis Advisor: Rolf Achilles, Adjunct Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Historic Preservation       

Thesis Reader: Richard Friedman, Adjunct Professor, Historic Preservation; partner, Neal, Murdock & Leroy, LLC, Chicago

Second Reader: James Zanzi, Professor, Sculpture





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