IN MY LIBRARY
In My Library: Maya Lin
By Barbara Hoffman
April 3, 2016 | 1:29pm
Maya LinPhoto: Robert Miller
In 1981, Maya Lin was a 21-year-old Yale student when she won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her conception — a black stone wall carved with the names of more than 57,000 fallen soldiers — suggests that their loss wounded the earth itself. “The common thread that runs through all of my work is the love and respect I have for the natural world,” the mother of two writes in “Maya Lin: Topologies,” a monograph covering more than 30 years of her art and architecture. Fresh from a family trip that included roaming a forest in Panama and a mountain climb in Italy, Lin will speak at LIVE from the New York Public Library on April 6. Here are four books that have become part of the brick and mortar of her life.
In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
I read this when I was studying architecture. It talks about the nuanced beauty hidden in spaces that are not much seen in bright daylight. It also talks about how, in Japanese culture, there’s beauty to be found in everyday, often overlooked objects and how things of humble origin can [yield] aesthetic delight.
Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler
Robert Irwin is a conceptual artist who often uses our perception of subtle differences in light to create paintings, installations and sculptures that play with our ability to experience subtle edges of visual experiences. Weschler’s book [shows] the way in which art can bring you to a point of pure empathetic connection.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
A beautiful wander in which Solnit describes the many ways in which one can lose oneself — and in so doing begin to find something you may not know about the world and yourself. The nature of experience should require the art of letting go to find part of yourself you do not know.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
This is about the current mass species extinction this planet is experiencing. Since I’m so focused on this subject as part of my last memorial, What Is Missing?, I found Kolbert’s book a brilliant and moving account both of the nature of extinction and firsthand, specific accounts by scientists about this worldwide biodiversity crisis.
Once Inspired by a War, Now by the Land
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
ON a gray, unusually muggy October day the artist and architect Maya Lin was showing a visitor around “Wave Field,” her new earthwork project at the Storm King Art Center here. The 11-acre installation, which will open to the public next spring, consists of seven rows of undulating hills cradled in a gently sloping valley. Ms. Lin clambered nimbly up and down them, regarding each nook, cranny and blade of grass with something of a proprietary air.
“It’s part of a study that started with looking at a simple water wave,” she explained en route, “and how does the wave begin or end.” Given that she was working with land, not water, she added, “I was almost afraid to start it.”
From a neighboring hill came the delighted screams of children at play: Ms. Lin’s daughters, India, 11, and Rachel, 9, and one of Rachel’s friends.
Seen from afar the piece does suggest an expanse of ocean waves that have been frozen in place, as well as many other things: snowdrifts, a Zen moss garden, perhaps a cluster of the American Indian burial mounds that can be found in the hills of southeastern Ohio, where Ms. Lin grew up.
With its sense of having arisen naturally from the earth, the earthwork also recalls Ms. Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the design for which catapulted her to stardom and notoriety in 1981, when she was a 21-year-old senior at Yale.
Yet as soon as you walk into the piece, whose earthen swells range in height from 12 to 18 feet, your experience of it changes remarkably. At first, standing at the bottom of a slope, it may look craggy and insurmountable. But in scaling it — which turns out to be relatively easy because of the rough surface — you become keenly aware of the earth itself, currently a patchy mix of topsoil, short grass, clover, white daisies and yellow-flowered partridge pea, which attracts swarms of monarch butterflies.
“This stuff was just rock-laden soil,” Ms. Lin said, stooping to finger the plants, which were seeded by hand. “It will all end up being field. You don’t want it to turn into a golf course. You basically want whatever is around here naturally to take root. You’re after something that doesn’t look premeditated and too cultivated.”
Then she happened across a large tunnel burrowed into the side of a wave. “Oh my God!” she cried. “A groundhog hole!”
India suddenly scrambled into view, shouting, “Mommy, we counted five of them!”
Ms. Lin laughed and then paused, reflecting, “I think we’ll cover it up?” But within moments she had changed her mind. “I think you have to let it be what it’s going to be,” she said.
In a sense that has been her mantra throughout the project.
Eight years ago, when she was first invited to visit Storm King to start thinking about making a piece, she found herself strangely attracted to an overlooked area known around the art center as the gravel pit. Located on the property’s southwestern edge, about 100 feet beyond Andy Goldsworthy’s “Storm King Wall” (1997-98), it was a reminder of what Storm King looked like in 1960, the year it opened.
Back then much of Storm King’s landscape consisted of acres of gravel that had been mined from the surrounding fields in the 1950s in connection with the construction of the New York State Thruway. Over the years the art center used this rocky material to shape its grounds, creating the seemingly natural hills and valleys that now are dotted with sculptures and site-specific works by artists like David Smith, Isamu Noguchi and Mr. Goldsworthy.
“It’s a man-made landscape, bringing gravel in and reshaping it,” said David R. Collens, the director of Storm King. “That’s the untold story about the art center.” And as soon as Ms. Lin saw the pit, he said, “her eyes lit up, and that was it for her.”
Ms. Lin said: “I’ve tended to create works on the edges and boundaries of places, so the work becomes less of a centerpiece. I’m very interested in exploring works that begin to own the environment.”
By the time she finally proposed the piece to Storm King’s board in 2006, she had already completed two smaller-scale “Wave Field” earthworks, the first at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the second for the courtyard of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. federal courthouse in Miami. “I always knew that I wanted to culminate the series with a field that literally, when you were in it, you became lost inside it,” she said, “so the waves had to become much larger than you.” To her the gravel pit seemed perfect for this concluding piece, which will also be Storm King’s first earthwork.
Because the site was officially a mine, Mr. Collens had to secure permission from the state Environmental Conservation Department to reclaim it as an artwork. The department has strongly supported the project. Because Ms. Lin is “a committed environmentalist,” as she put it, she was intent on using minimal intervention to turn it into an artwork and making the most of what was already there.
That meant gently grading the site and using its largest rocks to create an underlying structure that would provide the piece with natural drainage, a project she accomplished with the aid of the landscape architect Edwina von Gal. The waves and the bowl-like valley in which they rest were largely built from the gravel and earth in the pit itself as well as a berm that had shielded the site from view. Here Ms. Lin relied heavily on Frank Tantillo, a local landscaper. “You need to find a contractor who’s sympathetic and really supportive,” she said, “because they’re basically sculpting the landscape with a bulldozer.”
By the time the piece opens to the public next spring, it will be shielded from the Thruway by about 270 young trees — a mix of maple, oak, sycamore and other local natives. That’s how many trees Ms. Lin’s studio staff has calculated it will take to offset the fuel and energy consumed in making the piece, including the artist’s own frequent car trips from New York. “I might actually look for more trees that can take hotter weather and make them more predominant,” Ms. Lin said. “I’m a firm believer that global warming is happening.”
And then there are the grasses. Chosen by Darrel Morrison, a landscape restoration expert who consults on all the tall grasses planted at Storm King, they are a native mix that should require little maintenance or watering. By spring tall plants like deertongue and Canada bluegrass will have taken over from the ground cover that now holds the topsoil in place. At that point, Ms. Lin said: “The grass will flow in the wind and feel more like water. Although of course you’re not trying to recreate water. It begins to be its own formal play.”
In a sense Ms. Lin’s entire career has been interplay among what she regards as three separate strands: she is an architect and an artist, and she also designs memorials (she likes to call them anti-monuments) that fall somewhere between the two. She has been pursuing all three directions since she finished the Vietnam memorial in 1982. That project transformed her into something of an instant celebrity, and she was offered a number of architectural commissions as a result. But Ms. Lin, who in person is strikingly friendly and unassuming, does not seem to have let the experience turn her head.
“There’s a part of me that’s oddly shy,” she said. “And I tend to take my time. I didn’t want to produce work that wasn’t quite ready.” So she decided to “maintain course” by earning a master’s degree in architecture at Yale.
While studying the art of building design in graduate school, Ms. Lin found herself spending more and more time in the sculpture studios of the Yale art department, working with her hands. “I was called an architect, and I loved building,” she said, “but at the same time there was this other side of me that was beginning to differentiate itself.”
Soon after graduating, she designed her second monument, the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which was dedicated in 1989. By 1993 she had completed her first major building, for the Museum of African Art in SoHo, which is now defunct.
Since then she has worked consistently in all three areas, often developing ideas for one sort of project while working on another. In 1993 she created her first site-specific sculpture for the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Called “Groundswell,” it consisted of 40 tons of broken tempered glass poured into snowdriftlike piles around the museum’s exterior walls. From this came the idea for her first earthwork, “Wave Field,” in Michigan, which she completed in 1995. That in turn led her back to the studio, where for a time she focused on making sculpture.
Making sculpture as well as drawings and maquettes is at the heart of everything Ms. Lin does, as becomes clear when you enter her studio, a 2,600-square-foot loft in the heart of SoHo. Much of the space is occupied by her assistants, who carry out the mathematical and topographical data collection, analysis and computer modeling that are crucial to her work. But by the doorway there is a small area where, she said, “I literally get to disappear and make the sculptures.”
The room is full of small artworks, most of which suggest the earth in some form or another. There is also a group of colorful asteroidlike objects made from discarded (and nonrecyclable) plastic toys and bottle caps. “It’s really important that I get to make things by hand,” Ms. Lin said. “I think when you’re working with bulldozers, when everything you’re doing is translated through a fairly large-scale machined operation, just to be able to come back here is really crucial to my creativity.”
She also makes some work at home, an apartment on the Upper East Side that she shares with her children and her husband, Daniel Wolf, a photography dealer. “I’ve always made work in my bedroom, basically,” she said.
Many of her larger sculptures and installations can be seen in “Systematic Landscapes,” an exhibition that opened at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle in April 2006 and is now at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It includes three focal installations, all made in 2006. “2 x 4 Landscape” is an earthworklike mound with a pixelated appearance that was built from two-by-fours.
“Water Line,” based on remote Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic, is a topographical rendering built with aluminum tubing and suspended from the walls — a kind of three-dimensional drawing — so that visitors can walk beneath it. Then there is “Blue Lake Pass,” a model of the Colorado mountain range where Ms. Lin and her family spend summers. Made from particle board, it is cut into cross-sections that visitors can walk among. While making these works, Ms. Lin said, her overall impulse was “to take the aesthetic of ‘Wave Field’ and bring it indoors.”
In the past Ms. Lin has always conceived of her different career strands as separate. “I think it may be the only way I can keep myself balanced,” she said. Although she is also working on a commission for the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown in Manhattan, she is reluctant to talk about such projects and her artwork in the same breath. “It kind of confuses people,” she said.
Yet recently she has been coming around to the idea that the strands may be intertwined. “My greatest fear 15 years ago is that the different parts weren’t in dialogue with each other,” she said. “But whether it’s art, architecture or memorials, I realize now that all my work is intrinsically tied to the natural landscape around us.”