Anyone who's ever stood in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. can attest to the emotional power of Maya Lin's minimalist sensibility as an artist, architect and sculptor. When she won the commission for the memorial in 1980 (out of a pool of over 1,400 submissions), Lin was still a 21-year-old student at Yale University. But her simple, black-marble, wedge design that bears the names of those Americans who died in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975 was a strikingly different approach to a national memorial. Rather than a figurative sculpture or a protruding monument, Lin created a site-specific memorial on the Washington Mall that led viewers down beneath the ground level into a figurative tomb of names. The revolutionary design managed both to avoid any overt political statements (though it was incredibly controversial at the time) while still cutting straight to the grief that the war in Vietnam left in the American psyche.
While the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is still Lin's best-known work, her art has continued to use language, minimal surfaces and site specificity as a means to open-ended dialogue in everything from memorials to conceptual installations.
"I create places in which to think, without trying to dictate what to think," says Lin in her book Boundaries, adding, "I like to think of my work as creating a private conversation with each person, no matter how public each work is and no matter how many people are present."
Not surprisingly, one of Lin's primary modes of creation is writing. For her, the use of text means the viewer has to read, which she views as "an inherently private act" that makes the viewing more intimate. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin's Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, and her Women's Table at Yale all use engraved text as a means to transform these very public artworks into deeply personal experiences for viewers.
When not creating memorials, Lin's public works still strive for a transcendent poetry of site and landscape. Wave Field, for example, transformed a plain, grassy quad in front of the Aerospace Engineering Building at the University of Michigan into a field of grass waves and a meditation on the relationship between science and the natural world. In an American culture obsessed with shock and awe of all forms, such understatements come off as radically beautiful.
Many were surprised that Lin didn't win the commission for the memorial to the victims of 9/11. But the design that was chosen -- two reflecting pools designed by Michael Arad -- set in the footprints of the World Trade Center Towers, was startlingly similar to the design that Lin herself submitted, a testament to the fact that her subtle, yet powerful, approach to the art of public monuments is already a powerful legacy.
-- Noel Black
capsule Maya Lin
Armstrong Hall at Colorado College
Northwest corner of Cascade Ave. and Cache La Poudre St.
Wednesday., April 21 at 7:30 p.m.