From “Vision of Peace” to “Spoonbridge and Cherry” on the Green Line in the Twin Cities

VisionofPeace2During my latest visit to Minnesota, I jumped on the Green Line, the splendid, new street car line in the Twin Cities, that ties together Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

It cost me 75 cents, a real bargain, for an almost hour-long trip from behind the splendid Saint Paul train depot to Target Field, Minneapolis baseball stadium. At both ends, as I continued my search for Minnesota’s Scandinavian legacy, I found two remarkable pieces of art, both made by Swedish immigrants, which have become iconic symbols of each city.

In Saint Paul’s City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse’s Memorial Hall stands Carl Milles’s “Vision of Peace.” Unveiled in 1936, it drew on a Native American ceremony that Milles, who was born in Sweden but spent most of his adult life in America before he returned and, in 1955, died in Sweden, had once witnessed in Oklahoma. Milles originally called it the “Indian God of Peace,” but it was renamed “Vision of Peace” at a special ceremony in 1994 involving the major Minnesota Native American tribes. It’s made of white Mexican onyx, is 36 feet tall, and weighs 60 tons. It fills the hall and is truly magnificent.Green Line

At the other end of the line, after an enjoyable, albeit a bit slow, ride past the State Capitol and along eclectic University Boulevard with auto dealers, supermarkets, the excellent Midway Used Bookstore, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, the Finn/Sisu store for cross country skis, and everything else you might want to find, the street car meanders through the University of Minnesota campus, over the Mississippi River and past the quickly rising Minnesota Vikings football stadium, into downtown Minneapolis and its “Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg and his Dutch born wife  Coosje van Bruggen. The sculpture is located in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden next to the Walker Art Center and it is just as fun to see in winter as in summer.

SpoonandCherryOldenburg came to America as a young boy and grew up in Chicago, where his father was Sweden’s consul general. He and his wife, who died in 2009, created the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” in the mid-1980s.

Like Milles’s “Vision of Peace” in Saint Paul, it dominates the surroundings as it lies there right in the middle of the Sculpture Garden with the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. And like with Milles, Oldenburg’s work of art has become a icon in the Twin Cities and it is, of course, yet another example of Minnesota’s Scandinavian connection.

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Claes Oldenburg – “the pop patriarch” – now at MoMa

I have to head up to New York soon to check out two exhibits opening today at MoMa, the Museum of Modern Art, with work by Claes Oldenburg, the”pop patriarch,” and a “pop master,” according to two recent articles in the New York Times.

Oldenburg, now 84 years old, has made New York his home since 1956, but he was born in Stockholm, Sweden and grew up in Chicago. Today, he is one of the most prominent living Swedish-Americans, and I love his work.

The two exhibits, ”The Street and the Store” and ”Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing,” are described under the headline, ”Window Shopping With a Pop Patriarch” and in an interview with the artist under the headline “Dark Roots of a Pop Master’s Sunshine,” Oldenburg says:

“It all sort of coalesced as the ’60s came. It was magical, when you think about it, because everything seemed to start all of a sudden.” With the election of John F. Kennedy “there was a feeling that the country was going to come to life.”

As to Oldenburg’s art and longevity, the paper writes:

“He’s not seeing America’s popular culture through the eyes of someone born deep inside it, the way Andy Warhol did as a poor kid from Pittsburgh. Rather, Mr. Oldenburg came at that culture as a bit of an outsider, with a European’s eyes, and always saw it as bigger than it was and more full of magic than such ordinary subjects had a right to be.”

It’s “Nordic Cool” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

Yes, it’s big and Nordic and it kicks off tonight for a whole month with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo and with Danish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen performing Nordic music by Sibelius, Alfvén, Grieg, Leif and Nielsen.Nordic Cool 2013

Never before, neither in the U.S. nor in Europe, has such a broad Nordic culture initiative taken place, and in this case it was a Kennedy Center’s initiative, with support from the five Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland).

– Yes, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity for the Nordic countries to showcase what is best in Nordic culture, said Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth at a press briefing today at the Swedish Embassy, ​​House of Sweden, here in Washington, DC.

All the Nordic countries, plus Greenland and the Faroe Islands, have turned up in full force with all they have to offer in music, theater, film, food, dance, architecture, art and design. From Sweden, except for the Royal Philharmonics, there is the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s production of “Fanny and Alexander”, performances by Anne Sofie von Otter, workshops on Nordic literature, not the least detective novels, and films like Jan Troell’s newest, “The Last Sentence.”

It will be interesting to see how this major Nordic venture is received by the American audiences. In any case, it’s a great chance for them to learn a lot about what makes northern Europe tick, and to tick so successfully.

Cool.

An architectural treasure in smalltown Indiana

On our way recently by car to Chicago, through West Virginia and Kentucky, our destination was the little town of Columbus in southern Indiana, on the flat farmland between Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.

Now, I usually stay away from the word “unique.” It is overused and few things are really unique. But the town of Columbus, Indiana is unique. With only 44,000 inhabitants it has become an architectural treasure. Six of Columbus’ modernist buildings have been declared National Historic Landmarks and little Columbus ranks sixth in America after the big cities of Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington DC as a premier architectural destination.

It all started when the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church opened during World War II. A bank and the stunning North Christian Church by his son Eero Saarinen followed, by then thanks to local engine maker Cummins Inc. and the vision of its CEO J. Irwin Miller and his new Cummins Foundation. Miller, born and raised in Columbus, clearly valued good architecture and good art and saw its importance to the quality of life of his home town, for his Foundation offered to pay the architects’ fees, first for the schools and then for any new public building in town.

Many a leading architect heard the call: I.M. Pei, Gunnar Birkerts, Robert Venturi, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier, Robert Stern. Their work, office buildings, schools, fire stations, can be found all over town.

The Commons, designed in 2011 by Koetter Kim & Associates, with its gigantic climbing tree, is what must be one of the great indoor children’s playgrounds in any downtown.

The global headquarters of Cummins Inc. was designed by Kevin Roche and houses an engine museum with a stunning garden, created by landscape architect Jack Curtis. J. Irwin Miller lived until he died in in 2004 in a home designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957, with Alexander Girard’s interior design and Dan Kiley as landscape architect — all legends in American architecture.

Columbus is also the scene of great public art. Outside Pei’s library stands Henry Moore’s “Large Arch,” in front of The Commons is Bernar Venet’s red “2 Arcs de 212.5°,” in front of the splendid modern offices of the local newspaper The Republic, designed by Myron Goldsmith is “Birds of Fire” by Ted Sitting Crow Garner, and Dale Chihuly’s magnificent “Yellow Neon Chandelier and Persians” hangs in the Visitor Center.

It just goes on and on. Go there! There is nothing like it in all America.

Watts Towers are part of Los Angeles’ art treasures

The Watts Towers are one of America’s most remarkable works of art, not only because where they are situated, but also because of how they came about, an old Italian immigrant’s life’s work, threatened many times over, but now formally protected as a National Historic Landmark.

So a tour of Los Angeles’ museums during the ongoing, city-wide exhibits called “Pacific Standard Time” — about L.A. art between 1945 and 1980 — should include a visit to Sabato “Simon” Rodia’s mighty works in Watts, that troubled, largely black, and poor, part of Los Angeles.

The trip south from downtown on the huge 110 freeway towards Long Beach is a journey away from the wealthy and glamorous Los Angeles to another world at East 107th Street, in South Central Los Angeles. There, in 1965, the Watts riots lasted five days killing 34 people, injuring and arresting thousands and damaging and burning down almost a thousand buildings. In 1992, Watts was hit again by riots following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, resulting in over 50 deaths and a billion dollars in damage.

It is a quiet and almost deserted morning on East 107th Street with the exception of a few visitors, like us, and a couple of police officers, who stand and eat their sandwiches next to their car. The 17 different works of art, the tallest almost 100 feet high, dominate the neighborhood. They are the result of Simon Rodia’s work from 1921 to 1954, next to his little home on the small plot of land he had bought. The towers are surrounded by well-kept, often colorfully decorated small homes.

In 1955, Rodia gave it all away and left Watts, never to return. He died ten years later.  Over the years, his life’s work has been threatened countless times, but the Watts Towers still stand, now formally called “The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park” and managed by the city of Los Angeles’ cultural affairs department in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A small art center with a shop and a gallery are also part of the park.

It’s an stunning sight, this remarkable symbol of one man’s dogged efforts to create something beautiful of what he found, rocks, pipes, glass, ceramics, pottery, bottles, tiles, all put together with mortar and steel wires in a huge, colorful mosaic, an example of “folk art” that has become historic.

Rodia, born in the village of Ribottoli 1879, called his creation “Nuestro Pueblo” – our city. “I build the tower people like, everybody come,” he said.

“Pacific Standard Time” — about Los Angeles’ modern art

Los Angeles, today, has world-class museums – that’s easy to forget in the sun on the beaches from Redondo to Malibu.

And right now it’s more exciting than usual to visit the city’s many museums because of a large, joint effort about the Los Angeles art and design scene between 1945 and 1980. Called “Pacific Standard Time,” it involves 60 cultural institutions in Los Angeles and up to Santa Barbara in the north, Palm Springs to the east, and San Diego in the south. What an abundance of exciting and inspiring exhibits about how Los Angeles became a world leader in the arts!

We only managed to visit three of the museums during our recent visit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Getty Center, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Wish we had more time…

LACMA is just getting better and better since we lived in Los Angeles ten years ago. Enlarged and renovated, it is so pleasant, and the exhibition “California Design, 1930-1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way'” reflects the city’s exciting development in art and design, especially after World War II. Swedish-born Greta Magnusson Grossman, who moved to Los Angeles in 1949 and died there in 1999 and who became a leading name among the city’s architects and designers, participates with three of her designs.  She said once:

”California design is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions…it has developed out of our own preference for living in a modern way.”

One of my favorites is otherwise the mobile home, “Clipper,” from 1936, by Wallace “Wally” M. Bryan, after Pan Am’s Clipper. Has there ever been a more stylish mobile home?

The Getty Center, in the Santa Monica Mountains, is always worth a visit in itself… to take the little tram up the mountain and spend part of the day high above the city among the museums many treasures and gardens followed by lunch in the sun, is a peaceful excursion, away from it all. Getty’s three shows, “Crosscurrents in LA Painting and Sculpture, 1950 – 1970,” “Greetings from LA: Artists and Public 1945-1980,” and “From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column” make the visit infinitely more interesting than usual.

And MOCA, in the middle of downtown next to Little Tokyo, with its avantgarde “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974 – 1981” gives an excellent picture of the frenzied activities in the Los Angeles art scene during those turbulent years, between Richard Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, the two California presidents. The exhibition takes its name after a song by the local punk band X, about how the California dream and the optimism of the hippie years in the late 60s turned into the disillusioned years after Watergate and Vietnam.