Public art, public outcry

County tells neighbors to pull trees from ‘54 Columns’

Three weeks ago, when H. Lamar Willis was looking for places around the city to plant some dogwoods, he took a request from David Patton. Willis is a city councilman and Patton is chairman of a neighborhood planning unit that includes the Old Fourth Ward.

Patton’s request was straightforward: He wanted some trees to “beautify” the installation art at the corner of Glen Iris and Highland Avenue. Willis wasn’t sure exactly what art Patton was referring to. He figured it must be those gray cinderblock columns just off the corner.

“I had seen the structures before,” Willis says. “But I would have never identified it as art.”

Well, it most definitely is art, as both men were reminded of a few days after Patton and some neighbors planted 15 dogwoods amid the pillars of Sol Lewitt’s “54 Columns.” The Fulton County Arts Council, which oversees the piece, asked kindly that the saplings be moved. And, since the site is owned by Fulton County, the council is getting its way.

“It would be inappropriate to plant trees in and among that sculpture. It would be completely inconsistent with the artist’s intent,” says Charles Taylor, whose family donated the land to Fulton County and paid for the construction of the piece.

The dogwood debacle is just the latest flare-up in the sculpture’s five-year history. Practically since the first shipment of cinderblocks was unloaded at the site, neighbors, artists and politicians have been at odds over whether 54 gray cinderblock columns, all between 10 and 20 feet high, constitute art. And, just as importantly, how much influence neighbors should have in deciding if it belongs in their back yard.

Certainly, from behind a steering wheel (the vantage point from which most of us have seen the exhibit), the sculpture is odd. Set atop a knoll at a busy intersection, abutting a down-at-heels apartment building in a neighborhood that a real estate agent might charitably call “in transition,” the Lewitt installation appears — at first glance anyway — to be a construction project that was abandoned early.

“If you just drive by the piece, you miss its significance,” says Bill Gignilliat, who chairs the Metropolitan Public Art Coalition. “If you stop and walk through the piece, it really is a magnificent piece. [Lewitt’s] creating a visual metaphor for our skyline.”

Such reverence for Lewitt’s work isn’t unusual — in art circles. Born in 1928, Lewitt gained fame in the ’60s, eschewing abstract expressionism, working for famed architect I.M. Pei for a time, and creating works that “utilized simple and impersonal forms, exploring repetition and variations of a basic form or line as a way to achieve works of a complex and satisfying nature,” according to a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective of Lewitt’s work. In 1998, after Fulton County passed a law earmarking 1 percent of capital expenditures to public art projects, the Taylor family wanted to express its thanks. It donated the land on Glen Iris to the county, and formed a public/private panel to commission some art for the space. Lewitt’s international stature — and his willingness to waive his commission — made the decision an easy one.

It wasn’t long before the arts community took notice. In 2000, the prestigious Art in America magazine named “54 Columns” one of the top 24 public arts projects of the year. That same year, the catalogue for the Lewitt retrospective in San Francisco boasted a two-page spread featuring the sculpture.

“It’s one of the most important pieces of sculpture in the community — maybe in the Southeast,” says Taylor, who also used to sit on the Fulton County Arts Council.

Those imprimaturs haven’t reached Patton’s ears, though, and one wonders if they’d make any difference anyway.

“The community has absolutely hated this particular sculpture,” Patton says. “Everyone’s concerned about the integrity of this piece of art, but no one’s concerned that the piece of art sucks.”

Still, he realizes the installation isn’t going anywhere. So his logic with the trees was this: If it’s supposed to represent Atlanta’s skyline, wouldn’t the exhibit be enhanced if the columns were rising above some flowering dogwoods?

The order to re-locate them came just days after they were planted. “We’re actually thrilled about the trees,” says Veronica Njoku, director of the Fulton County Arts Council. “We thought it was a nice gesture on their part. Our issue is the placing of the trees.”

So, in the next few weeks, the trees will be dug up and replanted outside the perimeter of the piece. Some will end up down the hill toward Freedom Parkway.

But it’s more than just professional courtesy that demands the trees be removed, as Gignilliat points out. The 1990 federal Visual Artists Rights Act prohibits tampering with an artist’s work. “In the case of public art, you can’t decide just because it’s in the public environment that you have a right to add, detract, destroy or remove [a piece of art]. It protects the artist.”

Gignilliat says that part of the problem with the Lewitt exhibit has been public education. The site isn’t publicized well, nor are most of the many public art works in Atlanta. To that end, the Metropolitan Public Art Coalition is working on a tour that will highlight public art throughout town.

“We believe that if you educate them, people will go see it,” Gignilliat says. “We have a wonderful collection and nobody knows about it.”

For his part, Taylor is philosophical about the ruckus over Lewitt’s piece. “Good public art creates some controversy.”

In the end, Patton’s tree-planting expedition may have backfired, but it appears to have accomplished at least one thing: After five years, the county says it will soon install lights and a plaque at the site, so passersby know that what they’re looking at is art, and not just 54 gray cinderblock columns.