New York It is not often that a contemporary sculpture in New York becomes a must-see attraction for city residents and visitors alike—a shining, touchable apparatus beloved by inquisitive children, and a visual marvel whose formal complexity appeals to adults. But that’s exactly what happened when Roxy Paine’s Maelstrom (2009) was temporarily installed last year on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Measuring 29 by 130 by 45 feet, the work features stainless steel pipes, plates and rods that have been bent, dented and conjoined into branchlike structures resembling a forest savaged by a tornado or some other cataclysm. Paine cites as inspiration the 1908 Tunguska Event, in which, apparently, a meteor exploded in midair and walloped the Siberian forest below, toppling some 80 million trees. (UFO enthusiasts attribute this blast to an alien spaceship or weapon.) Everywhere in the wilderness, though, one finds evidence of convulsive transformations, and that’s what Paine evokes with Maelstrom: overwhelming force, endless cycles of growth and destruction. At the same time, the gleaming work—enchanting and serene—offered a meditative idyll overlooking Central Park.
Several large branches and stout trunks touched the roof’s concrete surface and angled upward. Welds were clearly visible; industrial markings (numbers, product names and the like) were too. Paine’s nature simulacrum flaunts how concocted and fabricated it really is. At the Met, these forms, suggesting unbridled growth, sprouted into an aerial tangle of thin, elongated branches going every which way—reaching toward the sky, descending to the floor, probing the far borders of the roof like creeping tendrils, joining to form an overhead thicket or canopy. While in fact static, the work as a whole seems kinetic, suffused with swirling motion and circulating energy: an intricate, laboriously fashioned installation, charged with the rapidity and power of lightning bolts, whirlpools, cyclonic winds.
At the time, Maelstrom is the largest and most ambitious of the outdoor sculptures Paine calls Dendroids, a term that refers to trees but also connotes anything else that involves branching systems, such as synaptic structures, computer board circuitry and fungal mycelium (connective tissue that allows a single organism to spread underground, sometimes across huge expanses). Such widely diverse references, common for Paine, are essential to Maelstrom. At a couple of points, Paine’s branchlike forms connected to what looked like functioning standpipes. Suddenly Maelstrom appeared as a crazy, bursting outgrowth of the building’s own plumbing, one of the largely hidden internal systems that—like gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems servicing a body—enable the museum to function. Another possible reference is to the brain in extremis, with its neural network gone haywire, as in an epileptic seizure or a moment of extreme excitation or fear.
Paine’s Dendroids start with multiple, oftentimes strikingly lovely sketches. Maelstrom, for all its heft and size, can be seen as a surprisingly delicate, three-dimensional “drawing” in which tree shapes shade into gestural abstraction. Moreover, while the use of a standard industrial material like stainless steel, worked into a system or pattern, recalls various Minimalist sculptures, Paine’s supple, improvisational touch with this resistant material, along with his shifts in scale and his reliance on representation, generate widely diverse components that are far from rigid seriality. Maelstrom’s jagged lines, ragged whorls, indentations and bulges also dispense with the uniform surfaces characteristic of many sculptures rendered in stainless steel.
You could walk around Maelstrom, admiring its many parts and nuances, while absorbing its silvery luster. You could also walk into and through it, as if you were entering some stricken forest. That’s when Maelstrom acted not only as a sculpture marked by ingenuity and skill but also as a remarkably open and sensitive structure responding to its surroundings. From inside, you looked wonderingly through its mesh of metal branches at the lawns and trees of Central Park, the hovering sky and the grand buildings surrounding the park. Emptiness, distances, greenery, passing clouds and changing light all factored in. This blatant metal fabrication, erected in densely packed Manhattan, seemed incongruously sublime, as it evoked rapt, consciousness-altering encounters with nature in deep forests or other wilderness locales.
Maelstrom was the second of Paine’s Dendroids to engage Central Park; the first was Bluff (2002), cosponsored by the Public Art Fund and the Whitney Biennial, and realized in collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Paine’s 50-foot-high stainless steel sculpture resembles a denuded tree with parasitical fungi on its trunk. It rewarded those in the know, who sought it out as part of the Whitney Biennial. It was even more astonishing for the many viewers who simply stumbled upon it. From a distance it shone with a luminous dazzle. Up close, even though you could scrutinize its materials and see how it was made, it still seemed uncanny: a supercharged dead tree that will outlast all the currently living ones by centuries, a hybrid reminiscent of homemade rockets, robots, bizarre genetic mutations, Hollywood movie props, faux nature at theme parks and products pieced together on factory assembly lines.
While constructing Bluff was an arduous enterprise, getting permission to install the sculpture in Central Park was no less a feat; the guardians of the park are loath to allow the intrusion of anything new that could alter its pastoral splendor, even though a number of older sculptures have long been in place. But as critic Eleanor Heartney has astutely noted, Paine’s ersatz, stainless steel tree—his nature mannequin—didn’t interrupt anything.1
Instead, I believe, the work (now relocated to a private collection) perfectly fit and clarified its first setting, because Central Park constitutes an especially manipulated, socially constructed landscape. To realize Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s 1857 Greensward Plan, calling for a natural-seeming, multi-use environment based on English romantic gardens, some 1,600 poor immigrants were displaced; Seneca Village, a thriving, largely African-American community, was leveled; massive amounts of gunpowder were used to blast through rock formations; and much of the landscape was dug up, rearranged and planted. A great deal of industry, technology, ideology and sheer human effort was required to construct this bucolic setting.