Review: Conceptual artist Mel Bochner plays mind games at CMU's Kraus Campo
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Bright orange-yellow pathways wind through dark mounds of plants in the garden atop CMU's Posner Center.
Click photo for larger image.
Maybe Malcolm Gladwell's new book, "Blink," should be required reading for critics. Subtitled "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," it's about how some people can sift through a lifetime of knowledge and experience and arrive at the right decision in an instant.
Like most critics, I find that first impressions are sometimes buoyed up and sometimes buried under waves of subsequent research. In "Blink," which I happened to be reading while thinking about the new building and garden at Carnegie Mellon University, Gladwell validates "rapid cognition" and explains how it works.
He recounts how Thomas Hoving was able to spot a fake sixth-century B.C. marble statue by trusting the first word that came into his head when he saw it: "fresh." In the end, that proved more reliable than the geologist's investigation commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum to authenticate its antiquity.
We used to call them snap judgments, which has a negative, don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover ring to it. Researchers now call it "thin-slicing," because it requires only narrow slices of experience.
When I first saw CMU's Posner Center shortly before its completion, my thin-slice was that its facade is sorely out of place.
The $5.3 million center, designed by WTW Architects, houses a collection of fine and rare books, documents and Asian art acquired between 1924 and 1973 by Henry Posner, the late owner of Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising Co. It also provides a technologically sophisticated meeting room for university trustees.
With its curved, cascading, gray granite planted terraces, the center emanates a stale whiff of '30s moderne, making it an odd duck on a campus that has tried hard over the past decade to have its new buildings speak the same language -- classicism -- as Henry Hornbostel's original campus, but in a contemporary dialect.
The Posner Center's rounded corners soften edges that didn't need to be softened. That's the role of plants on this hanging gardens facade, where ivy already is beginning to spill over the terraces.
The disappointment is compounded because language is one of the subjects of the one-story center's rooftop garden.
Designed by conceptual artist and Carnegie Mellon alumnus Mel Bochner, and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, the $4 million garden has, as one of its backdrops, a blue-painted wall on which is mounted a large quotation in black-and-white porcelain tile, two scrambled sentences by Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
I won't spoil the challenge of untangling this word puzzle; part of the experience of the garden is that you figure it out for yourself. But the effect is that the words, isolated from the sense-making context of the sentence, come to us as pure fragments of language. They become a kind of found poetry, and when spoken aloud, a strange incantation: "In walk they direction the changed have people. ..."
"It's meant to parody the elevated sentiments one finds engraved on institutions," Bochner said at the CMU symposium on artists and gardens in April.
That's all? Hardly.
Wittgenstein studied, among other things, the philosophy of time and language, and for years his work has informed Bochner's, which often takes as its subject words and their meanings.
His monoprint series, "Aggravate," is a gaily colored litany of synonyms for that word, writ forward and backward in block letters. You can almost feel your blood pressure rising as you read them: irritate, exasperate, anger, irk, piss you off.
Like the garden wall quote, it's a good boy's version of bad-boy art. Since the mid-1960s Bochner also has contributed to the discourse as an art critic, so he knows the power of words to persuade and provoke.
My thin-slice of the garden was "garish." That's because my gaze lit first on its peachy paths, painted a bright yellow-orange. But I have returned several times and the shock has worn off, as shocks do. Now I notice subtle variations and striations in the paths, which will continue to lighten over time until their industrial coating, developed for recreational surfaces like tennis and basketball courts, is reapplied.
"Mel had the notion that the paths would be pictorially and experientially important," Van Valkenburgh said at the symposium. Hence the eye-catching yellow-orange, which, when seen from above -- say, the architecture students' drafting room -- creates a bold, sinuous pattern against the dark mounds of plants. Bochner said he wanted the paths to offer "a long walk in a short space."
Walking the winding paths, especially in the early morning when the garden is empty, is a calming, meditative experience, like walking a labyrinth. But unlike a labyrinth's path, these rise and fall in a man-made topography of mounds whose plants will grow together over time, creating "living islands," as Bochner put it. Already they've begun to create a sense of anticipation and discovery as you consider and find what's around the next bend.
Design inspiration came from the Greek agora as a marketplace of ideas and the city of Siena, Italy, where streets radiate organically from the Piazza del Campo. Here the paths radiate from the garden's Kraus Campo.
Named for the garden's donors, CMU alumna Jill Gansman Kraus and her husband, Peter Kraus, the campo is a raised, tilted platform near the garden's center, a place where students sit, stand, stretch out, talk, laugh, debate. With a shape inspired by a French curve, the drafting tool of yesteryear, the campo and its surrounding patterns also recall the parterres of French formal gardens.
The campo is tiled in a porcelain carpet of black-on-white numbers, fitting symbols for a garden located between the business and architecture schools. Randomly positioned and divorced from function, the numbers offer only their graphic, symbolic selves, but they also are a reminder that Bochner has used numerical sequences in some of his work.
Van Valkenburgh used a limited palette of plant materials, including boxwood, azaleas and Japanese barberry. The latter is a gorgeous, seductive shrub with subtly shifting colors that range from pink-lavender to blue-green on a single plant. It's also a prickly invasive, as representatives of Citiparks and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens pointed out at the symposium.
Introduced to America in about 1864, Japanese barberry is one of the most widespread, non-native invasives in Pennsylvania, thriving as an understory plant in forests throughout the state.
Van Valkenburgh acknowledged that it's "worrisome as an invasive plant" because of its indestructibility. One of the reasons he chose it, apart from its good looks and compatibility with the garden's other plants, is that he was unsure of the level of care the garden would receive. He now knows it will have good care, but something so fundamental should have been nailed down before plant selection.
The garden is an environmentally insensitive addition to a campus adjacent to a city park. But it's also a physically and intellectually stimulating place, one that weaves together several strands of historical precedent and Bochner's own traditions into a modern pleasure garden that will enrich the campus and its students.
He hopes it will remind them to think for themselves, stretch their imaginations and not worry about blending in. And that "sometimes you have to walk around in circles, or look at the world backwards, to see it as it really is."
Kraus Campo didn't have me at hello, but first impressions always require a second look.
First Published August 22, 2005 12:00 am