Maya Lin at American Academy, Rome (1999)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - design | 15 September 2009
This review first appeared in World Sculpture News, 5(2), pp. 72-3 in 1999.

Maya Lin at American Academy, Rome

Best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981-1982) in Washington D.C., American artist-designer Maya Lin (b. 1959) emerged on the art scene at the age of 21 with her controversial design in post-war sensitive America. Reductive in nature, she challenged notions of what a war memorial should look like. Since that time, the memorial has become influential, with critic Vincent Scully calling it "the most significant work of architecture to be constructed in the United States during the second half of the century." This show, Maya Lin’s first in Europe, chronologically drew from this landmark starting point and showed fifteen three-dimensional projects.

Maya Lin’s work crosses the boundaries of sculpture, furniture design, and architecture. For the most part, her designs were represented by a series of maquettes, photographs, and drawings. Representations of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial were situated with other sculpture, including her Civil Right Memorial (1987-1989). Montgomery, Alabama, and The Women’s Table (1990-1993), at Yale University.

Text is an important component in these designs— for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the war dead are listed in chronological order— instead of alphabetical. In the Civil Right Memorial, the dates and descriptions of key events in the Civil Rights struggle are listed along the edge of a flat circular form. Water bubbles over the form refer to Martin Luther King Jr’s quote, "...Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." On The Woman’s Table the number of women admitted to Yale since its founding are displayed. In an accompanying catalogue Maya Lin expresses admiration and interest in the work of Richard Serra, Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, and, particularly, Robert Smithson.

For furniture design, Maya Lin displayed her indoor/outdoor Stones tables and stools for Knoll (1998). Cast in cement with subdued green, blue, yellow, and red colours, they function as combined sculpture/furniture in abstract, curved, and flattened geometric shapes. Problematically, while the form is beautiful, the material is ungiving—sitting on the surface and form is a memory that linger.

Maya Lin’s architectural designs included her Weber House in Massachusetts (1991-1993), and a Private Apartment in New York (1998)— which recalls the carpentry and reconfiguration of Gerrit Rietveld’s Schroder House in Utrecht (1924)— and they both show a confluence of her sensibilities across the sculpture-furniture-architecture continuum.

In this sea of documentation, the show’s highlight was the site-specific installation Il Cortile Mare (1998) in the Academy’s courtyard. Shaping marble pieces from Siena into a series of abstracted waves. Maya Lin played on the material and its rich Italian— and Roman— history, and pursued an additive process as opposed to a subtracted, she referenced the form of earlier work, like the grass-covered Wave Field (1993-1995) at the University of Michigan, and the material of others. In the Roman light, the waves and ever-changing shadows played off the courtyard’s warm-colored exterior. Quiet and reflective, Il Cortile Mare referenced her previous work in the show, and created a necessary reference point for viewers.