California to Cranbrook: What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Everyone who has endured a Michigan winter agrees that a Michigan summer is the universe’s way of making it up to you.  Having completed my first winter at Cranbrook, then, it seems a shame that I missed the glory of summer in the Mitten State.   I was called back to my home state of California to celebrate my mother’s birthday (a milestone year that she wouldn’t appreciate having publicized on the internet) and to enjoy a few solid weeks of family reunions, state-wide road trips, and delicious, delicious tacos.  I traded the sun and heat of Southeastern Michigan for the fog and chill of Northern California, but at the end of the day I still managed to find a little bit of Cranbrook in California.

We spent my mother’s birthday running around her hometown of San Francisco.  We wandered the city, took a rowboat out around the lake in Golden Gate Park, and enjoyed the novelty of wearing wool jackets in August.  Eventually we headed over to Crissy Field to get a good look at the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was there that I found Cranbrook, California-style.

Mark Di Suvero's Dreamcatcher (2005-2012) at Crissy Field, 2013.

Mark di Suvero, Dreamcatcher (2005-2012) at Crissy Field, 2013.

Eight massive Mark di Suvero sculptures – the largest installation of his work ever staged on the West Coast – stand scattered around Crissy Field, their bright steel beams shining like beacons against the backdrop of the San Francisco Bay.  Curated by SFMOMA in partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, the exhibition celebrates both di Suvero’s 80th birthday and the end of a year-and-a-half long celebration of the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th anniversary.   Situated in the shadow of the bridge, di Suvero’s outsized sculptures are dwarfed by San Francisco’s engineering marvel, yet they clearly have a relationship with the bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge opened to pedestrians for one day on May 27, 1937.  The next day, the bridge officially opened for motorists.  AP/Redwood Empire Association.

The Golden Gate Bridge opened to pedestrians for one day on May 27, 1937. The next day, the bridge officially opened for motorists. AP/Redwood Empire Association.

The Golden Gate Bridge debuted in 1937, linking the most northern point of the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County and spanning the opening of the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.  It was through this opening, and under the Golden Gate Bridge, that a seven-year-old Mark di Suvero passed in 1941.  Emigrating from China with his Italian parents, he grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and continually found the bridge to be a source of inspiration.  The curatorial team at SFMOMA notes the quality of the relationship between di Suvero’s sculptures and the bridge, highlighting both the shared industrial material (red-painted I-beams) as well as the significance of the steel to Crissy Field, a decommissioned military airfield.  di Suvero’s sculptures seem to fit into the landscape at Crissy Field, slotting into space right alongside the towers of the bridge and the yachts out on the bay.   They are in harmony with the world around them, and when one walks among them one feels as if they belong here.  Their angularity matches the rough waves and low, pebbly coast, while their stark coloration softens under the grayness of a foggy San Francisco day.

Mark di Suvero, For Mother Teresa, 1998. Photo, Cranbrook Art Museum.

Mark di Suvero never attended Cranbrook or served as a teacher here, but his work marks the campus in the most literal sense possible.  Towering above the lawn in front of the Art Museum, For Mother Teresa is an exercise in contrasts:  the fixed nature of its red steel against the movement of the suspended form and its teepee-like accumulation of angled beams against the 90-degree rigidity of Eliel Saarinen’s architecture.   At 60 feet tall, the sculpture stands even taller than the Art Academy Library.  An impressive feat in any context, For Mother Teresa’s height takes on new meaning when considered within the context of Cranbrook’s architectural and sculptural history.

Carl Milles' Orpheus Fountain at Cranbrook Art Museum.

Carl Milles’ Orpheus Fountain at Cranbrook Art Museum.

The fountain that welcomes visitors to the Cranbrook Art Museum was designed and installed at Cranbrook in 1938 by Swedish sculptor and Cranbrook Artist-in-Residence Carl Milles.  Prolific and influential, Milles’ work weaves its way through the fabric of campus, and the look and feel of Cranbrook is determined by his sculpture as much as by Saarinen’s buildings.  And yet when it came to the Orpheus Fountain, Milles’ work took a backseat to Saarinen’s architecture.   The original version of the Orpheus Fountain, which stands before the Stockholm Concert Hall and was completed in 1936, features a sky-high Orpheus at the center of the fountain.  Cranbrook’s Orpheus Fountain, meanwhile, is disarmingly Orpheus-less – when it became clear that Orpheus’ height would obstruct the view of Saarinen’s museum and library peristyle, Orpheus was eliminated from the design.

Carl Milles works on the central Orpheus figure for Stockholm's Orpheus Fountain, 1934.  Cranbrook Archives.

Carl Milles works on the central Orpheus figure for Stockholm’s Orpheus Fountain, 1934. Cranbrook Archives.

It is remarkable, then, that di Suvero’s For Mother Teresa was allowed to do what Milles’ Orpheus Fountain was not.   Interrupting the roofline of the Art Academy Library, For Mother Teresa stands as a physical representation of modern and contemporary art’s move toward bigger, more monumental installations. At the same time, however, I see it as a symbol of Cranbrook’s evolution.  All organic institutions must change in order to flourish, and Cranbrook’s willingness to let modern art move beyond the strictures put in place by Saarinen’s architecture is proof of the Academy and the larger community’s dedication to fostering an ever-evolving understanding of art and learning.

Mark Di Suvero, Old Buddy (For Rosko), 1993-95, at Crissy Field. 2013.  The tiny people and the white fluffy thing at the base are my brother and sister-in-law and their dog, Booker.

Mark di Suvero, Old Buddy (For Rosko), 1993-95, at Crissy Field. 2013. The tiny people and the white fluffy thing at the base are my brother and sister-in-law and their dog, Booker.

So now let’s return to that blustery day in August, when I stood on the grass before the Golden Gate Bridge and looked up at di Suvero’s massive sculptures.    After a year spent absorbing the history and art of Cranbrook, I had become accustomed to the look and feel of the environment.  It became easy to overlook the weighty feel of Saarinen’s architecture, the mythic whimsy of Milles’ sculpture, and even the dramatic presence of For Mother Teresa.   Standing on a former military airfield in San Francisco, looking out at the bay and the array of red sculptures laid out before me, I was reminded again of how significant a place Cranbrook is.  In the heart of a campus steeped in history, carefully conceived and meticulously built, a giant steel sculpture was permitted – even welcomed – to rise stories above the venerated architecture that shapes the environment.  And sure, an argument can be made that For Mother Teresa is situated on the lawn farther away from the buildings than Milles’ Orpheus would have been.  Yet the contrast still struck me.  In the semi-wild yet industrial environment of Crissy Field, di Suvero’s sculptures sit harmoniously in their surroundings.  In the calm, careful setting of Cranbrook, For Mother Teresa interrupts the environment, jarring the eye and reminding us to take a second look at the world around us.

A different view. Mark Di Suvero, For Mother Teresa, 1998.  Cranbrook Art Museum.

A different view. Mark di Suvero, For Mother Teresa, 1998. Cranbrook Art Museum.

– Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow

One thought on “California to Cranbrook: What I Did on My Summer Vacation

  1. thank you for sharing your experience! While in Stockholm this summer I saw the Orpheus Fountain and marveled it’s greatness and strength. now I know the history.!

    Like

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