Economic uncertainty, regardless of how it exhibits itself, has a sneaky way of stifling creativity. Conversely, financial freedom is often a potent muse. Just ask the artists, writers, scientists, academics, entrepreneurs, and other pioneering souls who—after being awarded a vaunted MacArthur Fellowship—suddenly found themselves blessed with the freedom to dream radically, experiment spontaneously and, if so moved, execute methodically.
“It changed everything,” says installation artist Robert Irwin. “The IRS had just informed me I could no longer call myself an artist, and no longer write off my supplies and studio as legitimate expenses.”
Many of the public artists featured on these pages expressed similar sentiments about the no-strings-attached, $625,000 award, which is distributed over a five-year period. Sculptor Teresita Fernández says it allowed for “unprecedented autonomy and privacy.” Digital artist Camille Utterback remembers hearing from MacArthur at a financial low point, and says being relieved of that stress kept her from abandoning installation work altogether. Seattle-based sound sculptor Trimpin concludes that without “five years of unrestricted research and experimenting, my work and projects in the last 15 years—my fellowship ended in 2002—would not be the same today.”
Since 1981, 942 people have been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, known colloquially as a “Genius Grant.” We reviewed all of their biographies to come up with what we hope is a fairly representative sample of the sorts of public artists who are routinely recognized by this tradition that has played a seminal role in the growth and public recognition of the discipline. Just as ours is not an exhaustive list, the Fellowships themselves are not lifetime achievement awards, but rather recognition of seminal work done and potential yet untapped. There is no application process. Instead, a revolving cast of anonymous advisors in various disciplines nominate visionaries they believe to be capable of self-direction and game-changing innovations that, according to the Foundation’s criteria, “broaden horizons of the imagination.”
Of the 2,000 people nominated each year, between 20 and 25 get the nod. Once they do, they become part of a distinctive community of like-minded, intellectual adventurers. “The most influential and interesting aspect of the award for me has been the interactions with other MacArthur Fellows,” testifies sculptor Ned Kahn.
Finally, and for our purposes most motivationally, a review of the Fellows program conducted in 2012 found that the MacArthur grants move “members of the general public to pursue their own personal creative activities and to think about how they can use their own skills and ideas to make the world a better place.”
Here’s hoping you’re so inspired.
Editor’s Note: When a quote from an artist is not attributed to a specific source, it originated from either the MacArthur website (www.macfound.org) or an email exchange with Public Art Review.
LIVING AS ART
RICK LOWE, class of 2014
While Lowe was working on political paintings in the early 1990s, a high-school student challenged the Houston resident to generate something that transcended symbolism. He responded by recruiting a cohort of peers to restore and beautify 22 derelict shotgun houses in the city’s storied, predominantly African-American Third Ward. Since then, Project Row Houses has evolved into an internationally renowned example of living art, providing picturesque shelter and child care for low-income families, inspirational studio spaces and mentorships for emerging artists, and educational programs for neighborhood kids. The goal, Lowe says, is to empower community by providing resources to unleash its collective voice and innate creativity.
The 55-year-old has since spearheaded redevelopment projects in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Dallas. The legacy he leaves won’t be stored in a museum, but he believes that those he’s inspired will “be seen as early pioneers of expanding the notion of what art can be.”
CAMILLE UTTERBACK, class of 2009
Pokémon GO has nothing on this interactive illusionist, who uses digital technology in public spaces to create intimate, sensorial experiences designed to augment reality, not escape it. “Technology often removes us from the present,” Utterback explains. “You see people walking around on their cell phones all the time, not completely aware of what they’re doing with their body in the current space. So I really want to create systems that use technology, but also draw us back into our present moment in our bodies.”
To create her hypnotic, humanized, lava lamp–like video installations and reactive sculptures, the San Francisco–based artist uses cameras to track people’s movement. Software she’s written processes that data and generates an impressionistic projection. Most memorably, each image reacts to the previous one, which creates a feedback loop that reflects both individual expression and a collective, physical reality.
ANNA SCHULEIT HABER, class of 2006
A painter who prefers spending 12-hour workdays in a studio, Schuleit Haber finds herself immersed in public projects every three years—that often take three years to execute. Her landmark opus, Habeas Corpus, which aroused international acclaim in 2000 and inspired a series of similar ventures in the years following, was a living memorial to Northampton State Hospital, a towering, long-abandoned mental health facility. Inside its decrepit, cracked, caged windows, Schuleit Haber created an ephemeral installation populated by actors, ambient sounds, singers, and seas of flowers to contextualize and spiritualize testimonials gathered from former residents.
“Recent projects include a museum commission for which I took over the front page of a daily newspaper for 26 days,” says the 42-year-old. “Future works include a sound-based, off-site commemoration of a European massacre, as well as an exploratory piece of layered storytelling about the hidden world of a major horse racetrack.”
TERESITA FERNÁNDEZ, class of 2005
At 48 years old, this Cuban-American has produced three dozen shows in nine countries, exploring an interest in “the potentially democratizing effect that public art and public spaces can create.” Installing sculpture-centric, interactive pieces in museums, abandoned buildings, parks, and other highly trafficked spaces, Fernández prefers altering natural settings with natural materials like rocks, water, and various metals. These redefined environments—such as Fata Morgana, a reflective canopy that covered six central walkways in New York’s Madison Square Park—take their cue from differing schools of architecture and landscape design.
“In nature, a fata morgana is a kind of mirage,” Fernández explains. “So, I was interested in engaging the public on a massive scale, distorting the urban and natural environment with ephemeral, liquidlike, shifting reflections that also became a kind of portrait of the urban commute, and of passersby who became an integral part of the piece and of one another’s shared space as they moved through it.”
HEART OF GLASS
JAMES CARPENTER, class of 2004
In 2010, this glass technologist told his hometown paper, the New York Times, that while traditionalists think of glass as a way to render spaces transparent, his paramount concern is what occurs “on or in or through the material itself.” He expresses that fascination by leveraging a deep knowledge of architecture and engineering, materials science and sculpture, to create functional, environmentally friendly designs that capture public imagination while accenting a standing structure’s unique aesthetic. Whether creating a blue glass bridge in Seattle’s City Hall, a luminous dome at the Fulton Street Transit Center, or an ethereal glow outside the windows at 7 World Trade Center, Carpenter says that “my studio continues to seek a range of projects, from smaller experimental art interventions where we can explore materials, structure, optics, and light, to collaborations with architects in the design of the built environment itself.”
WHEN NATURE CALLS
NED KAHN, class of 2003
An environmental artist and sculptor, Kahn has created experiential exhibits in traditional settings (like the Museum of Natural History in New York), on corporate campuses (Yahoo!), and in other public gathering spaces. Gentle, swirling whirlpools. Flame tornadoes. Schizophrenic pendulums. Rattling ball bearings. The 56-year-old is drawn to materials and projects where optic and acoustic effects encourage unsuspecting participants to consider overlooked (or hidden) processes of the natural world. “I’ve tried to create things where I’ve basically framed a phenomenon, and I’m letting nature do the sculpting,” Kahn told NPR in 2005.
Since being recognized by MacArthur, Kahn has met a number of like-minded Fellows and co-conspirators. “[The Fellowship] led to a number of collaborations where I was involved from the very beginning so the artwork ideas ended up seamlessly integrated into the rest of the project,” he says, “thus blurring the boundaries between art, architecture, science, and nature.”
UNEARTHING THE ORDINARY
SARAH SZE, class of 2003
Since receiving a MacArthur grant, this Chinese-American sculptor has constructed numerous critically acclaimed installations at storied venues like the 55th Venice Biennale, and has also conceived commissions for a number of public spaces, such as High Line Park and Doris C. Freedman Plaza in New York. To anyone who has encountered her whimsical work, Sze’s meteoric rise will come as no surprise or wonder—even though those are the very words her intricate pieces most likely evoke.
Sze’s imaginaria, built from ordinary objects like desk fans, paper clips, scraps of plywood, and aluminum ladders, have both a utilitarian design and an infectious, almost-by-accident aesthetic. Her room-sized pieces, designed to appear under construction, as if they were found in an abandoned studio, are often stacked into a wobble, strung together on a prayer, and, even when they’re housed inside, seem to blow in the wind or undulate as if floating down a candy-colored stream.
TRIMPIN, class of 1997
In the publicity material accompanying the 2009 documentary Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, the sound sculptor and composer is said to have created a world resembling both Santa’s workshop and Frankenstein’s lab. Trimpin’s tools have as much to do with that description as his singular sonic footprint. Sifting through stacks of cast-off musical instruments and scrapped computer parts, the 65-year-old inventor makes machines that, while often digitally driven, have an acoustic resonance. Instead of writing compositions for the contraptions, he programs sequences for temporary and permanent installations. No commercial recordings allowed.
Still considered by boomer hipsters in Seattle as the genius to know (and hear), Trimpin, who is rumored to detest loudspeakers, says his current work is “an ongoing exploration of the concepts of sound, vision and movement, experimenting with combinations that will introduce our sense of perception to a totally new experience.”
ANN HAMILTON, class of 1993
Preferring to be called a maker instead of an artist, Hamilton first studied textile design and then chose to use a sculptor’s sensibilities to manipulate various media and experiences, including time itself, to grapple with what it means to be human. Her installations combine photography, performance, and common objects to create venues large and small where, as the 60-year-old said during an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett in 2015, “we can gather and…be alone together.”
As Tippett puts it, Hamilton’s creations “engage and surround the senses”: dozens of wooden swings pulling on white curtains; a concrete tower with a staircase that resembles a strand of DNA; abstract video shot on a surveillance camera; a wooden meditation boat; and, in Charleston, South Carolina, a stack of 47,000 work uniforms, anonymous and inimitable as the laborers who once wore them.
EIKO & KOMA OTAKE, class of 1996
The first collaborative team to be named MacArthur Fellows began dancing and choreographing together in the early 1970s. The honor, which came when they were both 44, permanently altered their trajectory. “My thinking largely shifted from being a dancer and choreographer to being an artist in the larger sense of the word,” Eiko says. “The MacArthur Award letter spoke about contributing to humanity. I strive to live up to that expectation.”
According to the Foundation’s description, the Otakes create “abstract shapes that blur the boundaries of animal, vegetable, and mineral, and suggest that the landscape is as alive as its inhabitants.”
In 2014, Koma started working on The Ghost Festival, a multidisciplinary solo project and interactive visual art installment and performance space.
Also in 2014, Eiko launched a 12-hour movement exercise that’s been performed in a Philadelphia transit station, a senior citizen center in New York City, and a farmers’ market in Durham. “In these performances, I learn the functions, characteristics, and constituencies of the places,” Eiko explains. “I explore solitude, gaze, fragility, and intimacy.”
MISSED IN NEW ORLEANS
JOHN T. SCOTT, class of 1992
Scott was one of the first African-American artists to break into commercial galleries in New Orleans. Raised in the Ninth Ward, he lived in the city for 65 years, until Hurricane Katrina damaged his home and studio. It was apropos, then, that a career retrospective of the sculptor’s work was held in 2005 at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where one of his many site-specific installations, Spirit Gates, adorns the entrance court.
Inspired by jazz and dance, Scott’s brightly painted steel structures embody a fusion of African, Caribbean, and Creole cultures, and include River Spirit, a three-dimensional frieze mural depicting the river city’s maritime economy and musical heritage. Having fled the city as Katrina approached, Scott died in 2007 before he could get back to New Orleans. “That’s the only home I know,” he told the Times-Picayune earlier that year from Houston. “I want my bones to be buried there. I belong there.”
MARTIN PURYEAR, class of 1989
Surveying Puryear’s staggering body of public art and gallery installations—commemorated in a 30-year retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007—one gets the sense that this painter-turned-formalist-sculptor is deeply inspired by place. In the mid-1960s, he served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, and then spent the next several decades sating his wanderlust with journeys to Asia, Alaska, and throughout Europe and North America, where he learned from and collaborated with various artists, designers, and landscape architects.
Partial to working with wood, stone, tar, wire, and assorted metals, the 75-year-old’s often imposing, three-dimensional evocations of non-Westernized history, ritual, and struggle—such as the 36-foot Ladder for Booker T. Washington, rendered from a sapling ash tree—manage to “soothe more than seethe,” according to New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, “balancing between the geometric and the organic with Zen aplomb.”
ROBERT IRWIN, class of 1984
A Long Beach, California, native who bet on horses when he was a fledgling abstract painter, this 88-year-old is still dreaming up installations to evoke deeply personal reactions that, he hopes, are primarily phenomenological. Recently dubbed “the artist’s artist” in the New York Times, Irwin is adept at manipulating simple materials like fabric scrim, glass, branches, colored gels, and greenery to create spartan, transient experiences designed to challenge perceptions and preconceptions regarding light and space.
Ardent fans believe Irwin is one of the most under-appreciated visionaries of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He, however, is uninterested in mass appeal. Instead, the philosopher king quests for “a pure inquiry of the individual’s potential to perceive the values of a pure sentient understanding. From ‘I think, therefore I am’ to a much broader view of aesthetics: I feel…therefore…I think…therefore I am.”