Landscape, Architecture, and Community

John Haber
in New York City

Maya Lin: The Museum of Chinese in America

Maya Lin's success has its share of paradoxes, and they, too, are part of her achievement. A women in a sadly male profession, she has worked steadily as an architect. A Chinese American, she alludes like Isamu Noguchi to both Modernism and Asian settings, but without insisting on either as her style or theme. Like Noguchi, too, she has worked in sculpture, design, and landscape as well as architecture. She seems content with not uniting them into a distinctive style, while learning from them all every time.

She achieved recognition even as a student, when she transformed public memories of the Vietnam War. A literally groundbreaking work, it made Minimalism all but the official language of memorials. Her transformations as an architect seem more modest, but no less worth heeding. Her buildings have often had previous lives, and it is hard to know for sure where she left her mark. In her work on museums, the building's history and the curator's choices both enter strongly into the design. One might call her an architect and a star, but not a celebrity architect. Maya Lin's Three Ways of Looking at the Earth (PaceWildenstein, 2009)

Two exhibitions and a museum opening in 2009 offer a chance to put the pieces together. They all suggest the reticence that makes her work both challenging and comforting. The Museum of Chinese in America takes one underground as a step into urban and cultural history. Her recent sculpture, in turn, recalls earthworks, but also earth in the face of climate change. Together, they suggest a common ground for her work: few others do so much to connect landscape, architecture, and community.

Between memories and creature comforts

Art is a struggle. Architecture is a business.

It takes certification, clients, and financing. It takes connections. Do Matthew Barney and Cai Guo-Qiang seem overblown? Architects make installation art look like petty theft by comparison. They can vie with museums as global corporations. They also face the unwritten rules of an old boy's club.

The wonder is that they are so often creative. They can work for decades before becoming all too much in demand, like Renzo Piano on his way to the Whitney. Even Frank Gehry keeps losing New York commissions. And if museums still slight women artists, a fat textbook in the history of architecture might not mention a single woman. Audrey Matlock's condos are opening across from a planned Whitney expansion with new museum architecture and the High Line as elevated park, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (founded by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio). Yet only Zaha Hadid has had a New York museum retrospective of large-scale buildings.

So what accounts for Maya Lin? She won the commission for the Vietnam War Memorial while still an undergraduate at Yale. Her Women's Table at Yale celebrates women students, whose names spiral outward. A secluded garden fountain has morphed into political art. She works steadily without insisting on her public presence. At least in photographs, she has kept her architecture largely to residences, with a modest Modernism and lots of air.

Lin's work can sound confrontational before one sees it. It may feel deeply comforting in person—and end up shaking things up anyway. For all the outcries, her Vietnam War Memorial quickly became the best-loved sight in Washington. Yet it does change how one experiences and understands a memorial, as apart from a monument. The heroic statue erected nearby ended up doing neither. Veterans demanded it, but they may well ignore it most of all, preferring to seek out the names of the fallen in Lin's stone.

SculptureCenter in Long Island City boils down in principle to a dreary concrete wall and an effort to bring the interior up to code. Behind the bare white wall bare lie white pebbles. Within, a single wall separates a tiny project room from the rest. In practice, a museum sculpture garden and industrial space are all but mandatory, just as for the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, also recently reopened. Yet the disconnect with the street and cranky basement tunnels hold surprises. Its dark halls, uneven walls, and remnants of old equipment offer artists and visitors alike a delightful challenge.

MOCA's adventures underground

Perhaps nothing tests the limits of Lin's style so much as her latest building and her latest sculpture. She has just completed the Museum of Chinese in America, in Chinatown, to encompass history and contemporary Chinese art. As with Claire Weisz at the Drawing Center or Duncan Hazard and Richard Olcott at the Yale University Art Gallery, one can think of her less as its architect than its conservator. A good restorer knows when to leave well enough alone. In stripping away old varnish from a possible Velázquez portrait, the Met's conservator resisted filling in the gaps. Colors and brushwork have come alive, but much else will remain forever unknown.

Lin does something similar with a museum. For SculptureCenter, she gave the trolley repair shop a thorough cleaning, right down to gaps in the old brick. As with the Spanish portrait, only your imagination can complete it. Lin's restraint immerses viewer in the space all the more, especially in the basement tunnels. It may also explain why her architecture works best, like Alice through the looking glass, as adventures underground. With the Vietnam War Memorial or her landscaping at Storm King with its own light and landscape this past year, one must accept immersion in order to rise.

Maya Lin's basement stairs (Museum of Chinese in America, 2009)The Museum of Chinese in America invites one underground, too. With the stairs to the rest rooms and education center, Lin has preserved the two-story atrium and its dark trapezoidal skylight. They look back to a Chinese central courtyard and to nearby Chinatown, but flowers rest on the clean modern steps, and images flicker on monitors set into the crumbling red brick. The space is haunted, but the ghosts know to keep their distance. MOCA opened in its new location in September, and it is still defining a community's relationship to its past and present.

Back upstairs, under director Alice Mong, the small galleries engage visitors by a more conventional means, museum displays. The rooms immediately ahead begin a history of East and West, from the first trade in spices and opium. Then come immigrant labor on the railroads, the birth of Chinatowns and their "elite slummers," and growing assimilation. Its stages include Chinese laundries, the fad for chop suey, stereotypes like Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan, and professional success—all of which drew white America into the Chinese community as well. These rooms circle back at the left, while a room to the right exhibits contemporary art. One can think of the three choices on entering as past, present, and future (although the future that I caught looked rather tame).

They rely little on showy objects, beyond a dragon's head from the celebration of Chinese New Year. A Dual 1227 turntable, like an old box TV, belong to stages in my own desiring as much to Chinese in America. For more shades of Alice, the section on laundry workers has a flatiron labeled "Lift Me" (and, yes, it is heavy). Maps on the floor connect to a further history in objects suspended from above. More often, though, the museum relies on images and text, including light boxes set into the walls. These supply brief profiles of past and present role models, including Lin herself.

The down side of Lin's restraint is her reticence. To her credit, MOCA stands at almost opposite poles from celebrity architecture at the New Museum, barely half a mile away. Yet little distinguishes the exterior from the garage next door or the upscale liquor store just up the block, and little distinguishes the lobby from a well-appointed gift shop. Only a fire escape outside preserves the past, and it takes time within to feel haunted. Nothing equals the descent to the basement, which leads away from the galleries. It is worth the trip all the same.

Architects to planet earth

Could Lin work best between architecture and an actual landscape, as with her memorials at Yale and in Washington? Her Wave Field at Storm King makes a hilly landscape more gentle, but it also lets one hide from view. In contrast, the High Line recalls her instinct to preserve industrial structures, but it directs one in straight lines. I keep looking for somewhere to hide. It is not easy in New York to create a tradition rather than a trend. People do not talk about Lin and her work, and that may be part of why I look forward to it.

Lin straddles many practices, and that may help explain her success. Still, one can picture them all as landscape architecture. It makes sense given the history of earth art and site-specific art—from Buckminster Fuller and Robert Smithson to The Gates and Roxy Paine in Central Park. Lin does not define herself as strictly an artist, a designer of memorials, or an architect. Two recent shows of her art allude to all three. She pushes her interpretation of landscape even in a New York gallery, and it seems to chafe at its limits.

"Recycled Landscapes" assembles plastic throwaways into spheres. They allude at once to planet earth and the refuse that threatens it. They also look suspiciously like oversized cat toys. "Three Ways of Looking at the Earth" both simulates and represents landscape. Its three parts draw their scale from common materials and from the gallery walls. They also try a little too hard for crowd pleasers and crowd control.

Lin presents the earth in turn as a topographic map, a space in which to breathe, and a physical landscape. It makes sense that she worked on this show so soon after Wave Hill. Blue Lake Pass allows visitors to walk between twenty softly rolling hills. Each is a little over waist high and made of parallel plywood sheets. Still, visitors instinctively view them as sculpture.

It is also becoming a stale kind of sculpture in the hands of others, as in other gallery shows that mimic architecture without deconstructing it. Tobias Putrih's wiggly stacked cardboard or Damián Ortega's carved bricks could fit quite well alongside. Ortega alludes to lost civilizations and the debris of capitalism's failures, but he revels in them both. Individual totems also look suspiciously like Wall-E. At least Lin sticks to nature through the eyes of the twenty-first century. It is unambiguously sculpture all the same.

Lin's Water Line maps the ocean floor, with thanks to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, but the airy metal construction actually works against its impact. People turn instead to 2 x 4 Landscape, a single hill taking almost the entire gallery floor. And she has built it all from standing two-by-fours. As one circulates the narrow surrounding passage, the landscape itself seems to change. I just wish that it did not oblige a kind of forced march along the wall or compete with the transcendence of simple parts in Tara Donovan. I look forward to Lin's once again taking her blend of the familiar and the marvelous back to earth.

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Maya Lin ran at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea through October 24, 2009, and at Salon 94 through November 13, Damián Ortega at Barbara Gladstone through October 31. The Museum of Chinese in America relocated to 215 Centre Street in stages, starting with a film program in July and concluding with an opening on September 22. A related review picks up Maya Lin and her response to climate change in 2017.


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