When I first landed in Houston years ago, I’d scuttle out of work and toward a short-term guest room at a friend’s home via Memorial Drive. Each time, I’d always see a parked police car, prompting me to gently pump the brakes because that’s what I do. Though I’m not prone to speeding, when I see a black and white cruiser and some primal instinct takes over. For months, I thought the “Houston Police Officers Memorial” was a speed trap.
In my defense Jesús Bautista Moroles’ granite pyramids more resembled Mayan ruins I’ve seen than a tribute to the city’s police force. That said, the memorial is proof that stepping from one’s car and looking around one’s community can be a worthwhile and educational pursuit. This site serves as both a reminder of the sacrifice of the city’s police officers, and can be threaded into a walk with additional public outdoor art. It also offers a lovely view of downtown.
After curating a music-centric tour last month — designed for proper social distancing — that went from Third Ward through Eado up to Fifth Ward, down and around to the south side and then Montrose, this tour focuses on just a few of the hundreds of public sculptures around the city.
This tour includes walks and drives. I largely tried to avoid statues of prominent figures in favor of more abstract pieces. As our inability to gather socially indoors looks likely to continue for some time, there will be a later tour for street art and murals.
At this point, I’ll outsource some of the work to the Houston Arts Alliance, which has created four wonderful walking tours of public art: 1. Downtown; 2. Buffalo Bayou Park; 3. Hermann Park; 4. Discovery Green/Avenida Houston. You can find them at www.houstonartsmap.com.
While this tour won’t run A to Z, might as well start with A anyway. David Adickes played into last month’s music tour with his Beatles statues that sit at the 8th Wonder Brewery. The Huntsville native is among the most visible artists in the area for multiple reasons, not the least of which is his tendency to go big. Adickes, 92, created the giant Sam Houston off I-45 just south of Huntsville. In addition to the Beatles, he’s also responsible for two head-turners in the city: His giant goateed cellist, “Virtuoso,” rests in the theater district downtown, at the corner of Prairie and Smith. The piece was made in 1983. His Mount Rush Hour (1400 Elder) includes large busts of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Sam Houston and Stephen Austin; though it requires a car.
Also downtown is George Smith’s “Bandiagara” outside One Main Building at the University of Houston-Downtown. Comprising three pieces of painted steel, it is inspired by a rocky region in Mali, from which the sculpture also gets its name. The piece feels both grave and welcoming, and looks like some sort of communication device from space. Also, put a pin in UH, there’s more coming.
“Personage and Birds” offers a splash of color downtown. Spanish surrealist Joan Miró conceived the piece for the then new JP Morgan Chase Tower, 600 Travis. As billed, the installation — 55 feet high, 35 feet wide — offers a triangular personage (presumably, um, male), with birds circling its head.
The other side of downtown has plenty of offerings, too. I’m partial to “Synchronicity of Color” by artist and University of Texas professor Margot Sawyer found at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney. Her matrix of boxes is so large it could be imposing, but her use of brilliant colors makes it inviting. Also bright and eye-catching: “Monument au Fantome” (Monument to the Phantom) by French sculptor Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet created the steel and fiberglass collection of seven forms — including a phantom — in 1983, two years before he died. Decades later it was donated to Discovery Green.
ALONG BUFFALO BAYOU
Heading west out of downtown, the Houston Arts Alliance set up a path for Buffalo Bayou Park. Among the pieces on that walking tour is “Tolerance,” a seven-sculpture series by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, who created the pieces in 2011.The 10-foot still body silhouettes are created from numbers, letters and glyphs. The piece was directly inspired by a 2006 hate crime in Spring that ultimately ended in a suicide. But the mix of figures from various languages and cultures also sparks a warm and hopeful vibe to be found in Houston’s diversity.
I also quite like “Large Spindle Piece,” Henry Moore’s large abstract bronze piece that at times looks to me like a Musketeer and at other times like a triceratops. Moore was an English artist born in 1898. He created Large Spindle Piece in 1969 and it was placed in Buffalo Bayou Park 10 years later.
HERMANN PARK AND MUSEUM DISTRICT
Much of the work included in Art in the Park, part of Hermann Park’s centennial celebration in 2014, has been removed. And sadly Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Destination Mound Town” can only be seen when the train is in operation. But the park still houses Hannah Stewart’s “Atropos Key,” a bronze piece — representing one of Zeus’ daughters — that arrived in 1972. And those inclined to walk can hoof it north to the fairly new gleaming stainless steel “Cloud Column” by Anish Kapoor that looks precariously balanced outside the new Glassell Drawing School. A story by my colleague Molly Glentzer two years ago described the laborious process getting this monolith to its perch. (Note: Google her name and any of these pieces and you’ll find more insightful commentary on the art.)
On the subject of precarious balance: Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” remains observable while the neighboring Rothko Chapel, 3900 Yupon, undergoes renovation. Three-tons of steel rise 25 feet, the largest in New York artist Newman’s series. He worked on the piece for several years in the 1960s, completing it a year before his death in 1970. Newman dedicated it to Martin Luther King Jr.
Broken Obelisk is a mile walk to the north from Cloud Column: a marathon by Houston standards, but attainable before summer heat settles in for good.
From Newman’s piece, it’s a very short talk to the Menil Collection’s outdoor pieces, including Mark di Suvero’s severe “Bygones,” a large intersection of steel that sinks into the grass.
Though he’s no longer based in Houston, sculptor and Terrell native James Surls has deep ties to the city and the state. His “Points of View” can be seen on a downtown tour. Surls’ piece — made of treated pine and steel — was created in 1991 and dedicated in 1992 in Market Square Park. His work can be a driving tour on its own: “Tree and Three Flowers” springs from the concrete near 2727 Kirby.
Rice University also boasts a few of Surls’ pieces near Brochstein Pavilion and McNair Hall.
On the subject of universities and art, UH has committed resources to public art — indoors and outdoors — with admirable enthusiasm and resources. Brian Tolle’s “Origin” is striking, with painted aluminum oyster shells representing the Gulf Coast region and some Karankawa lore. Lawrence Argent, who died in 2017, created “Your Move,” three odd gourd-like pieces from bronze, gray granite and Indian red granite in 2011.
I also like the way Carlos Cruz-Diez’s painted aluminum and steel work, “Double Physichromie,” transforms based on where the viewer stands. In this sense, it’s a lot like Houston, offering some new perspective when you allow yourself to move around and really see all it has to offer.