Earlier chapters of this series have focused on the public art and monuments of Seattle that might say something about the city’s past or present character. Like, say, the still-standing monument to Confederate war veterans erected at the height of segregationist deed restrictions. Or “The Wall of Death” sculpture put up under a busy bridge. Or the giant statue of Viking explorer Leif Erikson overlooking Puget Sound, a body of water he never got anywhere near, much less saw.
Time to lighten up a bit, you say? Okay. My model here will be the TV hit “Seinfeld,” famously described as a “show about nothing.” I’m going to present stuff around town I’ve seen since becoming New To Seattle that might means nothing–or something. You be the judge.
Let’s start with the Seattle Tulip.
That’s an painted three-ton steel sculpture downtown at the local Wells Fargo headquarters, Third Avenue and Madison Street. Installed in 1988, it was the work of Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004). He was a worldwide leader in the Pop Art movement, which drew inspiration from popular culture but which some said was a little light on art. Art critic John T. Young, whose website is called “You Call That Art?!“, doesn’t think much of the Seattle Tulip. He described it as “an example of corporate decoration” that “does not provoke or stimulate intellectual thinking…it is merely visual eye candy.” Of course, tulips are a very popular flower in Seattle. Wesselmann, who worked in several media, probably was better known in art circles for drawing faceless nude women, so he might have seemed like an unlikely choice for the commission. But as it turns out, many of his paintings had tulips in the background, so at least he had some botany creds.
Speaking of pop, a few blocks away, at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Blanchard Street, sits the Giant Red Popsicle. And I mean giant: 17 feet tall. The creator is veteran Seattle artist Catherine Mayer. One reason she got the commission, it seems, is because she’s married to real estate developer Martin Selig, who owned the property. He’s responsible for many notable protects–including the 76-story-high Columbia Tower, Seattle’s tallest building. Made of steel, the popsicle is only two years old. But it’s already become a popular backdrop for camera-wielding tourists, some of whom pretend to take a lick. Despite a lack of obvious symbolism, the Pop (if I may be so informal) occasions outbursts of enthusiasm. “Seriously, whoever created this should be given the Nobel Prize for Awesomeness,” one Seattle blogger wrote. “This is simply one of the greatest things ever made by human hands. Go check it out and pay homage to its brilliance.”
Selig is behind more than his share of public art in Seattle. Near the Pop are facing parking benches with life-sized bronze statues of a sitting man (officially called “He”) and a woman (officially called “She”), both of an older age. The man is stretching, with his hat on the bench besides him. The woman has a bag of groceries next to her. It’s unclear if either is aware of the other’s presence or if this could be the start of some later-in-life romance a la the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton movie “Something’s Gotta Give.” The sculptures were raised in 1979 by Howard Garnitz, an Illinois-trained artist who specializes in figurative art. The park benches are extra long so real humans can sit next to the fake humans and have their photos taken.
Is hanging around and not doing much part of the Seattle DNA? Up on Capitol Hill at Broadway Avenue E. and E. Harrison Street is The Itinerant, an aluminum sculpture of a man sleeping on a park bench with a newspaper covering his face. The artist is Richard Beyer (1925-2012), who was responsible for a lot of public art around Seattle, most famously People Waiting For The Interurban, in the Fremont neighborhood. The Itinerant was put up in 1981 as part of what one website says was a “major facelift” of the area by local merchants. It may or may not be a coincidence that Seattle has a significant homeless problem.
If something connoting a little more action floats your boat, in Regrade Park at Third Avenue and Bell Street stands Three Dogs Chasing A Rat. The carved sandstone sculptures depict a trio of canines looking for a rodent, which is hiding nervously under a ledge. This work, too, was fashioned by Beyer. The sculpture went up in 1978. I don’t know any of the back story behind its commissioning. But Regrade Park now includes an off-leash dog section, which seems appropriate. No word about off-leash rats.
Now Seattle is a major medical center, so why not some public art of individual body parts? Located at 1001 Fourth Avenue is Vertebrae, a three-piece bronze sculpture in a reflective pool. It certainly looks like the way my back feels after a day of refereeing youth soccer in Seattle. The work was erected in 1968. The artist is Henry Moore (1898-1986), an English sculptor known for abstractions of the human body. “Each of the forms, although different, has the same basic shape,” a 1988 book quoted Moore as saying. “Just as in a backbone which may be made up of twenty segments where each one is roughly like the others but not exactly the same…This is why I call these sculptures Vertebrae. The two or three forms are basically alike but are arranged to go with each other in different positions.”
Finally, as I wrote earlier this month, Seattle residents for some reason have quite an antipathy to umbrellas or other forms of rain garb. Maybe one reason can be found in Angie’s Umbrella. It’s a 30-foot-high painted metal depiction of an inside-out umbrella–you know, the unpleasant result of a heavy wind, which can flail about and hit nearby pedestrians. The structure is located in a traffic island where Western Avenue and Elliott Avenue come together at Lenora Street just north of Pike Place Market. Raised in 2003, it was fashioned by Seattle artists Jim Pridgeon and Benson Shaw, and named for Pridgeon’s mother. But there also are some practical functions. It’s a giant weather vane that indicates the direction of the wind And it pinwheels in the wind, giving a sense of the velocity.
What would Seinfeld think of all this?