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Maya Lin Photo

Maya Lin

American Architect and Sculptor

Born: October 5, 1959 - Athens, Ohio
"I am always trying to find a balance ... the place where opposites meet."
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Maya Lin Signature
"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."
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Maya Lin Signature
"Sometimes I think creativity is magic; it's not a matter of finding an idea, but allowing the idea to find you."
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Maya Lin Signature
"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."
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Maya Lin Signature
"For the most part things never get built the way they were drawn."
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Maya Lin Signature
"To fly we have to have resistance."
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Maya Lin Signature
"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."
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Maya Lin Signature

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.

Biography of Maya Lin

Maya Lin Photo

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.

Important Art by Maya Lin

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


Water Line

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

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Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"Maya Lin Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 28 Mar 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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