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Tuesday, July 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"There's nothing else like this in the country" for outdoor art, says artist

Seattle Times art critic

About Olympic Sculpture Park


Where it is

The park is a 9-acre site next to Myrtle Edwards Park on Seattle's downtown waterfront. Its zigzagging plan crosses Elliott Avenue and the railroad tracks down to the shore.

The art

When the park opens Oct. 28, 22 sculptures will be installed, representing some of the best-known names in contemporary art: Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg, Mark Di Suvero, Tony Smith and others.

Paying for the park

The park's $85 million cost is part of Seattle

Art Museum's $180 million capital campaign, which has received donations from more than 5,000 private, corporate and public parties. Last week, the museum announced its most recent donation, a $2.5 million challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation, which brings the total raised to $169.5 million. The museum must raise the remaining $10.5 million by

Oct. 1, 2007, according to the terms of the Kresge grant.

From the vantage point of Richard Serra — the pre-eminent sculptor of our time — Seattle is at the brink of a "defining and turning moment."

When the Seattle Art Museum's new Olympic Sculpture Park opens Oct. 28, this city will dedicate an extraordinary cultural venue, unlike anything else in the country.

The nine-acre park, reclaiming a former industrial site, will help integrate the city with the shimmering waterfront, making great art — and gorgeous views — accessible to anyone.

"It will make people the subject of their own wonder," Serra said Monday. "It's a great gift to the community."

Serra arrived in Seattle early Saturday to supervise installation of "Wake," the park's largest permanent installation. In its current configuration, the 300-ton steel sculpture, built in 2004, stretches 125 feet and stands alone in the park's "valley," a site that Serra selected for it. He also helped design the surroundings to accommodate his piece.

Former SAM chief curator Lisa Corrin says the decision to buy "Wake," which was first displayed at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, was "an act of spontaneous combustion," with museum trustees phoning her to insist this was the right artwork.

"I saw this piece and just about fell off my feet," Corrin says. "This thing that weighs thousands of pounds looked like it was made of water. As your body moved through it, your body and the sculpture seemed to dissolve into each other. ... I was very moved by the shapes. The mathematical complexity of them. You can't quite figure them out. They are very mysterious. The piece doesn't make sense until you physically engage them."

But SAM was not alone in wanting the sculpture. "There were many museums competing for this, as well as an important private collector," Corrin said.

So she courted Serra, taking him to the New York office of architectural firm Weiss/Manfredi, where he viewed the model for the park. By the end of the visit, Corrin said, Serra was convinced. "He said, 'We are going to make it work: This is the home for this sculpture.' "

Fit, focused and articulate at 66, Serra, a San Francisco native, first came here some 40 years ago as a young, longhaired sculptor, at the invitation of Seattle arts patrons Virginia and Bagley Wright. Virginia Wright commissioned a piece from him for the campus of Western Washington University.

Now one of the world's most acclaimed living artists, Serra lives in New York and Nova Scotia. He has major works in such prestigious institutions as the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, Spain, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., yet still stresses how important the Wrights were to his early career, calling them "very encouraging, very supportive."

The Wrights donated to the purchase of "Wake," as did SAM trustees Susan and Jeff Brotman; Ann Wyckoff; and the museum's modern-art acquisition fund. ARTnews magazine cited the price of the sculpture as $5 million.

"Wake" will be a major draw at the park and perfectly reflects the nearness of Puget Sound. The five wave-like steel components appear to fishtail through space, held aright by their enormous weight and canny engineering. The forms suggest the water streaming behind a moving ship and the looming sides of the ship itself.

All of that is fine with Serra. "One of the great things about having the piece in Seattle is that the nautical allusion here is undeniable. Do I mind that? It couldn't be better!"

But for the artist, the piece has a more personal reference, too. The title "Wake" also references the death of his friend Kirk Varnedoe. Varnedoe, the warmly regarded former curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, died in 2003 and had been planning a retrospective exhibition for Serra. The exhibition will open at MoMA in May 2007.

Serra's work is defined by its huge scale and the shifting relationships among simple forms. But the thing that sticks with you is the way it makes you feel, Serra says: "Once sculpture got off the pedestal, it entered into the behavioral space of the viewer. You could walk through and around it. Then the content wasn't necessarily the thing you were looking at; the content was you."

One thing Serra likes about the park is that is was designed to accommodate specific permanent artworks in their own outdoor "galleries," as well as showcase temporary commissions and changing exhibitions in a spectacular setting.

"It's not going to be a parking lot of sculpture," Serra says. "There's nothing else like this in the country."

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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