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On The Rocks: A Toast To Public Art

August 5, 2007

A riddle: What is over 300 million years old, 30 years old this year, and timeless? Chances are you've seen it, walked past or through it. Perhaps you have even sat on it.

I'll give you the answers in order. 300 million years ago, the Connecticut River valley was not there. In its place was a layer of volcanic rock, being freshly applied as it had been for millions of years. Later, sedimentary rocks formed over this layer.

This is the land we live on. The glaciers scraped up boulders and gave us building materials for the classic New England stone wall. The land helped shape our history long before human beings came here.

Thirty years ago, Carl Andre took boulders from a Bristol quarry, just as they were, and arranged them in rows on a long, narrow triangle of land at the corner of Main and Gold streets in Hartford. He chose them for their size and shape, and also their makeup - the percentage of basalt in the work being roughly equal to the percentage in the area as a whole, for example.

The stones sit adjacent to the Ancient Burying Ground, the city's oldest cemetery. The relationship between the two is obvious. Andre's Stone Field Sculpture, which was installed in August 1977, is a map of history, natural and manmade.

As to timelessness, that is harder to define. Andre's Minimalist art has become enshrined in art history, but Minimalism can seem difficult to understand. It is hard, unrevealing: the art equivalent of the taciturn Connecticut Yankee. The site where Stone Field sits was initially offered to Richard Serra, who felt he could do nothing with such a narrow slice of land.

The selection of Carl Andre was controversial; he had a problematic reputation. But that paled next to the controversy over the work itself and Andre's $87,000 fee. Some people hated Stone Field; no less a critic than colorful Mayor George Athanson called it "just a bunch of rocks," and said "little kids could do it." The fee sparked numerous objections; a downtown art shop offered to sell another boulder for $87. At least everyone cared about art.

Time has dulled the controversy. Stone Field, tucked between the Center Church and Bushnell Tower, has proved itself a landmark in Minimalist art (perhaps underappreciated by those of us who live near or with it).

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving donated Stone Field to the city as a gift in honor of the foundation's 50th anniversary. The total cost was about $100,000, less than a minute of what prime-time television cost then, and far more lasting.

It is Carl Andre's largest work, and his only public commission. We're always looking for a reason to celebrate Hartford and put its best face forward. Stone Field's 30th anniversary is such an opportunity. The best gifts arrive in unexpected ways, and their blessings continue to surprise.

Main Street has its share of fine sculpture, from Granville Carter's traditional statue of Pulaski to Alexander Calder's Stegosaurus. Another nearby highlight, the Corning Fountain in Bushnell Park, with its statues of American Indians, was restored several years ago. With the rejuvenation of Park Street and the rebirth of Front Street and the Riverfront, Hartford has the chance to take a big step forward in civic beautification.

Other cities have known about the advantages of public art for years. The exemplar is Philadelphia, which requires contractors to designate 1 percent of their construction costs for public art. As a result, Philly's streets are a museum without walls, and businesses benefit from the attention the art brings.

I don't know if Hartford should go that far, but city planners and developers should keep in mind how art can invigorate a neighborhood. The Stone Field sculpture can be part of the bedrock (pun intended) for a more attractive and vital city.

Stephen Persing is an administrative assistant at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, across Main Street from Stone Field.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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