The sculpture park is a relatively recent art destination, really flourishing in the 1960s and 70s when artists explored the use of the American landscape as a medium for public art. Yet now the United States is dotted with these little art oases, from those that sprawl over rural acres to those embedded in the urban environment.
Art Parks: A Tour of America’s Sculpture Parks and Gardens by Francesca Cigola published by Princeton Architectural Press compiles 57 of these in descriptions and photographs, with another 46 in an appendix. This is not a book for in-depth discussion of the meaning of these parks in American culture or the deeper art historical context, but a thorough, straightforward guidebook. As Cigola, an Italian architect and writer, defines it in her introduction, “an art park is a hybrid: a merger of art and landscape.” She goes on to divide up the guide into “leisure spaces, “learning spaces,” and “collector’s spaces,” which is not a bad idea as the book includes everything from General Mills’ impressive outdoor corporate collection at their Minneapolis headquarters to the Pratt Institute Sculpture Park in Brooklyn, two outdoor art areas set up for very different purposes ideologically, but have the connection of having art that interacts with the open air.
And there is always this play with atmosphere and weather with the outdoor sculpture garden that, when done well, is a benefit as much as a challenge. For example, the Nature-Based Sculpture Program at the South Carolina Botanical Garden in Clemson, South Carolina invites artists to build on-site sculptures with natural materials that are meant to be temporary and erode over time. There are also the sculptures out at the Benini Studio and Sculpture Ranch in Texas where the “main requirement is that the sculptures be large enough to stand out in the vast Texan landscape, and that they be solid enough to handle the atmosphere and climate, which have ruined several sculptures in the past.” Obviously, art parks are not for the weak.
Many of the listings should be familiar, such as the nearly 500 acre Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, that graces the book’s cover with its rolling hills, and the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and terrace of the Chicago Institute of Art even make it in. Still, you’re likely to make some armchair travel discoveries. I was unfamiliar with Isamu Noguchi’s “California Scenario” that has an abstracted California landscape among the skyscrapers of Costa Mesa, California, with mounds of rocks and a sliver of a creek meandering like the landscape of an alien planet. There’s also Mary Miss’ “Field Rotation” jarred into the earth like the stamp of an old fortress at Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University in Illinois, as well as the surreal 20 gardens mixing landscape architecture and distortions of nature on the nine acres of the Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, California. And then there’s the too often overlooked, in my opinion, Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis.
The photo quality of the book varies, and you only get the quickest facts about the individual works of art, but as a starter into the art parks that have sprung up in American cities and in the middle of nowhere, it is a great resource. And that’s just what a guidebook should be.
Art Parks: A Tour of America’s Sculpture Parks and Gardens by Francesca Cigola is available from Princeton Architectural Press.