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Artists Maya Lin
Maya Lin Photo

Maya Lin

American Architect and Sculptor

Movements and Styles: Minimalism, Earth Art

Born: October 5, 1959 - Athens, Ohio

Maya Lin Timeline


"A lot of my works deal with a passage, which is about time. I don't see anything that I do as a static object in space. It has to exist as a journey in time."
Maya Lin
"Sometimes I think creativity is magic; it's not a matter of finding an idea, but allowing the idea to find you."
Maya Lin
"Art is very tricky because it's what you do for yourself. It's much harder for me to make those works than the monuments or the architecture."
Maya Lin
"For the most part things never get built the way they were drawn."
Maya Lin
"To fly we have to have resistance."
Maya Lin
"I feel I exist on the boundaries. Somewhere between science and art, art and architecture, public and private, east and west. I am always trying to find a balance between those opposing forces, finding the place where opposites meet."
Maya Lin

"I am always trying to find a balance ... the place where opposites meet."

Maya Lin Signature


Even if she had designed nothing else, Maya Lin's first commission would make her one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. Her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a city known for its imposing monuments, is now one of the most iconic sights. Her use of a spare, low-slung wall to trace the line of the natural landscape became her trademark. Her minimalist approach to public art is to add something that looks like it was not originally there, but somehow belongs. Swells of earth interrupt the grassy terrain ever so slightly in her outdoor installations, so that if one is not viewing the work from high above or far away, one might not even notice them. The indoor sculptures on which she has focused recently maintain an implicit environmental focus, ideologically and visually evoking the rolling contours of remote geographic locations. In a career that began with controversy, Lin's 35-year record of public and private art successfully merges the conceptual and natural world.

Key Ideas

While still a college student, Lin transformed one of the oldest and most conservative art forms in America. Gone are the men on horseback, obelisks and allegorical nudes that once defined the monument. Her spare, linear aesthetic uses blank space as a metaphor for thought. Her work invites us to reflect on what cannot be summarized in a single representation, a truly revolutionary idea.
Lin brought an unprecedented degree of humanity to Minimalism. The older, mostly male minimalists to whom she is visibly indebted (Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra) steered clear of references to history, even in their large-scale public works. Lin's work, however, harnesses the power of this austere aesthetic to steer us toward grasping the impact of historic events in a personal way.
Lin's ideas were so far ahead of her time it took most of the world a little while to catch up with her. Critics initially misinterpreted her style as a literal effort to minimize the importance of a historic event and the individuals who served their country. Far from diminishing the memory of these individuals, however, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now the most visited monument in Washington, D.C. Over 10,000 people a day visit it. Among them are some skeptics, including hardened veterans, who often find themselves moved to tears.
As an artist, Lin strikes an unusual balance between open-ended concepts, and scientific precision. Her stated aim is for her work to become a private conversation for each person who views it. In her obsessive planning, scientific calculation, investigation, and measurement in preparation for each work, however, she is a throwback to the Italian Renaissance, when science and art were of a piece.
Despite the radicalism of her ideas, they did not emerge from a vacuum. In placing greater emphasis on the viewer, and giving more power to the audience, Lin's work rests on the shoulders of a long line of conceptual artists from Marcel Duchamp to Yoko Ono, and is part of a widespread transformation taking place in public art at the end of the 20th century.

Most Important Art

Maya Lin Famous Art

Groundswell (1993)

This piece, Lin's first major large-scale artwork, is a permanent installation consisting of 43 tons of shattered automobile safety glass. Lin had previously experimented with this material in smaller-scale works. This is a site-specific installation designed to call attention to the "throwaway" (as the artist called them) spaces of the building, filling them with recycled safety glass broken into small bits. The formations, although made from such a harsh medium, evoked a sense of calm much like a landscape or seascape. Lin used two types of recycled glass, which mimicked the color of water when mixed together. She also utilized cultural influences as inspiration for the work, looking both to her eastern and western backgrounds; to the Japanese gardens of Kyoto and to the Native American burial mounds of Athens, Ohio.

Following the success (and elevated expectations) of her early career, Lin sought to become more spontaneous. She made only a few sketches before beginning this installation, invoking a '70s attitude inspired by Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse, and other artists to whom her work is linked, and who based their finished outcome on process, as opposed to a preconceived idea of what the work would look like. Lin and her team dropped bucket after bucket of broken glass onto the rooftop areas with a boom crane, filling the pockets of the building until the work was complete. In an approach that was absolutely consistent with her earlier projects, as well as her background as an architect, Lin incorporated the entire building into her design, applying her comprehensive vision to all areas of the Wexner Center. This work bears the hallmark of her approach as an architect and artist, regardless of space, nature, material, and application. Her vision remains holistic, compassionate, all-encompassing, and always highly analytical.
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Maya Lin Artworks in Focus:



Maya Lin was born to Chinese intellectuals who had fled China in 1948, just as the Communist takeover was occurring. Her hometown of Athens, Ohio, known for its manufacturing and agriculture, is also the home of Ohio University, an institution that played a major role in her youth. Her mother Julia Chang Lin, a poet, was a literature professor at the university and her father, Henry Huan Lin, was a ceramicist and also the Dean of the School of Fine Art. Lin was in her father's studio, "making art as long as she can remember." A precocious student, Lin was fascinated with the natural world and with science, and read constantly. She wanted to be a veterinarian or an animal behaviorist, and her parents allowed her to have a pet parakeet. As she was growing up through the seventies, environmentalism was on the rise and it remained an important part of her sensibility. In high school, Lin did not conform to the stereotype of the Midwestern teenage girl. She steered clear of the prom, football games, and make-up, and grew her hair down to her waist. While still in high school, she took art courses at university level and began experimenting with bronze casting at the foundry. In her spare time, she took walks in the woods, letting her imagination roam, or played chess with her older brother, to whom she looked up. Fueled by the traditional Chinese aesthetic of her childhood home and the surroundings of rural Ohio, Lin's sensibilities as an architect began to blossom. Elements of this background would return in her later work, especially in college.

Early Training

Maya Lin Biography

In 1977 Lin graduated as co-valedictorian of her high school and entered Yale University. She initially pursued an interest in zoology but soon changed her major to architecture. While traveling in Denmark with a group of students from Yale, she was mistaken for a Greenlander, a racial group against whom there is significant discrimination in Denmark. This experience was formative for Lin, causing her to look deeper into her Chinese heritage and address it more directly in her art. Racial and social justice became more central to her as a result of this negative experience.

Lin's final year at Yale was the beginning of the best-known part of her career. She entered the competition to design a new Vietnam Veterans Memorial for Washington D.C., and what began as a simple class assignment for a college senior became a life-changing moment. Amongst 1,400 anonymous entries in the nation-wide public competition for the memorial, Lin's design was chosen as the winning blueprint. It was a remarkable decision, virtually unheard of for an architect so young, and not everyone was happy with it. Some Vietnam veterans, civic leaders and officials in Washington who had not been part of the decision felt that the historic commission should not be entrusted to an architect with no established track record of realized works and no personal connection to the event. Others claimed that hiring an Asian designer would disgrace the soldiers who died at the hands of the Vietnamese, bringing to light blatantly racist elements in the controversy over the piece. The college senior was called to defend her project in front of the United States Congress, and despite her wishes, a bargain was struck with the opposition. Another statue, a traditional bronze representation of soldiers with the American flag, would be placed near the architect's minimalist work. During the installation, Lin began graduate school at Harvard, but was bussing down to Washington D.C. so often to testify on behalf of her design that she couldn't keep up with the rigors of Harvard life, and withdrew after one semester. She later returned to Yale and completed her Masters in 1986.

Mature Period

Maya Lin Photo

After concluding her studies Lin continued to design memorials across America, expanding her practice across public installations and memorials, but also inching her way into a studio practice focused on traditional sculptures. Her focus and work ethic paid off immensely during these years. She obtained solo and group exhibitions, various awards, teaching appointments, and artist residencies. She established her own studio in New York, and created many more.

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Maya Lin Biography Continues

After designing some widely recognized memorials, Lin decided she needed to prove to herself and others that she could do more. Her interest in the natural world began to blossom and she used the earth and landscape as subjects of her installation and sculptural works. In relation to her work a documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1995) won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

In 1996 while finding refuge from an electrical storm in an abandoned horse trailer during a backpacking trip in Colorado, she met her future husband Daniel Wolf, an art collector and film producer who shared her passion for nature and art. They became engaged and still return to the horse trailer for vacations. They both collect rocks. Lin looks for river-washed pebbles while her husband likes quartz crystals. Wolf describes the pair as being individuals who complement each other's eccentricities. A year after their marriage, at the age of 38, Lin had her first child: a daughter named India. Throughout the beginning stages of motherhood Lin designed their family home, and learned to lessen her obsessive work ethic. As an artist she loved living in her own world, but once she began to have a family she realized that she had to begin to spread her focus. In 1999 their next daughter, Rachel, was born.

Lin continued to work, receive awards, and lecture. In the late 1990s she returned to two of her original passions: science and landscape, and began to formulate a specific style using high-tech sonar resonance scans and aerial and satellite mapping devices. Her architectural background began to evolve along with her artistry as she created many more and varied artworks.

Later Work

Maya Lin Portrait

Lin continues to look at the environment as she progresses as an artist. She creates important installations that use elements of the natural world, always focusing on landscape. She often revisits interests developed in childhood, among them biology and zoology. While recognizing that her art will never be able to rival natural beauty, she consistently works in conjunction with the land, demonstrating a reverence and understanding of it. Her travels have taken her to some of the most beautiful regions of the earth. Her most recent memorial, What is Missing?, responds to the loss of habitat and biodiversity and the threatening reality of climate change. The piece strives to catalogue and preserve the land and animals of our planet before they go extinct. First unveiled on September 17, 2009, the memorial is an ongoing project, extending into physical and cyberspace. Lin continues to have her hand in multiple endeavors, designing architectural and sculptural works out of her studio in New York City.


Early success allowed Lin to watch perceptions of her work evolve dramatically over the years. Initial resistance to her work gave way to widespread public admiration for pushing the boundaries of what a memorial is. Her impact on other artists has been widespread in all fields, but perhaps most especially in conceptual sculpture and public art. Jane Hammond's Fallen, a collection of autumn leaves, each inscribed with the name of an American soldier killed in Iraq (purchased by the Whitney in 2009), highlighted cumulative loss in a manner indebted to Lin. In its recitation of individual names Ai Weiwei's Backpack Project of 2008, an installation commemorating an earthquake in which unsafe school structures collapsed on Szechuan children, owes much to Lin's strategy. Lin's ongoing What is Missing? project, leverages her prowess as the most famous living designer of memorials to call attention to climate change, which she sees as the greatest challenge to the human species. The piece inspires cooperative artists to this day.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Maya Lin
Interactive chart with Maya Lin's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart


Nancy HoltNancy Holt
Richard SerraRichard Serra
Michael HeizerMichael Heizer
Robert SmithsonRobert Smithson
Eva HesseEva Hesse

Personal Contacts

Vincent ScullyVincent Scully


Land ArtLand Art

Influences on Artist
Maya Lin
Maya Lin
Years Worked: 1981 - present
Influenced by Artist


Jane HammondJane Hammond
Ai WeiweiAi Weiwei

Personal Contacts


Land ArtLand Art

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Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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Useful Resources on Maya Lin





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Maya Lin

by Amy Stone

Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes Recomended resource

by Richard Andrews, John Beardsley

Maya Lin: Architect and Artist (People to Know)

By Mary Malone

More Interesting Books about Maya Lin
Maya Lin Interview, Artist and Architect Recomended resource

June 16, 2000
Academy of Achievement

One Who Sees Space: A Conversation with Maya Lin

By Jan Garden Castro

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