Artpark, the alternative sculpture park spectacularly sited along the Niagara Gorge in Lewiston, N.Y., debuted in the summer of 1974. (It is now just a summer concert and theater venue; the visual arts program was phased out in the early 1990s.) Among the 15 artists in residence were Peter Campus, Jene Highstein, Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Nonas, Liz Phillips, Judith Shea and Richard Tuttle. It was the year after Robert Smithson died, but there is little doubt that he, too, would have come to Artpark at some point. (The inaugural season was, in fact, dedicated to him.) Everyone who was anyone in Earth art and Post-Minimalist sculpture—and many others besides—spent part of each summer there between 1974 and 1984, creating works that were dismantled by season’s end, as the mission dictated.
This fall a superb exhibition curated by Sandra Q. Firmin of the University at Buffalo Art Galleries revisited the largely New York State-funded efflorescence of Artpark’s visual arts program with videos, artifacts, ephemera and photographs, the last printed from a hoard of 35mm slides. Organized chronologically, the show unfolded on the walls and in vitrines, on monitors and in wall projections. Heavily informative, it nonetheless never flagged in energy or interest, touching on many projects by the 200 artists in residence during the years surveyed.
Ample footage shows a place, at least in the beginning, that looked more like a hippie commune than a respectable “green cube” sculpture park. Visitors interacted with artists as they created their work, sometimes assisting. That first summer, Charles Simonds enlisted children to help him create dwellings along the gorge for his “Little People,” and the next season Ant Farm packed an Oldsmobile Vista with area residents’ artifacts, then tarred and buried it (Citizens’ Time Capsule 1975 AD-2000 AD). We watch resident artists participating cheerfully in each others’ projects, for example helping Ree Morton lower a colorful ladder over the escarpment to “rescue” a heroine of local legend (Maid of the Mist, Regarding Landscape, 1976). We also see taxpayers’ dollars at work as Chris Burden drops huge steel I beams into wet concrete, aided by state parks department Caterpillars (Beam Drop, 1984).
Not surprisingly, nature starred. Burying sections of pipe, Nancy Holt created round pools that reflected the heavens (Hydra’s Head, 1974); in Rice/Tree/Burial (1977), Agnes Denes planted rice that grew a mutant red due to the toxins in what was, after all, an ex-industrial waste dump site. (Ant Farm’s Olds has never been disinterred due to that toxicity.) Dennis Oppenheim dug furrows to represent his and his son’s thumbprints; like crop circles, they could be read in their entirety only from the air (Identity Stretch, MIND TWIST, MINDLESS LESS MIND, NARROWMIND, 1975).
Funding cutbacks and public hostility to a perceived growing anarchy during the first five years meant that the number of artists (there were 35 in 1975) was scaled back in 1979, limiting their installations to just a few “Major Projects” per season. Still, for a time, government support was ample, and this outdoor laboratory hummed with activity. Regrettably, the show will not travel, but there is an exceedingly useful catalogue for anyone wishing to learn about the early days of public art and the development of the notion of “site specificity.” Hard as it may be to believe, the term was only just coming into use in the ’70s, and Artpark was its showcase.
Photo: View of the exhibition “Artpark: 1974-1984,” 2010; at the University at Buffalo Art Galleries.