Introducing Art & Place

Phaidon editor Rosie Pickles previews our forthcoming book on Site-Specific Art of the Americas
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Touring exhibitions may come and go but there's something about the permanence of site-specific art, in galleries, parks, in subway stations and squares that often trumps works in white cubes across the world. Our new book Art & Place Site-Specific Art of the Americas, celebrates the most spectacular, uplifting and outstanding examples of this kind of work. Whether created for indoor spaces, or urban, desert or mountainous settings, art made for a specific place is some of the most adventurous, bold and exciting art that we can ever experience. 

Phaidon put together a group of experts who selected over 500 artworks from all periods and arranged them geographically across 15 countries that span the Americas, from Canada to Argentina. The book features works by internationally recognised artists - Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, murals by John Singer Sargent for Boston's Public Library, and Diego Rivera's epic History of Mexico mural in Mexico City among many others - as well the art of ancient cultures, such as the Nasca lines in Peru or rock art in California. Here, the book's editor, Rosie Pickles, explains how she and her colleagues whittled down their initial list, what kind of artist is drawn to make these works, and why the book might function as a kind of adventurous sightseer's guide.

 

Garden Valley, Lincoln, NV, Michael Heizer
Garden Valley, Lincoln, NV, Michael Heizer

You drew up a database of thousands of site-specific works, before getting the list down to the 500 or so works that made it into the book. Difficult?

It was very difficult because there were so many artworks to consider! Site-specific pieces can be visited in sculpture parks and museums, but they can also be found in open fields, adorning opera houses and libraries, buried in caves, beside highways, in city plazas, and even in deserts, so the scope of the book is extremely wide - overall we considered almost 5,000 works.

 

Federal Plaza, Chicago IL, Alexander Calder
Federal Plaza, Chicago IL, Alexander Calder

Initially we invited our team of specialists and academics to nominate the artworks that they thought we should include. We then researched each of the proposed works in detail, evaluating the relationship between the work and its surroundings, as well as the artist's intentions and its place in art history. We also had to consider the geographic and historic spread of works in order to compile a balanced short list.

 

Dia:Chelsea, New York, NY, Dan Flavin
Dia:Chelsea, New York, NY, Dan Flavin

Why focus solely on site-specific art in the Americas?

We considered a global overview, but the scope was just too wide. It was better to restrict it to a smaller number of works, and a specific region, so we could examine each of the works in more detail. We are planning to start work on a similar volume covering European site-specific art soon, with the other volumes covering the other world regions to follow in the future.

 

Union Church of Pocantico Hills, Mount Pleasant, NY, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse
Union Church of Pocantico Hills, Mount Pleasant, NY, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse

The book takes in cave paintings as well as art from the present day. Are there common elements between the works?

Yes, each of the works featured in the book was chosen because its meaning or subject is particularly closely linked to its location. Although the intentions of the prehistoric and contemporary artists featured here and the purpose of their artworks vary dramatically, in each case the political, social or geographic aspects of the location frame the viewer's experience and interpretation. They all create a sense of place and provide a reflection of our ever-changing societies. It's this particular quality that makes these works of art some of the most accessible and involving on the planet.

Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, UT, Robert Smithson
Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, UT, Robert Smithson

Do site-specific works tend to be made by a certain type of artist?

It's difficult to categorise the type of artist who makes site-specific art as this type of work can be created in any medium and it has been made from the earliest instances of human expression right up to the present day. Having said this, artists who make site-specific works often have a real interest in engaging with a community or communicating a specific message. Often they are also designed to be accessible, in every sense, because they're in a public place and will be seen by people who might just walk through a certain square every day, and who won't look at art in the same way as regular gallery goers do.

 

AXA Equitable Building, New York, NY, Scott Burton, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein
AXA Equitable Building, New York, NY, Scott Burton, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein

How is the experience of going to see site-specific work different from viewing a work in a gallery?
 
Art brought out of traditional settings is always exciting; it can also be moving or overwhelming. Some of these works are remarkable for their monumental scale, which of course would never be possible in a gallery setting, while other artworks create immersive experiences from the site in which they are situated, as in Dan Flavin's mammoth neon installation at Richmond Hall in Houston, Texas. Many artists seek to create a personal refuge or place of respite in our bustling cities and invite quiet contemplation- as seen in the works at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington - while the vast and yet intricate decoration of churches such as Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca, Mexico, were specifically designed to stun and awe the congregations sat before them.

 

Detail from The Detroit Industry fresco (1932- 33) by Diego Rivera
Detail from The Detroit Industry fresco (1932- 33) by Diego Rivera

Who do you think will be the biggest fans of this book?

It will appeal to anyone who is interested in art of any kind, because it includes so many different types of works. A huge variety of styles and movements are covered, as well as countless different techniques and media, from cave paintings and contemporary sculpture to murals, stained glass, reliefs and land art. Some works are very well known and are popular tourist destinations such as Watts Towers in Los Angeles. A few can only be visited on prearranged tours, like the Rothko Chapel in Houston or Walter De Maria's Lightning Field in New Mexico. Others are hard to access, perched high in the Peruvian Andes or, like the Totem Poles of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay, in a far-flung and deserted corner of British Columbia. The book provides a unique opportunity for everyone to see these remarkable pieces in their surroundings but it can also serve as a guide for the more adventurous sightseers. It's perfect for anyone wanting to know more about the artworks they pass every day in cities such as New York, Chicago, Mexico City or Caracas.


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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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