Given the four years that have passed since New York art star Sarah Sze was selected to create a work of public art for Portland’s Congress Square Park, it’s easy to forget that this major art commission has not yet materialized.
It also probably won’t happen for another couple of years.
In August 2016, the Portland Public Art Committee announced that Sze had been selected following a process that ran into some rough spots. In fact, the entire history of Congress Square Park is a bit of a rough spot in Portland’s history.
In the 1970s, Congress Square Park was the site of a Dunkin’ Donuts popular with drug dealers and prostitutes. Across the square, where the Portland Museum of Art’s Payson Building was built in 1983, stood the Libby Building, home to offices, studios, and a secretarial school.
Long after the doughnut shop building next door to the old Eastland Hotel had been torn down, the City Council sought to sell the park to Rockbridge Capital, which had renovated the hotel. That proposal ran into a buzz saw of public opposition in 2013. A June 2014 referendum prohibited the sale and added protections for other public spaces.
As presently constituted, Congress Square Park is a sunken plaza with some seating, the clock from the old Union Station tower, and a floral mural by Tessa Greene O’Brien.
In 2012, the Portland Public Art Committee set aside $250,000 to help fund a major work of public art for Portland’s key cultural crossroads at High and Congress streets. In 2015, the selection process began with an open call for submissions that attracted 97 artists, local and from away. The selection committee rejected all of the proposals and decided to go instead with an invitational process.
The invitational began with a list of some 40 artists drawn up by selection committee members, including artists Anne Buckwalter, Pandora LaCasse, Alison Hildreth and Frank Turek, landscape architect Tony Muench, Portland Museum of Art curator Jessica May, Jessica Tomlinson of the Maine College of Art, architect Scott Simon and Westin Hotel general manager Bruce Wennerstrom.
This committee selected four finalists to make presentations in Portland: Ned Kahn of Sebastopol, California, Patrick Marold of Denver, Matthew Ritchie of New York City, and Sze. On Aug. 8, 2016, all four presented their proposals in a forum at the Portland Museum of Art, and Sze’s proposal was ultimately chosen.
Sze, a Boston native, was the most celebrated of the four finalists. She received a McArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2003 and represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1999, 2013, and 2015. The prospect of having her work permanently in Portland holds great appeal.
For Congress Square Park, Sze proposed a site-specific sculptural installation to be called “Shattered Sphere.” The work will take the form of fragments of a disintegrating concave sphere and will be constructed of a welded steel sub-structure supporting mirror-polished stainless steel and porcelain enamel shards.
“The form of the piece will echo the openness and connectivity of the Congress Square site,” Sze said in her proposal. “The artwork will hold a portrait of the sky above the park, permanently encapsulating a universal yet ephemeral moment in time.”
“Shattered Sphere” is conceptually related to at least two other works by Sze, her “Shorter than the Day” ethereal globe at LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B and “Fallen Sky” at Storm King Art Center in Cornwall, New York. In the latter, a mirrored steel disk lies broken on the ground reflecting the sky above.
Sze studied painting and architecture at Yale University. Her art lives in the aesthetic interstices between painting and sculpture, architecture and nature, the mechanical and the organic, and is usually constructed of bits and pieces of digital images and everyday objects. Her art has been described as bricolage, a French term for art that makes use of a diverse array of non-traditional materials.
The subject of much of Sze’s recent art has been time, specifically how humans assemble information and recall memories. There is thus an intricate, systemic quality to Sze’s art that is at once artistic and scientific. Her art resembles nothing quite so much as a debris field, the remains of civilization as things fall apart.
Progress on the Congress Square Park project has been slow, but artist LaCasse, well-known for her holiday lighting displays in Portland and one of Portland’s liaisons to the Sze studio, said that’s not Sze’s fault and she doesn’t think it is unusual for a public art commission to take years.
LaCasse, who visited Sze’s Second Avenue subway station blueprint mural in New York, said, “The subway project was nine years in the making. I think she has plenty of patience.”
Sze’s studio advised me that the artist was too busy to answer questions, having just returned from Paris, where she installed an exhibition entitled “Night into Day” at the Fondation Cartier. She is now in the midst of creating work for two more upcoming shows.
“However, once the production phase of the Congress Square project is further along Sarah would be happy to consider doing an interview,” her administrative assistant wrote.
It will be at least two years more before “Shattered Sphere” materializes in Portland, largely because of the Maine Department of Transportation.
“Because MDOT is involved with the project (Congress and High streets are state roads),” explained Caitlin Cameron, who staffs the Portland Public Art Committee for the city’s Planning Department, “we are subject to their work plan. MDOT placed the Congress Square Redesign on their 2021 work plan with $1 million of funding.”
Renovation of the Congress Square Park plazas and the apron across the street in front of the Portland Museum of Art is scheduled for 2022.
The coronavirus pandemic has also thrown a monkey wrench into the process.
“Sarah Sze, along with the design team from WRT and Sebago Technics, was scheduled to present the final designs to the public, attend fundraising and press events in the spring 2020,” Cameron said. “That has been delayed due to the pandemic.”
The budget for the Congress Square Park public art project is nearly $1.3 million. The artist’s fee is only $75,000 of that sum. The Portland Public Art Committee committed $250,000 eight years ago. The rest of the funds are being raised privately.
The primary reason it seemed timely to write about a public art project that is a work in progress is that Portland has something of a checkered history when it comes to public art. The most notorious project was “Tracing the Fore,” a 2007 commission in the Old Port that became such an eyesore that it had to be extirpated in 2011.
But Cameron’s explanation of the delay and the enthusiasm that Pandora LaCasse and her fellow artist liaison Alison Hildreth have for Sze’s “Shattered Sphere” reassured me that when the sculpture is finally installed it will elevate the aesthetic landscape of Portland’s cultural corridor.
Located between the landmark statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Longfellow Square and the defining “Our Lady of Victories” in Monument Square, both by Portland native Franklin Simmons, Sze’s “Shattered Sphere” has big shoes to fill and a central place to occupy.
“Ultimately, I think it’s going to be very exciting,” Hildreth said. “I have confidence it’s going to become a place people love. How beloved that space is to people who don’t have cars and can’t get out of Portland.”
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.