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Readers split on Richard Serra’s “Twain”

April 14, 2010 Downtown, Parks 17 Comments
ABOVE: Inside Serras Twain
ABOVE: Inside Serra's Twain looking East to Citygarden and the Arch

I didn’t appreciate “Twain” until after Citygarden opened and I spent more time in the area. Sure, I’d driven and walked passed it many times but I had never ventured across the grass.  I’ve learned my wheelchair does a decent job on grass and, after getting up close to Twain and passing through the passageways, I now have a love affair with the sculpture.

Here are the results of last week’s poll:

Q: Which best describes your thoughts on the Gateway Mall block w/Richard Serra’s ‘Twain’ sculpture?

  1. Get rid of Twain ASAP. 104 [43%]
  2. Like Twain but the block is too bare, needs more art & activities. 63 [26%]
  3. I don’t hate Twain but I’m not crazy about it either. 37 [15%]
  4. Like Twain and the minimal surroundings, just needs new sidewalks, etc 26 [11%]
  5. Love Twain, don’t change that block at all. 7 [3%]
  6. Other answer… 4 [2%]
  7. Unsure/no opinion. 1 [0%]

While the biggest block (43%) favors removal of Twain that means a small majority are at least okay with it staying.

As I thought, readers would not be short of opinions on Twain.  One example shared by others:

I’ve always felt that Twain – an interesting piece in of itself – is simply in the wrong venue. Had this same reviled installation been originally placed in Laumeier Sculpture Park, it would likely be valued (even lauded) lauded today as an environmental work. I think we could do right by both Serra and the city by relocating Twain to Laumeier and expanding Citygarden into that space.

Twain was designed for the current site, not a suburban park.  Moving the piece would destroy it.

SERRA’S “TILTED ARC” in Federal Plaza, New York, angered workers in adjacent federal office buildings because it runs, 120 feet long and 12 feet high, across part of a much-used square. The obligatory detour around it, and its confrontational scale and placement in a city where pedestrians cherish the little open space they can get, makes it vulnerable to the charge that while it may be imposing as sculpture, it is insensitive as urban design.

“Tilted Arc” is seriously threatened with removal, and in St. Louis Alderman Timothy J. Dee of the 17th Ward has introduced a bill that would put it up to the voters to decide if “Twain” should be removed from city property. A simple majority would do it next Aug. 5 if the proposition gets on the ballot. “A whole lot of people want it moved,” Dee said.

Former Alderman Dee’s bill wasn’t approved by the Board of Aldermen.  Public art should never be the subject of a vote at the polls.  The work was designed for this site and no other, moving it would destroy it.

ABOVE: Construction of "Twain" in 1981. ® Robert Pettus, used with permission
ABOVE: Construction of "Twain" in 1981. Photo by Robert Pettus, used with permission

As you can see from the above image the context in 1981 was rather bleak. The idea was to get glimpses of the city through the openings.  You cannot appreciate “Twain” from the street or even from the sidewalk. I recently sat with Amy Broadway of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts as we watched a 1986 documentary clip on “Twain.”  It included interviews with Serra himself.  He explained how he wanted you to be free to approach from any direction, hence no paths. He wanted you to see the city differently. While I was there I experienced Serra’s “Joe:”

ABOVE: Joe by Richard Serra
ABOVE: "Joe" by Richard Serra

“The urban works need a large number of people to complete their content. (I feel strongly that these sculptures could not be in a dessert)  They need the interaction of people.”
– Richard Serra

Here is a little video clip I made of “Twain:”


Tomorrow I will outline suggestions for physical improvements to the block.  Thanks to photographer Robert Pettus for the permission to use his image.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "17 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    The most telling comment comes from the artist: “The urban works need a large number of people to complete their content.” Tht would make the oiece a failure, since few people are ever present. Two, the context has changed, both on the site and in the larger areas. Many of the views Serra originally framed are no longer there or are now obscured by trees (planted by well-intentioned people?). And three, doing an urban installation without paths, yet expecting people, while relying on public maintenance gets what we have today. Public art needs to be able to survive in the public realm. The same challenges arose at Maya Ling's Vietnam War Memorial in DC, only there there were “too many” people, and paths were quicky added.

  2. Jeff says:

    I think it's a piece that was appropriate for the time it was made; giving people in 1980's St. Louis a glimpse at parts of the city worth looking at, and showing the potential for the places it doesn't provide a view of (granted, this is my interpretation of art, and I'm an engineer). In todays St. Louis, it seems not only outdated, but very exclusive. Especially when the grass inside is a mile high, it becomes more of a box-like obstacle to be walked around than something you can enjoy. One thing I did notice, at least personally, is that when Citygarden opened, I completely overlooked it, like it wasn't even there. With all the life and vibrancy I had just walked through, I failed to notice it at all. That block has so much more potential than what it's being used for, and while designed for the current site, I believe that if it were moved to Laumeier and provided with context, perhaps faux views of the way St. Louis used to look, as well as a bit of insight into the purpose of the structure, that it would provide more value to the area.

  3. jeff says:

    Just because it was designed for the space and just because it was designed by Serra and just because somebody from the Pulitzer Foundation can wax eloquently about it doesn't mean it's a good piece of art or should remain in the face of changed circumstance (or even the original cricumstances). Nobody gets a free pass. If it's bad public art, why should it remain?

  4. Jeff says:

    I appear to have a doppleganger, haha.
    As an aside to my first comment, out of pure curiosity, can you explain why you say you now have a love affair with the sculpture?
    Not trying to sound rude, just interested

    • Type your reply…I took the time to approach the piece with an open mind. I've touched it, and passed through the openings. I've seen the shadows created at different times of day. I've witnessed others cross 10th St from Citygarden to do the same.

  5. Kevin Barbeau says:

    I think I have a problem with your dissection of the results, Steve. You say that the poll results lean toward 'keeping it' — well that's true, By your math, since 43% want it gone and roughly 55% “don't.” The problem is that there is one firm option for wanting it gone while three of the other four options are firmly for keeping it (Like/Love).

    Actually, the middle-of-the-road option — I don't hate Twain but I don't love it either 37 [15%] — is where the math really falls apart. You attributed this option to the 'keep it' side when in reality it's noncommital and should evenly award 7.5% to each side. This revised (and fair) math reveals that — ta-daa! — the 'remove it' side of the debate actually has the slight majority at 50.5%. And that's without considering the fact there were no hedged options for the 'remove it' side (not that there could be- besides relocation), like the 'keep it' side had.

    This poll was good for figuring out what the people who want to keep it would like to see done, but a straight-up two-option 'keep it' or 'remove it' poll (also stating the block will be updated regardless) would havemade the data more pure.

    The reality is that more people (in this very small sample size, anyway) want it gone — and that's in a poll whose options heavily favor the 'keep it' camp. Using your data breakdown, it appears (wrongly, I'd hope) that you're 'manipulating' the outcome to get the results you would prefer.

    • I put the full results out for everyone to see. I counted the don't hate but don't love in the keep it group only because they don't have a strong opinion either way — keeping it is probably fine. You view the date differently which is why I put it all out there and allow you to disagree as you've done.

      • Kevin Barbeau says:

        Yeah, data is wiggly like that. Heck, I'm just as guilty in a way — breaking down the numbers to support MY preference.

        I've walked through the Twain once (head up and on a swivel to take it all in) and, for me at least, that was enough times. Weve talked about psychological barriers on here and, to me, Twain is just as guilty of that. It doesn't inspire exploration.

        I will admit your video showed that it can be a quiet, reflective place in the (relative) hustle and bustle of the city, but without a BIG overhaul of the site, I don't know, it just doesn't fit what I feel is the goal/scheme of the Mall. And the thing about an overhaul (as even you've said) is that it undermines the initial vision anyway.

        Here's hoping the winds of change blow this art piece away, but if not, I'm (kind of) open to see what, if anything, could be done to make it a popular section of the Gateway Mall plan.

  6. Fluffer says:

    I'm glad you covered this. I personally like 'Twain'. I don't think there should be grass there though. Maybe try replacing it with stone or gravel. As for the views, I still think the openings line up to the Old Courthouse and the Arch. I'd really hate to see this go only to be replaced by more 'family-appeasing, entertainment' art. St. Louis can stand to have a mix of family-friendly and more cerebral pieces of public art. BTW, important lasting art isn't always popular to all the naysayers. Not everything can or should be Thomas Kinkade and Mary Engelbreit.

    I still like the idea of some kind of use underneath Twain with a clear glass entrance at either corner of the block something a la the Apple Store in Times Square: bike station, restaurant, event space.

  7. JoeBorough says:

    so I was thinking about my urban glass maze idea and came across a comment about an aquarium…
    This may be more trouble than its worth but, how cool would it be to combine the two?
    The entire maze doesn't need be one giant aquarium but a few parts that make up the maze could essentially serve as fish tanks. Then I remembered reading about genetically engineered fish that are fluorescent and glow in the dark.

    BooYah — different glow in the dark fish inside tanks inside the glass maze. It could be a neat way to draw people further inside the maze and distract them from taking the right path.

    Problem is the weather may prevent doing it. It may have to be a seasonal thing. The fish themselves are relatively cheap though, they're pretty much genetically engineered goldfish. Maybe you could also put iridescent algae in the tanks as well.

    Maybe during the summer months you have ten tanks that blend in with the slabs of glass set up with glowing goldfish and algae, and you give em away to kids as pets or something.

    Keeping the fish alive would be the difficult part but the thought of a school of neon fish swimming in a maze at night sounds cool. Kids could learn about genes and algae and marine biology in a cool setting. Imagine being drawn to the other end of the maze and away from its exit by one of these displays. You could casually stroll through the maze. I have the enthusiasm of Ed Wood at the thought of this idea. You need black light for the fish to glow at night though, so lighting would have to be strategic. You can read more at glofish.com

    • JZ71 says:

      I'm afraid that unprotected/unguarded glass (real or plexi) in the public realm, with or without water and fish, is simply not worth the hassle. It's subject to vandalism, it scratches and/or breaks easily and is expensive to replace, it requires frequent (weekly or daily) cleaning, and public entities are notorious for cutting back on maintenance funds when budgets get tight (as they always seem to be). Look at Serra's work after 20 years. It's friggin' 2″ thick steel and it shows its ongoing abuse. Just imagine what something a lot more fragile would like!

  8. tracy a. says:

    “Bad public art,” makes me laugh a little. I like to think that if something is creating this much discussion and reaction (and there is no physical harm being done to anyone), it's “good public art.” I also think if St. Louis taxpayers learned how much it would cost to remove/relocate “Twain,” they'd be happier to let it stay and perhaps would learn to appreciate it.

  9. Zundo says:

    This is one of Serra's worst pieces. I like some of Serra's stuff but this is just a terrible, weak piece of art. And just keeping it because it is a a Serra sculpture is a joke. It leaves much to be desired. I would get rid of it if I had the chance. Replace it with a new piece that really says something to people.

  10. equals42 says:

    The piece is a failure. Even great artists fail. Most of the great attributes mentioned are failings and the site specific aspects have all been obliterated since its conception. Look at the picture of it in 1981. Nothing around it is present anymore beside the courthouse.

    “He explained how he wanted you to be free to approach from any direction, hence no paths.”
    That was a failure in concept from the start as any piece surrounded by grass will naturally develop paths due to foot traffic. If any reasonable number of people appreciated the piece, they would inevitably ruin that aspect.

    An ugly piece of art isn't going to get St Louis any more love from the “Art Community” outside of St Louis that is worth the wasted space it occupies. Get rid of it.

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