American Architect and Sculptor
Summary of Maya Lin
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.
- 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.
Progression of Art
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of the most controversial works of the 1980s, lies on the northwest corner of the National Mall in Washington D.C. Two simple walls of polished granite fall ten feet below grade and meet at a 130-degree angle in a V-shape. Its ends point towards the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, respectively. The names of over 58,000 soldiers who were killed or pronounced missing in action are listed, in the order of death or disappearance, rather than alphabetically because Lin wanted it to be read "like an epic Greek poem." A Vietnam veteran can go to Maya Lin's memorial and search for the names of his fallen comrades. In the process, he sees his own face reflected in the polished stone.
A unique pull away from the traditional memorial design with realistic forms, her design contrasted with all other memorials in Washington D.C. It echoes the sentiments of Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs, who raised the money for the project, and stated in his open call for submissions: "We do not seek to make any statement about the correctness of the war. Rather, by honoring those who sacrificed, we hope to provide a symbol of national unity and reconciliation." In relation to a war that was wildly unpopular both at home and abroad, Lin's memorial was a barometer of these sentiments. It presents us with an invitation to reflect and respond. It accounts for the fact that anti-war demonstrators and ex-military men both lost relatives and friends. It acknowledges that each individual will respond differently, and gathers visitors together in mourning, without telling them how to make sense of the military conflict.
This made many viewers uncomfortable. When the project was accepted, the backlash was swift and fierce. Those who had supported U.S. military involvement in Vietnam detected a note of potential criticism in the absence of heroic figures and other obvious symbols of honor and sacrifice, and dismissed it as a "black gash of shame." While its conceptual open-endedness was part of the controversy, so was Lin's ethnicity as an Asian American (her parents were from China), which, remarkably, also came under scrutiny as a possible reason to disqualify her. The design caused such intense debate that Lin had to suspend her career as a college student to defend it, and she was not entirely successful. As a concession to conservative critics, three realistic figures with an American flag were constructed across the National Mall near Lin's monument in a much smaller, more conventional bronze by Frederick Hartt. Hartt's work is visited far less frequently, however, than Lin's historic structure, unveiled on Veterans Day in 1982. In addition to remaining a place of historic honor and reflection, it is now accepted as a major milestone in 20th-century art.
Etched granite - Constitution Gardens, Washington DC
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.
Tempered Safety Glass - Wexner Center, Colombus, Ohio
The Wave Field
Designed for the FXB Aerospace Building on the University of Michigan campus, this outdoor sculptural installation engages one of Lin's earliest and most fundamental passions: science. Specifically inspired by the movement of water, the work is about fluidity. A three-month study of fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, and turbulence, conducted by the artist on site, preceded the work. While visibly indebted to other large-scale Earth Works (Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty comes to mind), alignment between the conceptual and formal properties of Lin's work is much closer. For example, its precise 90' by 90' grid of rising crests mimics that of a naturally occurring wave. Lin selected a particular wave type that brought together all areas she had been researching, including fluid dynamics, flight resistance, and turbulence.
Literally part of the ground on which the artist designed it, this delightful sculpture is at once playful and intellectual. Walking across it is quite different from viewing it through the window of one of the adjacent classrooms. It changes throughout the day as the sun passes and shadows emerge on different parts of it, achieving Lin's goal to highlight the interconnectedness between art and landscape.
Earth and grass - University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
The character of a hill, under glass
While evident even in her earliest sculptures, Lin's conviction that her work should be an homage to earth has grown stronger over the years. In 2002, she designed an interior landscape that worked its way from the outside into the center of an office building in Minneapolis, transforming the American Express Client Service Center into an installation, an Earth Work, and an architectural form that defies categorization. In the building's central atrium, a 28 by 55 foot sculpture with an undulating wood surface lifts off the ground and seems to travel toward the viewer, bearing grass and trees. The fluidity this structure, an intentional element of surprise, relates to Wave Field in thwarting our expectation that the ground in public space should lie flat. The installation also includes a "water wall," and an indoor and outdoor winter garden. There are olive trees on the inside of the building and indigenous river birch on the outside. The water wall appears to be flowing from the inside out and culminates in a pool. The wall freezes during the winter months, offering visitors an indication of the temperature outside. In blurring the boundaries between inside and outside space, the work is designed to raise awareness of the environment, even in a major metropolitan center.
Wood, trees, water, earth, and metal - American Express Client Service Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Eleven Minute Line
Lin's interests range widely, from the most advanced concepts in science to the very earliest artists on earth. According to the artist, her objective in this 12-foot-high 1,600-foot-long curving line of earth was to make a three-dimensional drawing. This site-specific work was created for the pasture of one of the largest organic dairy farms in Northern Europe, near Wanas castle (now the Wanas Foundation). As an American abroad, Lin saw a captivating similarity between the early burial mounds of Europe and those in her homeland of the United States, and sought to elaborate on that connection. Lin had long had an interest in the Native American burial and effigy mounds in her home state of Ohio. Among the largest and most striking of these mounds is the so-called Serpent Mound of the Hopewell Indians (100 BC-700 AD). It is a visible source of inspiration for this work, part drawing, part sculpture, which Lin describes as, "somewhere between a line and a walk."
The artist used gravel (here again, her relationship to Robert Smithson, whose Spiral Jetty is composed of gravel, is evident) to make preliminary sketches on the grounds of the castle. She then created a topographic model of the site from which she transferred her gravel drawing to the permanent sloping pasture, an elaborate process that relied on her skill as a draftsman and cartographer (another one of her passions). Lin situated the final piece so as to be visible from multiple angles, from the road and nearby buildings.
Earth and grass - Wanås, Sweden
Consistent with Lin's interest in evoking landscape and transforming interior space, Water Line reveals part of the earth that was inaccessible in its entirety. While to the untrained eye this looks like a tangle of aluminum wire, it is actually a meticulously constructed three-dimensional model of one the most remote locations on the planet: the ocean floor sitting along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that rises to form Bouvet Island, about 1,000 miles north of Antarctica. Using the most advanced technologies of the time (models, grids, topographical drawings, sonar, radar mapping and satellite photographs) Lin studied this small piece of the world and created what is essentially a room-sized line drawing of it, measuring 34'10" x 29'2" x 19'. This work is part of an installation called Systematic Landscapes, the first presentation of her work within the confines of a museum. While Google Earth and other developments since 2006 have made it easier to view far-flung locations, we still don't think much about what lies below the earth's surface, yet water makes up 70% of the Earth's area. Always drawn to nature, as a mature artist, Lin has gravitated to sites of natural wonder, in works that seek to highlight the extraordinary fragility of earth's ecosystem.
Aluminum Tubing - Gagosian Gallery
Biography of Maya Lin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Maya Lin
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.