Mary Miss’s South Cove
Mary Miss belongs to a generation of New York-based women artists whose work first was recognized in the 1960s and ‘70s. In conjunction with such sculptors as Jackie Winsor and Alice Aycock, Miss made her way as a land-based installation artist of genuine creativity and intelligence, merging sculpture, architecture, and landscape design in projects notable for their freshness and originality. Beginning her career in the mid-1960s, Miss first created elemental forms that tend to emphasize the viewer’s relations with the sculpture, as happens with Tar Cone (1966) and Grate (1966). These works are, as Miss comments in her website, “stripped down, skeletal”; made from unglamorous materials, both works assert an esthetic that repudiates the veneer in favor of a rougher content.
Although the two sculptures exist in dialogue with the simple forms of minimalism, they cannot be said to exemplify the movement. Instead, they work toward an experience that enlists the viewer’s interaction with the form, rather than shutting down that interaction, as happens often with minimalist art. This concern for the viewer would move Miss more and more toward a public-spirited art, one in which installations, environments, and architecture construct a language that fully encompasses the viewer. It is based on a philosophy that is partly political in nature—the social connections made in her art develop a response to living in which democracy becomes estheticized. This does not mean that the political implications of Miss’s art are lessened or found to be decorative; in fact, they are made stronger by the high quality of the work she has created for decades.
Still, it must be said that the early work Miss did as a sculptor has determined her basic orientation toward art. This work is abstract, emphasizing the physical presence of the object over the theoretical; politics do not make an entry into the reality of her work of this period. Ladders and Hurdles, from 1970, are exactly that—objects that have remained untouched except for their collection and display within a public space. Stake Fence, also from 1970, demonstrates a real understanding of wood as material; the stakes cross over a kind of fence consisting of a running horizontal bar supported by verticals of lumber. Here, in these two sculptures, the viewer begins to feel that Miss is advancing toward a more architectural understanding of sculptural style. The objects function in a way that diminishes their beauty—in favor of intellectual awareness of the body in relation to an organized physical structure.
These beginning pieces of what must be described as a major career show us that Miss began in a highly sophisticated fashion, without any of the missteps that can characterize early work. She was a full-fledged sculptor from the start. At the same time, it is clear that Miss’s achievement in the remarkable outdoor projects represents a vision that fully engages the physical presence of her audience, who is often required to move from one component to the next, not only in South Cove, but as early as 1973, with Battery Park Landfill, a temporary environmental sculpture in New York, consisting of five elements spaced fifty feet apart. In this land work, in the middle of each billboard-like panel a bit of an empty circle is diminished, so that the sculpture visualizes something like a column of air being slowly driven into the ground. Time, a necessary element of the experience of this piece, shows us that Miss wants the ongoing somatic involvement of her audience—in ways that sustain both a contemplative stance and an interaction that challenges the viewer by coordinating elements that define his experience of the art.
Veiled Landscape (1979) acts as an intellectual and physical precedent for South Cove. Commissioned for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, Veiled Landscape consisted primarily of a wooden platform with a screened fence overlooking a view of the mountainous area before it. Miss made alterations to the landscape that could only be experienced by leaving the platform, which set the view but of course did not reproduce the actual hills and foliage intended to be part of the viewer’s practical contact with the piece. Indeed, as Miss makes clear in her title, the landscape is meant to be hidden to some extent from the viewer. This is a highly interesting environmental sculpture when it is considered in conjunction with South Cove, done in New York in 1988. Both works establish a viewing platform, although Veiled Landscape denies the visitor an easy entrance into the landscape itself, while South Cove’s second-storey site sets up a spectacular view of the New York harbor—the Statue of Liberty is just beyond view from the platform, although there is a wooden walkway, part of Miss’s environment and fronting the river, from which it can be seen.
Taking Veiled Landscape into mind, we can see how South Cove acts as a portal for a visual experience but also establishes its own ground—this is done so quite literally—as an architectural installation. It is, at the same time, a sculpture of epic size, in proportion to the urban and harbor landscapes that surrounds it. Miss worked with two other people—the landscape architect Susan Child and the architect Stan Eckstut—and the collaboration feels highly oriented toward an urban, public recognition of nature—despite, or because of, the city setting in which it takes place. And so, for close to thirty years now, South Cove has become a destination for visitors wishing to re-experience the New York harbor from a position estheticized, or perhaps it is better to say re-translated, by a work whose upper part deliberately echoes the crown of the Statue of Liberty itself. This quotation deepens Miss’s environment by situating it within recognizable visual history in the harbor.
Most of New York’s art has been and is made without much of a sense of art history—the city is famous for its emphasis on spontaneous reality, its visual encouragement of the moment as it is occurring. In South Cove, Miss does not forego this emphasis on the present; the work is itself a small piece of landscape: on the ground facing the crown, there is a broad walkway, made of wood and with water on the left and green plants on the right, that leads to the short, wooden-floored path, framed by an iron canopy above it, that directly looks onto the water. So, as happens in Battery Park Landfill, the sculpture builds into its forms the notion of an experience that must be encountered over a period of time. Thus, South Cove constructs its own history, even if it is of a momentary nature, alongside the history of the New York harbor, whose entryway has been watched over by the Statue of Liberty since 1886. By world standards, this is hardly a long time, but by American ones, this is only a bit short of half America’s publicly governed life. It is very clear, I think, that Miss recognized this in the project; her nod to the older statue bases her own work in such an awareness.
Miss of course is part of a field, public art, whose practice has grown greatly in the last three or four decades. To an extent, she has acquiesced to the collaboration inevitable in the genre; but she had done so in ways that have advanced her creativity rather than thwarting it. Her vision, truly American in its implications, conceives of art as experience rather than conceptualized theory. Miss relegates her responsibility toward a view of art that, at the least, implicates the viewer in an engagement both formal and physical, in which ideas may play a part but are secondary to the reality of her environment and, just as important, the siting and sighting of nature. In the current New York art scene downtown, where the former meat-packing district has just become home to the new Whitney Museum, the city has become a place to visit both for culture and for its natural views. This wasn’t always the case, especially in 1987, when South Cove was constructed.
At that time, Battery Park was not been nearly so developed as it is today. There was an edge to life downtown, which has been gentrified and to some extent compromised by the influx of big money. Huge apartment complexes were not ubiquitous. To her credit, Miss has maintained the values she brought into view in her youthful development as an artist; South Cove functions not only in an inspired awareness of its place in New York, it remembers a time when New York was more available to an intelligentsia now mostly living in places outside downtown, which it can no longer afford. This memory does not affect South Cove’s public existence as place to visit and view the harbor. But its recognition of responsibility toward the history the harbor does afford is based on a deeper sense of New York than the one existing today. Miss, who still lives and maintains a studio not so far from South Cove, would surely agree that her generation of artists, women like herself and Winsor and Aycock and sculptor Eva Hesse, have built a formidable legacy for us to contemplate—one that remains alive today.
Mary Miss, in collaboration with Susan Child (landscape architect) and Stan Eckstut (architect)
South Cove, 1984-1987
Battery Park City,
On the Esplanade, between First Place and Third Place
New York, NY, USA