1.16 / Louise

Visible Alternatives, Part 3

By Christian L. Frock June 2, 2010

Legs: An Informal Analysis of Public Art

Image: Public Art Survey, 2009; project documentation. Courtesy of Christian L. Frock presents Invisible Venue. Photo: Aaron Stienstra.


The object is 50 feet tall, 20 feet wide, 6 feet in diameter and clearly weighs several thousand pounds. It hangs in an open three-story nook in the Embarcadero BART/Muni station in downtown San Francisco. The first time I noticed it, I was fascinated—this thing was so dirty and dusty that the layered history of its filthiness somehow made it romantic and intriguing. As if it could be a sculpture. Initially, it seemed impossible that an actual artwork could be so publicly neglected, so I assumed I was looking at some kind of functional object. Largely composed of masses of rope in knotted configurations that appear vaguely purposeful and bearing a significant accumulation of grime, I thought it was perhaps used to clean the trains, like a big car wash.

Discovering that the object is Barbara Shawcroft’s sculpture Legs (1975‑1978) launched me into an ongoing investigation into the attitudes, ethics, and responsibilities relative to public art.[1] Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commissioned Legs for permanent placement in its newly designed Embarcadero Station in the mid 1970s.[2] The architects (Tallie Maule, Hertzka and Knowles Associates, Finland and USA) required a budget for the installation and maintenance of two large-scale sculptures at either end of the station. The work was commissioned for $50,000 through a Bay Area‑wide competition held at the onset of construction.

The sculpture is made from Nomex, a flame-resistant synthetic material created by DuPont and used to create gear for firefighters.[3] Designed for easy maintenance to avoid accumulation of soot, according to the artist it has only been cleaned once and then only after she engaged legal counsel in the ’80s to represent the interests of her work.[4] The layered accumulation of soot over the last several decades has created a perverse inversion of the artist’s intentions: once fireproof, the sculpture is now highly flammable and poses a significant public safety hazard.[5] Originally intended to be interactive—viewers were to be able to walk through the sculpture—the work has been altered considerably without the artist’s involvement, including BART’s removal and destruction of various sculptural components.[6]

My research began with conversations about this work and my investigation remains largely driven by the desire to piece together a greater sense of how varied observations reflect on public art. At the core of my interests was whether anyone else had experienced it as I had—somewhat accidentally, despite its scale—and if their observations were also driven by its current state. This, in turn, led to a slew of other questions: Is it possible for an artwork to be so long neglected that its very status as artwork is revocable? What would such a process entail? What are our social attachments to permanent public sculpture in a time when temporary, ephemeral projects are predominant? How do the answers to these questions reflect on contemporary cultural values?

The myriad, non-definitive answers to these questions—articulated through reactions to the sculpture itself— reflect on the complexity of the relationship between the public and public art. My own reaction (as a writer and curator) is manifold, ranging from an interest in creating a theoretical discourse around the work’s current condition to accepting its aesthetic appearance while objecting to its neglect and unauthorized alterations.

The status of an object as an artwork is in fact revocable, based on a number of factors, relative to the integrity of the artist’s intentions. Under the civil code of the California Art Preservation Act, artists are protected against the unauthorized alteration, destruction, or removal of their work without prior consent. [7] But like much of the red tape involved in bringing public art to fruition, enacting these rights poses a bureaucratic, litigious nightmare—one that most artists would find beyond their resources. As such, works such as Legs are grossly ignored in plain sight. 

Beyond my own observations, I have focused on dual perspectives—those of people with a serious involvement with art (the “art-invested”), such as artists, curators, and critics, and a broader public who engages with the work in transit (the “general” audience). Through the framework of Invisible Venue, my alternative curatorial enterprise in which I collaborate with artists to present art in unexpected settings, I’ve documented two lunchtime discussions of the questions invoked by the work, Sunday Series (2008–2009) among a group of art-invested participants. [8], [9] I asked participants to view the sculpture in advance without any further instruction. As a counterpoint, Invisible Venue conducted Public Art Survey (2009), an informal survey about public art in general through a site-specific examination of Legs.[10] Survey responses were collected in front of the work as people exited the station.[11] Whereas Public Art Survey engaged a transient public, without any prior invitation, to discuss the work, their responses still provide room for deeper reflection and reflected the same diversity of opinions as Sunday Series.

For many respondents, including myself, Legs is unquestionably the most interesting aspect of the station. It has been notable to find that the general public is more accepting of the work, whereas the art-invested are often dismissive. While a general public largely accepts the ways in which civic space has been altered by public sculpture, even neglected or mundane ones, the art-invested frequently lobby for temporary gestures and the removal/destruction of sculpture that has lost its social relevance—a strategy that would, over time, undermine the notion of art as concrete historical record. Alternatively, with temporary public art, personal experience, both firsthand and through documentation, gains greater currency after the work is gone and its narrative legacy begins to function as a benchmark for its relative success.

One of the most provocative contributions from Sunday Series was an artist’s suggestion that our lack of interest in public sculpture represents waning civic pride resulting from the global mobility of contemporary communities. However, one might also deduce that our indifference to permanent public sculpture arises from the inertia surrounding older works like Legs. Who wants to tackle the task of representing the unified tastes of a community when no such community exists and no long-term support is in place?

The transition toward temporary public art is in keeping with the predominance of a dematerialized culture that prefers such technological evolutions as email to hand-written correspondence, digital to film photography, tablets to books, GPS to foldout maps, and so on. It is difficult to imagine how these preferences will affect our physical landscape over time, but one might anticipate a future backlash in preference of the object over its digital counterpart. Perhaps then, we can expect a greater interest to maintain the lost objects, and public artworks, of our future past.

While these observations do nothing to further the condition of this specific work, they demonstrate the inherent flaws of “public” art. Interestingly, participants in both Public Art Survey and Sunday Series allow for this failure and often still manage to regard public art with interest. The following is a compilation of responses and edited excerpts from their observations.


Public Art Survey 1. Had you noticed this sculpture before?

Responses: Yes (15) No (16) No answer (1)

Public Art Survey 2. Did you know it was art the first time you saw it?

Responses: Yes (24) No (4) Undecided (2) No answer (2)

Christian L. Frock: I’d like to start by asking you to talk about your experiences of the work.

Susan O’Malley: We saw it for the first time about an hour ago. I was surprised I had never come across it. I think if I had, I might have thought it was some kind of operational device because of its condition and because the knots look like they have a function.  I wondered if it was some record of time, of all the years of dust accumulated in the station. 

Sarah Filley: I had seen it many times over the years because I ride BART a lot. I always knew it was a sculpture, neglected as

Sarah Filley (cont.): it is. It came to my attention because I have been working with rope and think that it was the best example of rope sculpture that I have seen, based on the sheer scale and technical aspects of it. It probably weighs a ton—it is hundreds of feet of industrial rope, like for seafaring on really big ships. It reminds me of old San Francisco as a port community. There are also the outdated associations you have with ’70s textile art—how it was so cool at one point and the easiest thing to put up in public spaces.

Targol Mesbah: Well, I hadn’t noticed it at all and I ride BART a lot, but I rarely use Embarcadero station. It is funny because I didn’t think about it being dirty. I was struck by how different it looked on each level of the station. The title plate made it feel condemned. I started from the top and worked my way down. When I saw the way that the title plate…

Ali Dadgar: …was actually drilled onto the piece.

TM: Yeah, it felt like a criminal holding up their number in a mug shot. But I really liked it and I was kind of mortified that I hadn’t noticed it before.

Helena Keeffe: Did it make you feel like the ground had been pulled out from under you? That something so huge could exist right before your eyes and you hadn’t ever noticed it? The dirt and how it has aged intrigued me. I also liked the reference to macramé, even though that aesthetic kind of turns me off. I liked that reference to 1970s ubiquitous craft turned into this massive sculpture—which is generally made from masculine materials, such as steel and permanent materials. That intrigued me. But the overall feeling is depressing and creepy, like a haunted house. 

AD: My first impression with this object was sometime in the 1980s. There was an event at the Embarcadero station of a selection of sculptures. My notion with this piece, up until yesterday, was that this was left over from that show. And then yesterday I realized that after experiencing this piece for more than 20 years, it is completely different from what I thought it was. But at this point, I think that it is a liability more than anything else.


Public Art Survey 3. Does its present condition interfere with it being art?

Responses: Yes (6) No (16) No answer (10)

Public Art Survey 4. Does it matter that the artist never intended for it to look this way?

Responses: Yes (15) No (5) No answer (12)

Aaron Stienstra: I often wonder to what extent the artist thought about the longevity of the work and how it would age. Knowing this is made of fabric and permanently installed in a subway station―thinking this thing is going to degrade.

Barbara Shawcroft. Legs, 1975 - 1978; installation view, 1978. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: William Hocker

SF: I think that is a very modern sensibility.

AS: No, think about Eva Hesse. She was working in advance of this artist and knew that her work was going to degrade. The lifespan was part of the work. There were other artists then that were interested in time as an element of production in the aesthetics of their work.


Public Art Survey 5. Do you prefer permanent or temporary public art, neither or both?

Responses: Permanent (8) Temporary (1) Both (2) No answer (21)

Public Art Survey 6. Are you familiar with any temporary public art?

Responses: Yes (6) No (8) No answer (18)

Describe works that you are familiar with: Andy Goldsworthy, Hearts of San Francisco, Graffiti, Hearts/Pigs, Gates in NY, Chicago, People that leave crap outside, Market Street Posters

Public Art Survey 7. Is public art important?

Responses: Yes (26) No (1) No answer (5)

Joseph del Pesco: For me, it begs a bigger question about public art and urban environments. Temporary work just makes more sense, especially given the practices of artists today. I subscribe to an interest in more performative interventions and things that happen anywhere from a day to a year. I don’t know what the end result will be, what should or might happen to this thing, but its existence alone makes a strong argument for temporary public art.

SOM: With public sculptures or even temporary projects, there is an effort to create a sense of place and creative activity. In seeing them, you feel like you understand the collective tapestry of the city and you understand things in relationship to one another. But this sculpture is underground in the dark, dingy end of the station where only fools dare to tread.

Tim Caro Bruce: I don’t know. There is something that I do want to speak to the virtue of—I do enjoy finding things in cities that are “secret” and weird and wonderful. I don’t think it really succeeds as something that people are going to gather around and talk about, but I do like going down a strange little alley and finding something unexpected like this sculpture.


Public Art Survey 8. Does public art add to daily life?

Responses: Yes (23) No (2) No answer (6) Undecided (1)

Public Art Survey 9. Does public art add to history?

Responses: Yes (25) No (2) No answer (6)  

Public Art Survey 10. Do you think that public art should be maintained?

Responses: Yes (26) No (2) No answer (4)

SF: The whole idea of how our civic identity functions as a populace has really changed. This whole leaning toward the temporary seems like a failing of civic pride in a way. It seems very cynical to me. Think about it—we go to Europe and there is a guy on a bronze horse. It isn’t that exciting really, but it does provide a sense of history and a sense of place. It is why we go to Europe in the first place, to experience that sense of time. As we are more and more removed from that idea of the monumental, it is interesting that our sense of creating a statement is more and more rooted in the temporary gesture.

HK: I have never thought about it in terms of people exuding their sense of civic pride or traces of history. I have always just thought of it as wealthy, powerful people self-aggrandizing. 

SF: We don’t grow up and die in the same city anymore. We can’t really articulate a common history and I think that has something to do with why permanent public installations are out of favor. Agreeing on public art is a really difficult process because it is supposed to represent so many disparate identities. We put too much weight on it, to culturally represent a community that is no longer a permanent thing itself.


Public Art Survey 11.  Do you think it should be left alone, cleaned, removed, or destroyed?

Responses: Left alone (13) Cleaned (12) No answer (7)

Public Art Survey 12. Survey Comment: Nothing needs to happen to it at all—the sculpture ages with the city.


[1] Barbara Shawcroft is Professor Emeritus of Design in the Environmental Design Department, University of California, Davis. With Gracilis (c. 1971), “she created the first free-standing self-supporting fiber sculpture—a breakthrough similar to Peter Voulkos’ pushing the barriers of ceramics from pottery to asymmetrical works of clay sculpture.” (Peter Selz, Barbara Shawcroft exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum, 1985.) Her work has been featured in the Sixth and Third International Triennale (Poland), Tenth and Sixth International Biennale (Switzerland), the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (New York, New York), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, Illinois) and the Cleveland Museum (Cleveland, Ohio). She continues to live and work in Davis, California.

[2] Much of the background information about the work was provided through telephone conversations and email exchanges with the artist. Despite multiple attempts, no representative of BART has ever responded to inquiries about the work.

[3] Initially cost prohibitive, the artist negotiated with DuPont for the purchase of unprocessed raw fleece, which was spun into thread by a mill in Oregon and woven into rope by a rope maker. It was a full year of production time for the raw materials before the artist could begin to build the actual sculpture, which took another seven months.

[4] Maintenance initially simply required vacuuming, then hosing off with water.

[5] Shawcroft voiced these concerns early in the work’s installation. One of the earliest public records of these concerns was documented in an interview with Peter Selz for a 1985 solo exhibition catalogue published by San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum with funding provided by Macy’s San Francisco. (Selz, Peter. Barbara Shawcroft. San Francisco, California. San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum: 1985; p. 13.)

[6] Additionally BART elected to drill the title plate directly onto the sculpture without the artist’s permission after the wall plate kept disappearing. For several years the work was encircled by dusty “caution” tape around the broken glass partition at its base—the partition was repaired sometime around January 2010. The spotlights that light the work from various station levels have been burned out for years.

[7] California Art Preservation Act, California Civil Code §987 Section A: The Legislature hereby finds and declares that the physical alteration or destruction of fine art, which is an expression of the artist’s personality, is detrimental to the artist’ s reputation, and artists therefore have an interest in protecting their works of fine art against any alteration or destruction; and that there is also a public interest in preserving the integrity of cultural and artistic creations. San Francisco Art Commission,  <http://www.sfartscommission.org/pubartcollection/documents/pa05-mural-guidelines/pa05-3-california-art-preservation-act/>. (Sourced May 29, 2010).

[8] Sunday Series is inspired by Who Cares (Creative Time Books) and The Baltic Series (BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art). Discussions were recorded and transcribed by Christian L. Frock. Support for Sunday Series was provided by an Alternative Exposure Grant (2008), awarded to Invisible Venue by Southern Exposure in conjunction with The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

[9] Sunday Lunch 1 engaged Tim Caro Bruce, Ali Dadgar, Sarah Filley, Christian L. Frock, Helena Keeffe, Targol Mesbah, Susan O’Malley, Joseph del Pesco, and Aaron Stienstra. Sunday Lunch 2 engaged Michael Damm, Aimee Le Duc, Courtney Fink, Christian L. Frock, Glen Helfand, Jonn Herschend, Patricia Maloney, and Scott Oliver.

[10] Public Art Survey (2009) was presented as part of Passive/Aggressive, an off-site series of urban interventions juried by Jeannene Przyblyski and organized by Southern Exposure.

[11] Thirty-two people were engaged as participants, while the vast majority of transit riders otherwise declined participation. We did not collect personal information about the participants, nor did we attempt to prescript the notion of a widely defined demographic through an analysis of age, gender, or ethnicity. We simply accepted feedback from anyone and everyone willing to participate. The innate subjectivity of the survey was established from the beginning since it was conducted midday on a Saturday, potentially the least highly trafficked day of the week after Sunday for this particular station.


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