Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Destroying Art Will Always Hurt Me

In reference to his site specific work Tilted Arc in New York City, Minimalist artist Richard Serra stated in an interview with The New York Times that “to remove the work is to destroy the work.[1]” In the early eighties, Tilted Arc was at the center of a controversy that eventually led the government to dismantle and tank it.

Tilted Arc, Richard Serra, 1981, sculpture, steel, New York City (destroyed). Photo © 1985 David Aschkenas.

This past summer, I caught Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was struck by one drawing in particular titled “The United States Government Destroys Art (1989).” The drawing, part of the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, is made using paintstick on two sheets of paper arranged to form a slit at the center.

RICHARD SERRA. The United States Government Destroys Art, 1989. Paintstick on two sheets of paper; 113 x 215 ¼ inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Like much of Serra’s drawings, when the drawing above is experienced in person and up-close, it looms over the viewer, it makes us aware of ourselves and of the space we’re in.  Because these drawings are different shades of black with varying degrees of textures, they provoke an intense palpable feeling that lingers on forever.

From left, works from 1989: “The United States Courts Are Partial to the Government,” “No Mandatory Patriotism” (center) and “The United States Government Destroys Art.” Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times. Installation view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Just like with Serra’s Tilted Arc, a similar battle has been unfolding in Downtown Hartford, Connecticut since the late seventies. Steps away from the Wadsworth Athenaeum, is Carl Andre’s Field Stone Sculpture (1977), another site-specific “earthwork” threatened with insensitive changes like the removal and the rearranging of some of its components.

Aerial photo of Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture (1977) in Hartford, CT

The sculpture comprises of 36 boulders arranged on a triangular parcel of land bordered by Main Street, Gold Street and the Ancient Burying Grounds. The stones are all local and are positioned on the ground without looking like much intervention happened. This is the point of many of the works born out of the Environmental and Site-Specific Art movement that emerged in the 1960′s. The works of this movement were made accessible to everyone and often encouraged public interaction. Field Stone Sculpture is accessible by everyone and encourages user interaction.

Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture (1977) in Hartford, CT. Photo Credit: Anulfo Baez

Field Stone Sculpture has not survived without polemics. Very much under appreciated by the people of Hartford, the work is seen by many as a testament to the power of time, and by others as a field of “rocks.” Do the people of Hartford not know that this is Carl Andre’s largest work and only public commission?

On a recent fall trip to Hartford, I spent time exploring the adjacent historic burying ground and contemplating the stillness that surrounds Field Stone Sculpture.

Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture (1977) in Hartford, CT. Photo Credit: Anulfo Baez

In spite of the hustle and bustle of Downtown Hartford, the siting of the work, the scale and arrangement of the boulders on the land allowed my mind to wander around freely. Field Stone Sculpture could not fit in more perfectly in this location. The handsome Colonial Revival buildings that surround it and the nearby parks designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted create a wonderful “natural” and man-made contrast in this section of Hartford.

On October 30, 1963 an editorial in The New York Times lamented the terrible loss of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, a grand Beaux Arts building designed by the prestigious firm of McKim, Mead and White. “…we will probably be judge not by the monuments we build, but by those we have destroyed” were the words that have now shaped the current preservation movement. Should Field Stone Sculpture in the near future suffer the same fate of Tilted Arc, Penn Station and countless other long lost monuments, Harftord will not be judge by the monuments it will builds, but by those it has destroyed.

It would be a terrible shame to alter Field Stone Sculpture because by simply altering it, would be to destroy it.


[1] Grace Glueck, “What Part Should the Public Play in Choosing Public Art?” New York Times, February 3, 1985, 27.