Michael Morrill

Five Artists At the Airport: Sculpture as Environment

Elaine A. King, Ph.D. 

Guest Curator: Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. October 10-December 30, 1992.

This curator cannot take credit for selecting the artists who recently completed the site-specific works at the newly opened Pittsburgh International Airport — she is responsible only for choosing the works assembled in this exhibition and for orchestrating its production. The five artists were chosen by the committee listed on the acknowledgment page. Guiding the committee’s final selections was the joint decision to find artists whose works would envice the concept of art as landscape or sculptural environment. The committee scrutinized more than 460 artists’ proposals before awarding the commissions to Jackie Ferrara, Maren Hassinger, Michael Morrill, Robert Morris, and Alan Daniel Saret.

In fulling the commissions, each artist faced a double challenge: to create a work in the artist’s unique idiom that would speak to the vast, non-art-oriented public, and to determine who would have the last word - the artist, the architect, or the client, namely the county officials. The results suggest that both challenges were met.

Five Artists at the Airport: Insights into Public Art celebrates the successful collaborative interaction between art and architecture. The site works at the new Pittsburgh International Airport are neither examples of "plop art" nor decorative adjuncts in a civic arena. This balance is hard to achieve, since artists often aspire to engage a space while architects want to refine their designs, and are also always cognizant of economic constraints. Public art becomes an interdisciplinary and participatory process; all parties involved in this complex endeavor must commit to working together for a larger goal. Demonstrated in the artworks located inside and outside the new airport are integrated solutions of art, architecture, and landscape design.

Although each of the five sculptors has a highly individual style, and many of the works in this exhibition and at the airport are indebted to the language of Post-Minimalism — the work mediates between the past and the present and between the permanent and the temporal. Since the late 1960s sculpture has assumed a new identity and has evolved into a complex medium who's categories have been stretched. Definitions have been altered in the rich interexchange between previously differentiated art forms. Art routinely began to spill over into previously considered non-art territories — site transformations, performances, video, and installation — which, while within the range of visual art, denied its discrete objecthood and purely visual status. The personal, the quixotic, and the representational informed artistic thinking. By 1970 a major cultural shift had been noticed and given the designations Post-Modernism and Post-Minimalism, categorical terms that are general enough to describe the ensuing pluralism.

The initial manifestations of Post-Modernism occurred in relationship to architecture. However, in other visual arts, the manifestations of Post-Minimalism heralded the early tremors of Post-Modernism; chance, indeterminacy, and variable installations became regular features of Post-Minimalist art. Post-Modernism has, since the early 1970s, taken artists off into different directions — it freed them from the stranglehold of Clement Greenberg's formalist doctrine, allowing them to have myriad interpretive responses and access points. In Pittsburgh's Post-Modern airport design, these site-works have been integrated into a prevailing aesthetic paradigm.

Although several models directly related to the site-works are included, the works presented in this exhibition focus primarily on broader notions and issues affecting each artist's process for developing a sculptural idea. This curator hopes that close examination of the art at the airport and the works in this exhibition, will enable the viewer to come away with a clearer understanding both the function of public art and of the larger creative production of these five artists.

Jackie Ferrara's sculptures and site-works enact a slow unfolding in quiet and reserved ways. In Ferrara's art one becomes witness to a celebration of mathematical order, logical progression, and mysterious serenity. Her meticulous constructions comprised of endless details prompt one to believe that they are computer generated; on the contrary, her inventive forms and sites are all designed and calculated by hand on common graph paper. She uses modular units bolted together in series that are determined by mathematical progressions, allowing them to be combined and varied in infinite ways. Their obsessive step-by-step careful building suggests the fragility displayed in a house of cards. Subtle colors characterize her complex monuments inspired by temple sites, towers, pyramids, and piazzas of the past. Over the last ten years, Ferrara's structures have become increasingly complex, evincing this artist's mastery of architectural principles and the intricacies involved in designing stepped sequences. In her geometrical structures, Ferrara plays with ambiguities of space, permanence, and scale.

Aspiring to produce a work that would prompt a strong personal interaction between the art and the airport environment, Ferrara designed Pathz, which twists and turns meandering around the entire ticketing and transit levels of the Landside Terminal. Installed on two levels and spanning 70,000 feet of French Briare tile, this interior environment evokes a metaphysical presence. The actual floor pattern was inspired by a science-fiction story about members of a royal family who live in different countries and time zones. However, at any time they can enter a particular room and traverse the tile in a designated manner. When they do so correctly they are led to a secret exit which allows entrance into another time zone and place. Ferrara reflects on the magic of travel: "airports are strange places — once in them one seems to exist in a type of limbo — a place that transports you."

Although Maren Hassinger is known as a sculptor whose objects and installations fluctuate between order and chaos and chance and systemic formulae, she is also a performance artist who has a keen understanding of contemporary dance and musical cadence. She began making sculpture in 1965 at Bennington College. Her comprehension of sculptural space is closely aligned to the sensibility of Eva Hesse, who employed abstract forms to relay private statements and contradictions, and demonstrated an expansive inventiveness in the use of materials in her new sculptural forms. Frequently Hassinger uses industrial materials of cable, concrete, plaster, and wire. Through her innovative handling of these, she transforms industrial matter into organic-looking forms. Early on, a sense of a theatrical stage set became an important element in her work; she wanted to transcend the notion of an artist presenting works in an isolated gallery or theatre. In such performances as Crucifix/Red Cross (1980) and Flying (1982) she successfully dissolved the physical sense of the singular framing of an aesthetic discipline. The experience of Hassinger's art is not a static act of viewing. Someone entering a Hassinger environment is not intended to be merely a passive spectator but is expected to become a participant in a total experience. In most of her art a sense of visual and physical open-endedness prevails. The viewer is provided with a limited number of clues and objects and is invited to take a journey into the work. A sense of the unknown, the unexpected, is found in her organically inspired installations and environments. The Meditation Room at the airport is sparse yet provides its visitor with comfort— a place for retreat from the chaos of a bustling airport environment. It becomes a place for quiet reflection, for aesthetic enrichment and self-transformation. 


Divided Square 50, 1989, Acrylic on canvas over panels, 72 x 72 inches.

Divided Square 50, 1989, Acrylic on canvas over panels, 72 x 72 inches.

Michael Morrill was trained as a sculptor at Yale. In 1984 certain physical relationships in his site-sculptures began to manifest themselves in his paintings. His rectangular site-installation Compass, located at the airport's international arrival and departure area, covers a span of 60 by 42 by 10 feet. Its underlying formal concerns spark a relationship back to his Divided Square painting series begun in 1987. However, as evidenced by its title, Compass reveals Morrill's return to making single pieces with unique titles. His work reveals a continuous exploration of balance and imbalance between two joined sections that differ in color and surface treatment. This is evident in Compass's tinted glass and horizontal planes. Morrill's Divided Square series depicts painterly gridlocks of stops and starts, thick and thin, and order and chaos — contradiction and spontaneity abound. Comprised of countless layers of underpainting, these works give the impression of constant refinement and movement. A sense of the seductive ordering of the square forms the compositional basis of Morrill's paintings. Influences of Malevich and Mondrian are evident in his work, as are connections to expressive painting. Respect for the work of the Mexican architect Luis Barragan, who successfully fused the International style with Morrill's own emotive idiom, has had an impact on his visual and structural organization. This artist deliberately marks, scrapes, and scratches his orderly constructions. The result is a state of mysterious interruption, resulting in the erosion of his pervading rational forms. 

Section of  Compass , Pittsburgh International Airport.

Section of Compass, Pittsburgh International Airport.


Robert Morris studied engineering before becoming a painter influenced by Jackson Pollock during the 1950s. His restless mind has pushed him to expand the parameters of a variety of areas of sculpture and painting. Like Robert Rauschenberg and others, he has explored relations among painting, sculpture, theatre, and dance, and has used photography as well. He was a significant figure in the "materials and process" school of the 1960s. Because he has gained a position of leadership for his experiments in Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Earthworks, as well as in expressionist paintings, Morris's work is difficult to categorize. 

Morris made his first sculpture, The Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, in 1961. The idea of sculpture as the organization of solids and architectural space, was realized for Morris during the mid 1960s. The engagement of architectural space as an integral part of sculpture has been a continuous part of his art making. Evidence of this can be traced back to an installation at the Green Gallery in 1964, where massive geometric forms loomed and enclosed the floor, ceiling, and walls. The earthwork Observatory (1971-77) demonstrates Morris's search for transcendent alternatives to Minimalism. His site rock-steam gardens, located at the new airport, is a signature piece. Inspired by gardens at the ancient Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, his site-work has a central channel of steam emitting illusory clouds of gentle mist. Consisting of five concrete walled spaces filled with sea stones, this 700-feet-long by 70-feet-wide outdoor installation activates a spatial corridor. Like many earthwork artists of the 1970s, Morris does not set out to personify nature, nor to treat it allegorically, nor to present it as a narrative. Here, as in Observatory, Morris frames nature, isolates it, and transforms it into an isolated space for contemplation and interaction by visitors. His installation at the airport provides visitors with a gateway for a renewed perception beyond the existing architectural reality. 

Alan Saret has had a long relationship to architecture, since he studied it at Cornell University. This background furnished him with an understanding of mathematical logic, engineering, and technology. Although his art is about formal problem solving, and the shape of his forms are derived from a numerical system, contradictions abound in his work. Respectful of the mysteries of nature and the realities of order and chaos, he makes sculpture that reflects and emulates the forces of nature. Saret's work represents a deliberate turning away from mass. His elusive art is unique—he approaches a problem from an invisible inside order rather than from outside physicality. Form is in concepts rather than in concrete materials. He has stated, "My work began as an inquiry into the nature of matter…I have learned that spirit is the nature of matter. The spirit and the structuring by number and mathematics allow the form to manifest itself….” The real purpose of art, Saret believes, is to enrich society's spiritual life through an exploration of essences. 

Home and Away, located in the Air Terminal, occupies 55,000 feet of tiled floor patterns. The overall design was calculated with drafting implements rather than being generated by computer. Comprised of geometric shapes in varying tones of blue, the forms are functional, decorative, and poetic. "l wanted to make something that would make people feel reassured in finding a direction to their destination," Saret explained. Although his intent to address the confusion in airports remained a source of his inspiration, his initial, more complex and subtle design had to be altered several times in order to be integrated into the architect's design. Because of these major alterations, the resulting work is, perhaps, Saret's most physically pronounced construction. Nevertheless, in spite of the massiveness of his tile paths, they retain much of his original conception of an ethereal form turned inside out and frozen in place. 

Saret shares with several of the artists represented here a predilection for using untraditional materials. He is best known for his fantastic installations and hanging structures that reflect and emulate the forces of nature. An open dialogue with gravity is evident in his floating forms. Although wire has been a prominent material in his work, he has also used cloth, paper, rope, and rubber. In contrast to Robert Morris's works, which also are made of industrial materials, Saret's sculptures are not permeable—they suggest an illusory presence. 

In addressing multiple aesthetic issues and technical problems, the sculptors in this exhibition have demonstrated an ability to accomplish difficult tasks. The works shown here are testimony to their artistic ability. Each work reveals a special blend of energy and innovation—each piece is inspired by the artist's intelligence, private myths, and strong personal feelings within the cultural context in which it was produced.