Balancing Tradition and Innovation: Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh region is presently characterized by a dynamic mix of high technology (especially in the fields of medicine, computer science, and artificial intelligence), environmental and preservationist awareness (much adaptive re-use of older buildings and a strong interest in green architecture), and a steadily increasing regard for the role the arts can and should play in civic life. Even as preparations are underway for the 250th anniversary, in 2004, of the French and Indian War, a partnership between private firms and the Port Authority of Allegheny County is working to develop the Maglev, a magnetic levitation transit system in which trains on elevated tracks could reach speeds of up to 250 mph. At the same time a spirited and eventually successful battle by historic preservationists to save numerous downtown buildings from destruction, ongoing plans for enhancing the city’s riverfront, and the unveiling of several high-profile public art projects have added to the city’s well-known “livability.”

Marlene Aron, The Distance from Breath to Sunrise, 1998. Detail of site-specific floor and wall installation at the Hewlett Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University, total floor size 35.5 x 15.5 ft.

Pittsburgh’s lively character is being celebrated and enhanced this June, from the 6th through the 10th, by an infusion of sculptors and sculpture: the 19th International Sculpture Conference and (in)form, city-wide exhibitions, installations, and events taking a closer look at sculpture, performance, and technology. (in)form, an effort by APT (Art+Performance+Technology) Pittsburgh, has facilitated and generated programming to complement the conference.

Visitors arriving through Pittsburgh International Airport can enjoy two works brought over from the old airport—a Calder mobile and a tapestry by Akiko Kotani—as well as works commissioned specifically for the widely acclaimed facility, which opened in 1992. Although steam no longer rises in Robert Morris’s stone and concrete garden, the pieces by Jackie Ferrara, Michael Morrill, Alan Saret, Peter Calaboyias, and Maren Hassinger remain intact. They are among the 70-plus works that ring the city, in the mountains, valleys, rangelands, and towns without whose raw materials, agricultural products, and ready supply of labor Pittsburgh could never have achieved what she did.

Northeast from the airport, at Allegheny County’s Hartwood Acres, are 11 works by such artists as Lila Katzen, Betty Gold, Fletcher Benton, Ron Bennett, Charles Ginnever, and Clement Meadmore. A little further to the north and to the east, but still an easy drive from the city proper, a number of works that are mostly but not entirely from the Philip and Muriel Berman Collection may be seen at the state universities at Slippery Rock, Edinboro, Clarion, and Indiana. These include pieces by Jerry Sisko, Tom Sternal, Earnest Shaw, James C. Myford, and Harry Gordon. At Indiana, a changing roster of work by emerging artists such as Tom Pettibon, Craig Barron, and Jen Pomplun also appears.

Anne Wolf, Earth Cradles, 1997. Site-specific work on the grounds of Chatham College.

The planned Maglev line will terminate southeast of Pittsburgh, in Greensburg, where the Westmoreland Museum of American Art offers a mix of traditional and contemporary work in a beautifully refurbished structure. Numerous works by Josefa Filkosky appear on the grounds of Seton Hill College, also in Greensburg, and at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in nearby Loretto. A sharp drop south then takes art lovers to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob, whose sculpture park includes works by Claes Oldenburg, Anthony Caro, Andy Goldsworthy, and Harry Bertoia.

Kentuck Knob is near both Fallingwater and Fort Necessity, where the youthful and inexperienced George Washington blundered his way into the war that would soon rage in what is now the heart of Pittsburgh, as the French and the British struggled for control of the continent. Heading back toward the scene of all that action leads through areas touched by the Whisky Rebellion and to the last of the Pittsburgh area’s state universities, on the Monongahela River at California. This is the legendary Mon Valley, whose coal, iron, steel, glass, and ceramic industries, and whose vast contribution of both technical skill and grueling labor, helped shape the nation’s future. At California 14 sculptural works, mostly from the Berman Collection, are linked to both a new science and technology center and a historic National Register structure by a new park designed by Richard P. Rauso Landscape Architects. As the Mon flows toward the city, brownfields merge with encroaching woodlands, reflecting the fact that the state is more heavily forested now than at the beginning of the 20th century.

James Turrell, Danaë, 1983. Drywall, paint, ultraviolet, and incandescent light, permanent installation at the Mattress Factory.

The northward-flowing Monongahela River and the southward-flowing Allegheny River meet at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River, the water route to the Mississippi. “Sculpture at the Point,” which is to say, the place where the rivers join, has long been a feature of Pittsburgh’s summer scene, presented annually as part of the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Noteworthy contributors have included Michael Pestel, Yoshi Wada, and Ursula von Rydingsvard, and this year, Magdalena Abakanowicz is the featured sculptor.

Now the use of the rivers as a backdrop for art has been augmented by The Studio for Creative Inquiry’s designation of these waters as a starting point for environmentally directed artistic research. By drawing in a range of allied scientists and other professionals, this Carnegie Mellon University-based group seeks to extend the practice of inquiry it employed at the Nine Mile Run Watershed to the city’s most prominent environmental feature. The goal is to research water quality, botany, biodiversity, and public use within the river systems of Allegheny County, and to do so in ways that are at once practical and technologically advanced. That this project complements ongoing work by the Riverlife Task Force, a privately funded group charged with developing a master plan for land use, public art, trails and recreation, and parks along the riverfront, bodes well for the city.

Kaersten Colvin-Woodruff, The Brown Eggs Taste No Different, 2000. Egg shells, molasses, and mixed media, 29 x 13 x 13 in.

In the meantime, on both sides of the Allegheny, two important projects are well underway. The Allegheny Riverfront Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., in collaboration with Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil, adjoins the downtown and forms the northern border of the “Cultural District,” which is overseen by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. There, a number of galleries and performance halls have restored vitality to the blocks they occupy. One key venue is Wood Street Galleries, whose offerings are characterized by work that is neither “fine” art nor media art, but a convergence that engages technology, at times with humor, and sometimes with introspection or politicization. The June 2001 exhibition features Nam June Paik. Because this gallery shares a building with a subway stop, it also provides easy access to the more traditional artworks that enliven the transit system—pieces by Sol LeWitt, Romare Bearden, Jane Haskell, the team of Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, and Albert Paley. The Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Gallery can also be counted on for strong exhibitions.

The contribution of Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil to Riverfront Park’s two-tiered design is thoroughly integrated with the landscape architecture and includes a cast bronze railing and the imprint of bulrushes in some of the concrete sidewalks. That this park stands as one portion of a riverfront park system proposed by Frederick Law Olmsted almost 90 years ago adds to its significance. The pragmatic purpose of this project was to simultaneously complement planned improvements to the existing roadway and encourage a move toward residential housing in the downtown, but its aesthetic value, because of the Olmsted connection, is immeasurable.

Tom Sternal, Large Granite Forms and Benchform, 1989. Two granite and marble benches installed on the grounds of Slippery Rock University.

A quick hop across any of the circa 1925 Three Sisters Bridges (6th, 7th, or 9th Streets) lands one on the northern side of the Allegheny River, where viewers can regard this park from a distance and also wander or drive through the areas soon to be occupied by the North Shore Riverfront Park. This 100- to 200-foot-wide, 1.5-mile-long strip of ground will include both open spaces and garden spaces, where woodlands will be permitted to establish themselves in some spots. It begins near the Carnegie Science Center, where a light work by Shashi Caan and Matthew Tanteri adds nighttime drama, and runs eastward past the Andy Warhol Museum to the Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge. Currently under design by EDAW, it will include work by sculptor Jack Mackie and others. Vivid plantings and serial repetition in some areas will provide a conceptual link to the Warhol Museum, to which viewers can easily walk from the Cultural District by taking the 7th Street Bridge. Although Warhol’s rootedness in a narcissistic realm of personality, personal indulgence, and the cult of stardom does not always satisfy, the genius of his early intuitions—his ability to see that the banal and mass-produced artifacts of Western culture define our lives in very profound ways—is indisputable. By exhibiting work by such artists as Adrian Piper, Michael Parekowhai, Ravinder Reddy, and Yinka Shonibare, the museum has demonstrated its intention to carry on the discourse on popular culture that Warhol helped initiate at more complex levels. These artists address, each in a different way, elements of human behavior, attitudes, and predilections that existed long before the time period that constituted Warhol’s subject.

Bill Woodrow, Ship of Fools: Discovery of Time, 1986. Metal cabinets, existing kitchen, wood, and paint. View of installation at the Mattress Factory.

Also on the North Side are the Mattress Factory and the Foreland Street Studio. The former acts, in its own words, as a research and development lab for artists and provides a variety of installations, ranging from the perceptual to the technological to the sheerly beautiful. Its permanent collection includes a garden by Winifred Lutz that makes use of both found and deliberately constructed architectural elements. The Foreland Street Studio, which specializes in printmaking, has shown work by a number of well-regarded sculptors and is one of Pittsburgh’s better known alternative spaces. Another is Brew House Space 101, on the South Side, where some of the area’s early glassmaking firms were once located. A strong tradition of working artistically with glass continues to this day. The Society for Contemporary Craft, which exhibits both utilitarian and sculptural examples and maintains a permanent collection, is preparing to double the size of its space. And the Pittsburgh Glass Center is preparing to open in the Friendship area this summer. Glass sculptor Kathleen Mulcahy and artist Ron Desmett were the driving forces behind this project, which aims to attract master artists to Pittsburgh. In the meantime, an overview of traditional glassmaking from southwestern Pennsylvania continues at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, about three blocks from the Society for Contemporary Craft.

Harry Gordon, Sacred Dog, 1990. Pressure-treated ash, view of work as installed on the grounds of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

The Clay Place in Shadyside has long provided work in that medium, some of it sculptural, and the WAD Clay Institute on the South Side, next to the Brew House, has added a new dimension to the gallery scene there. Galleries are scattered throughout the city, with no single dominant area of concentration. In recent years, the fastest growth of arts-related activities has occurred in the Garfield, Friendship, and Bloomfield neighborhoods, in the city’s East End. The Penn Avenue Arts Initiative has been established there to coordinate events, encourage continued growth, and assist artists in purchasing and renovating spaces by helping them obtain technical advice and financial assistance. The nature of the city is such that urban renewal, affordable housing, historic preservation, and encouragement for the arts coalesce not only in the Penn Avenue Corridor but in other areas as well. The Mattress Factory, for example, began blazing a trail through the historic Mexican War Streets on the North Side many years ago in much the same spirit. The Hill District, adjacent to Pittsburgh’s downtown, and the birthplace of the city’s legendary jazz scene, is another area that could benefit from such cooperative undertakings. The South Side and the Strip District (the warehouse and produce district) are currently furthest along in terms of combining night life, the arts, Pittsburgh’s traditional working class ambiance, and the city’s newfound high-tech leanings into vibrant urban collages. Just outside the city proper, Aliquippa Embraces Art has established itself as a successful festival that includes both alternative exhibition venues and street activities. Meanwhile, Artists and Cities, Inc., a nonprofit organization established in 1994, develops real estate specifically for use by working artists and their families. Their Spinning Plate Artist Lofts, which opened in 1998 in Friendship, stands in a three-story Art Deco structure and includes three dozen live/work spaces. The organization’s second project, the Ice House Artist Studios, is in Lawrenceville and, like the Plate, is located in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although loft spaces are ubiquitous in most urban centers, their use by artists in Pittsburgh has been a relatively recent development. Artists and Cities has also embarked on a new project that will fund and facilitate public art projects in city neighborhoods.

Tom Sternal, Large Granite Forms and Benchform, 1989. Two granite and marble benches installed on the grounds of Slippery Rock University.

The art scene’s heavy hitter is, of course, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland, where a large and ever-growing collection and a variety of curatorial specializations bear on issues related to sculpture in one way or another, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly or by extension. The museum’s “Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets” traced the history of the metal and its contribution to the blossoming of modernity and explored present-day examples in architecture and design. “Folds Blobs + Boxes: Architecture in the Digital Era” demonstrated how digital technology and today’s “paperless” studios have enabled the large-scale realization of any shape that can be conceived. The implications for artists committed to either object-oriented sculpture or to installation art, yet desirous of exploring new technological approaches, are obvious.

Rumor has it that planned improvements to Schenley Plaza, which lies between the Carnegie and the University of Pittsburgh, will set the stage for a possible campus of sculpture extending from Pitt to the Carnegie to Carnegie Mellon University, but such discussions are still at an early stage. Both universities have interesting gallery schedules, as does Chatham College, just up Fifth Avenue. Chatham already exhibits temporary and ephemeral work on its grounds, including such earth and process- oriented artists as Anne Wolf and Marlene Aron. Two artists with ties to the college, Ann Rosenthal and Steffi Domike, helped form ARCC (Artist + River + Community + Connection), a group of artists and arts advocates that stresses grass roots initiatives and community-integrated arts projects with regard to the river ecosystem. Other members include Indigo Raffel, John Stephen, and Brooke Smokelin. Meanwhile, Chatham’s Rachel Carson Institute continues the work of one of Pittsburgh’s most illustrious daughters, whose warnings about the state of the environment speak directly to both ARCC and the Studio for Creative Inquiry.

Josefa Filkosky, Soaring Form in Orange, 1992. Painted steel, 132 x 108 x 24 in. View of work as installed at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

The city-owned park that surrounds the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, not far from Chatham, is also the site of temporary sculpture installations. The Center’s focus is on the interplay of technology and popular culture, and it has organized or brought in a number of outstanding exhibitions in that vein. It also shows a good deal of work by artists who live in this area, in both group and one-person presentations. The Center’s time-honored Artist of the Year exhibition has been updated by a major change of format. In the future there will be one-person shows by both an emerging artist (this year, Rick Gribenas) and an established one. For 2001, it’s Paul Glabicki, whose installation entails all new digital imagery. (This contrasts with what Artist of the Year shows have previously entailed, for they have traditionally been more like retrospectives.)

The Center and the park are also the site for “Sculpture Now,” the current exhibition by the Pittsburgh Society of Sculptors, one of the most active sculpture societies in the country.

Thaddeus Mosley, The Mountaintop, 1987. Limestone on 4-foot base, 6 x 1.5 x 1.5 ft. View of work as installed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading Center, Carnegie Library.

In The New Sculpture 1965–75: Between Geometry and Gesture, Richard Armstrong, who is presently at the Carnegie, was referring to the 1960s when he discussed sculptors who “shared a willingness, even a need, to reinvent form (often using novel and unexpected materials) and to invest that form with meaning. There was a common desire to democratize the privileged position of the artist and to supersede the artifice of art.” That those impulses are still in play, 30-some years after the extraordinary period Armstrong was commenting upon, cannot be denied. The reaching out toward a broad and diverse community of participants, as well as toward specialized disciplines that used to be considered antithetical to the liberal arts, is a positive and ongoing factor in today’s artistic practices. What has changed in recent years has been the incredible innovations triggered by the digital revolution, combined with increasing sensitivity to the very problems Rachel Carson warned of in 1962, in her landmark book Silent Spring. It is appropriate that here in Pittsburgh, a city that has always balanced tradition with innovation, so many artists are cognizant of and immersed in both realms simultaneously. Armstrong goes on to refer to “the greatly expanded sense of permission that is the 1960’s most salient legacy.” Today those artistic permissions are greater than ever before imagined, and Pittsburgh’s art institutions and organizations are committed to doing them justice.

Mary Jean Kenton is an artist who lives and works near Pittsburgh.