Mellon Square sculpture gets new home at Carnegie Museum in Oakland


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Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh has removed four 40-year-old copper beech trees to make room for a large sculpture from Mellon Square Park. The trees had shaded a back entrance of the museums of art and natural history in Oakland since 1974.

Four new copper beeches will be planted near the portal entry circle after the sculpture is installed, said Jonathan Gaugler, an art museum spokesman. He did not provide the date.

The trees were removed from a grassy expanse to create a new home for "Forest Devil," an 18-foot-tall and 35-foot-wide sculpture constructed in 1977 out of stainless-steel tubes and steel cable by Kenneth Snelson, an internationally known artist. "Forest Devil" stood on a grassy area in Downtown's Mellon Square until March 6, when it was removed while the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy restores the park to its original design by landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds.

"It would not have been possible to install this sculpture in the traffic island without removing the trees," Mr. Gaugler said.

The sculpture, which cost $70,000, was a gift to the art museum from its women's committee. The 1,500-pound work was made in Pittsburgh and exhibited at an event called Sculpturescape during the late 1970s. Allegheny Ludlum donated the aircraft cables, and the sculpture was fabricated in Pittsburgh by Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co. and Colonial Machine Co.

"It is considered to be one of his master works. We want to put it where people can see it," Mr. Gaugler said. "We also want it somewhere where we can keep a close eye on it."

Most recently, Mr. Snelson worked with the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a tapered structure of interlocking triangles for the top of 1 World Trade Center in New York City.

"Forest Devil" will be installed before the Carnegie International, a showcase of contemporary art, opens Oct. 4.

"We raised money to have it taken down and funds for it to be put back up," said Richard Reed, senior vice president for the conservancy, adding that a $50,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation will pay for those tasks.

In an email sent to museum employees, Tony Young of the museum's facilities department said that the trees "have exceeded their life expectancy and are declining in health."

He blamed age and harsh conditions for distressing the copper beeches.

"Forest Devil" will undergo conservation at the art museum during the week of Sept. 10, said Philip Stewart Jr., a sculptor and conservator who serves as Mr. Snelson's technical facilitator. The conservation will entail "a week of hiding out in the museum's parking garage and restoring all the elements," he said in a phone interview.

In Mellon Square, the sculpture "got a lot of contact but it was kind of hidden. I never realized how elevated that square was. You can't see this from the street," Mr. Stewart said.

He believes the traffic circle at the museum's back entrance is a good spot for it. "It's pretty dominating in that spot."

The museum wanted to give the large sculpture "pride of place," Mr. Gaugler said.

"It would not fit in the sculpture court. It's designed to sit on a grassy expanse."

Three posts anchor the sculpture to the ground and sod will be installed around it, he added.

Mr. Stewart said the sculpture is in especially good shape considering that it stood outdoors when many of Pittsburgh's steel mills were still operating.

"There's a lot of acid rain etch on the polished parts." If stainless steel is damaged, Mr. Stewart said, "it can rust just like regular steel in a much more insidious way, from the inside out."

Mr. Snelson considers "Forest Devil" and similar works he made as examples of "tensegrity," a combination of the words tension and integrity. The word was coined by Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome. Mr. Fuller and Mr. Snelson met during the 1970s at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Mr. Fuller was a student teacher and Mr. Snelson was enrolled at the school founded by Josef Albers, a devotee of Bauhaus architecture.

"These sculptures are amazing in that all parts absorb all energy simultaneously. They are able to withstand remarkable external forces without failure. Those structures that Kenneth Snelson makes are the lightest strength-to-weight structures that you can build," Mr. Stewart said.

Mr. Stewart said he is delighted with the choice of the new site for "Forest Devil."

"There are more people who come into the museum from that side than the front. I think the sculpture is happier nearer the museum. When the sculptures are close to their caretakers, they get more care."

artarchitecture

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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