Leah and I had set up camp near Muskegon, MI with plans to visit Grand Rapids for an evening concert with “Weird Al” Yankovic. Being one hour away, we decided to make a day of it and explore the Grand Rapids area, but we needed an activity to keep us occupied until late afternoon, and it had to be captivating. After an internet search, all roads led to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
Not knowing what to expect, we packed a lunch and set a course for what Trip Adviser informed us was the #1 attraction in Grand Rapids. With over 2800 reviews, who were we to argue with such a consensus. Upon arrival, our first impression was the immensity of the property (158 acres), And the bigness was becoming bigger with new construction all around us.
Apparently, Frederik Meijer was a big success. Who knew? Turns out, Fred was a supermarket magnate worth billions, and this park was to be his legacy–with an endowment fit for a world-class museum, and subsequent listing by 1,000 Places to See before You Die as one of the “30 Must-See Museums” in the world.
There is an impressive conservatory on the grounds with flora from every climate and environment, including a trove of carniverous plants,
but it was a beautiful day and we were there to walk the Japanese gardens…
and celebrate Meijer’s devotion to outdoor sculpture.
These are a few of my favorite things…listed alphabetically by artist:
The American Horse A monument to creativity, The American Horse was created by famed animaliere, or animal sculptor, Nina Akamu. The work was inspired, in part, by a work created by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci for the Duke of Milan in the late 15th century. The project was championed by Fred Meijer in the late 1990’s, resulting in two casts of the 24-foot monument—one for Meijer Gardens and one for the city of Milan, Italy. In addition to inspiration from Leonardo, Akamu was also inspired by the history of equine imagery and the study of horses.
Number 26 and Number 25 While these life-size sculptures are made from bronze, they are finished to appear more like terra cotta, which Beaumont often prefers. She is also known for her work in clay and iron. Their rough surfaces convey a strong sense of age, deterioration and simplicity, while the silence and stillness of the figures helps to create intimacy between the sculptures and the viewers.
Male/Female One of the most recognizable and celebrated works in the Sculpture Park, Male/Female depicts the precise 180 degree intersection of a male and female silhouette. To fully understand the meaning and form of this colossal sculpture, the work is best viewed from a variety of vantage points. For Jonathan Borofsky, this sculpture represents two energies, the male and the female, coming together to create a stronger whole. In this way, his figures are not portraits, but symbolic images presenting the common human condition.
Spider Louise Bourgeois was one of the most intriguing and influential artists in Contemporary art. Beginning her career as a painter, sculpture and installation work became her focus and strongest legacy. Biography and the relationships among family are frequently addressed in her work and Spider, one of her most iconic themes, is no exception. In tribute to her mother who made a living repairing ancient tapestries, Bourgeois portrays spiders as clever, dainty and protective. The eggs described in the lower portion of the body emphasize the maternal symbolism of the sculpture.
Cabin Creek Deborah Butterfield’s work focuses on the spirit and form of the horse as an intelligent mare rather than the war horse which is usually illustrated in art. Cabin Creek is the name of the location where Butterfield found a variety of materials for this sculpture. First, she assembled the found materials to form an image of a horse. Then each piece of wood was meticulously translated into bronze, then reassembled and patinated. Such a process allows Butterfield to create works appropriate for outdoor placement.
Scarlatti Since the 1960’s, Mark di Suvero has been at the forefront of Contemporary American sculpture. Working on a monumental scale and focusing on composition and space, he uses industrial building materials such as I-beams, scrap metal, and steel cables. Movement, whether actual or implied, is another key element in his sculpture. di Suvero frequently uses references to music and literature in his titles. Scarlatti is named for Domenico Scarlatti, the eighteenth-century Italian composer whose music di Suvero greatly admires. In this piece, the suspended “V” beneath the tip of the central beam is intended to move with the wind.
Large Parrot Screams Color Together with Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Dine helped define the Pop Art movement, which transformed the art world with the use of imagery from popular culture. The form of the heart has been a part of Dine’s artistic vocabulary since the mid 1960s and it has appeared prominently in his paintings, drawings and prints as well as in his sculpture.
Grand Rapids Arch Andy Goldsworthy works with natural materials such as leaves, sand, ice, and stone to create and often photograph highly ephemeral works of art. Permanent works, such as the Grand Rapids Arch, are more rare. Made with stone from the artist’s native Scotland, this piece is intended to be viewed as a work of sculpture rather than an architectural element. Goldsworthy sited the work during his visits to Meijer Gardens. For Goldsworthy, the arch is a way to talk about movement, commenting, “The arch seemed an appropriate form to talk about ideas of travel because the stone, out of the context of an archway or a building, a free-standing arch, has a sense of a stone taking a walk; a stride; a movement. So that became the really important motivating idea behind the arches,” he shares.
Julia The simple, graphic style Keith Haring used in his two-dimensional pieces often translated into his sculpture throughout his career. His three-dimensional forms primarily focus on balance and the energetic movement of shapes. As the only portrait sculpture Haring ever created, this piece was named after Julia Gruen, a friend of the artist. A dancer, Julia seems to capture the energy and excitement of 1980s New York.
Column of the Free Spirit Richard Hunt lives and works in Chicago. Hunt is inspired by science, history, literature, music, and African art. Column of the Free Spirit was commissioned for Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in 1999 and installed in 2000. The columnar form references architectural monuments in Western art. The flame-like finial alludes to notions of freedom, inspiration and unlimited boundaries.
Fred and Lena Meijer Fred Meijer discovered the work of Joseph Kinkel in his travels and commissioned this portrait sculpture and several variations. The earliest version featured only Fred, but Lena Meijer was added by the artist. This charming duo is a favorite at Meijer Gardens and has been recorded countless times in photographs. Kinkel designed the sculpture so visitors could join the Meijer seated on the bench while the site was developed to allow groups to gather around.
Grosser Trefree Dietrich Klinge is a highly respected German artist who received training in drawing, printmaking, and sculpture. Much of Klinge’s early imagery references woodland spirits from tales of German folklore and legends. This sculpture was originally carved in wood and then cast in bronze to preserve the characteristics of the wood. The bold form and textured surface reflect early 20th century expressionism and non-western traditions.
Aria Concurrent with a distinguished career in publishing, Alexander Liberman was actively engaged as an artist, finding critical and popular acclaim for his paintings, photographs and sculpture. Standing more than 42 feet, enabling viewers to walk around and through the work, Aria clearly references the artist’s admiration for architecture. An “aria” is an elaborate melody sung by one voice. The organic shaped elements of Aria seem to suggest music notes, while linear elements seem to reference a music staff or interlocking sounds, with red color unifying the composition.
Torso of Summer The early 20th century French master Aristide Maillol is viewed as the most influential sculptor in the generation following Auguste Rodin. However, unlike the expressive forms of the latter, Maillol achieved a new classicism inspired by the pose and attitude of Greco-Roman sculpture and, innovatively, the sensuality of Indian sculpture. Many of his works utilize the female nude in symbolic or allegorical ways. Torso of Summer is part of a series which celebrates the four seasons. Specifically, the rounded forms of the figure reference the fullness of summer.
Woman and Bird The imaginative nature of Joan Miro’s repertoire is widely admired. Although associated with 20th century Surrealism, his long career was highly individualized. Unlike his paintings and prints, most of Miro’s sculptures began with simple found objects transformed nearly beyond recognition to create another form or figure. In Woman and Bird for example, the body of the figure derives from an old milk stool and the head from the lid of a can. Shared with his two-dimensional works, his sculptures are frequently brightly painted vibrant colors contributing to the visual energy, even playfulness, of the work.
Bronze Form Henry Moore is recognized as the single most important figure in the history of British art during the last century and his work has been of critical importance internationally for more than sixty years. Moore’s sculpture was initially highly representational, but he gradually moved toward a vocabulary of organic, simplified forms, frequently drawn from nature — including rocks and bones. In this piece, Moore has abstracted the human form and the shape of the sculpture changes greatly as the viewer moves around it.
Broken Nose Carrying Bottle Number One Juan Muñoz was born and raised in Madrid, Spain but went on to study art in London and New York. Before his untimely death, he was an important figure in contemporary sculpture and held exhibitions internationally and was collected worldwide. He is known for his unexpected placement of figures which create tension between works and viewer. Muñoz was also a writer and was interested in other creative fields such as music, literature, history, and architecture.
Plantoir Claes Oldenburg gained initial acclaim as one of the leaders of Pop Art movement recreating ordinary objects from consumer or popular culture. Beginning in the late 1970’s, he began to work with Coosje van Bruggen as a husband and wife team on a series of large-scale public projects. The couple is celebrated internationally for the transformation of objects from everyday life into colossal projects. Plantoir is the first monumental sculpture created specifically for a garden context. It was sited specifically by the artists.
Neuron Roxy Paine is one of the most highly regarded Contemporary sculptors. Neuron reflects ideas about nature, industry and artistic processes. It is one of Paine’s most inventive forms, extending out from a central mass. It derives from his critically acclaimed Dendroid series which closely follow the shape and form of trees. Neuron goes beyond this tradition and simultaneously calls to mind a neuron and elevated root ball.
I, you, she or he… Jaume Plensa is primarily a figurative artist, often using ideas about language and communication in his sculptures and installations. This commission for Meijer Gardens includes a composition of three figures seated on boulders, whose shells are made of stainless steel letters. Faces are left unfinished to encourage the universality of the forms and visitors are encouraged to walk among the sculptures. The composition and setting were selected by the artist and he intendeds it to represent a kind of ongoing, silent conversation. Although most well-known In the United States for his Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Plensa’s is one of the leading international sculptors working today.
Eve Originally created in association with his famed Gates of Hell for the never completed museum of decorative arts in Paris, Eve became one of the artist’s most celebrated descriptions of the female figure. Standing awkwardly in an attempt to cover her body, the figure distorts the classical “controposto” or “weight-shift” position. Additionally, Rodin has forsaken the traditional smooth surfaces and rounded contours apparent in figurative sculpture since the Renaissance in favor of something highly textured and emotive. This is one of twelve known full-scales casts of Eve.
Introspective Sophie Ryder is a figurative artist who focuses on animal imagery, in particular hares, dogs, and minotaurs, to comment on universal human emotions and relationships. She creates drawings, bronze sculptures, collages and prints, but is best known for her wire drawings and sculptures. Wire, which adds a heavy textured surface to the sculptures, is not suitable for outdoors, so some of the pieces are cast in bronze. This piece was created in response to the tragedy of 9/11 and the way in which many mourn.
B-Tree II Sculptor, photographer, and mathematician Kenneth Snelson has commented, “My art is concerned with nature in its most fundamental aspect, the patterns of physical forces in three dimensional space.” B-Tree II is a site-specific commission that while concerned with nature, firmly utilizes geometry, mathematics and engineering in referencing the natural world. Based on patterning systems using the number three and triangles, the colossal structure utilizes the artist’s patented “tensegrity,” wherein the carefully calculated tension of the stainless steel cords locks the tubular elements up and into space. B-Tree II is the largest structure Snelson created.
Two Indeterminate Lines Bernar Venet never made preparatory drawings for this work and described each sculpture in his Indeterminate Lines series as “the result of improvised, intuitive, empirical work.” This sculpture highlights the use of industrial material, bent and twisted, to imitate a drawn line. His presence in public and private collections around the world is well known.
Listening to History Bill Woodrow is one of the leading contemporary British sculptors. He often addresses issues of humor and irony with his work. In his early pieces, he combined found objects to create new meaning. In Listening to History, the placement of the head on the ground with the book tied against it and blinding the eyes suggests many possible narrative meanings: learning from history, being blind to history, open/closed mindedness, and so on. Note the meticulous concern for detail in this work.
Our time through the park went quickly. We walked over 2 miles, and returned to the parking lot to find hundreds of people tailgating behind the amphitheater, awaiting Lyle Lovett’s evening performance. Had we not made previous plans to see “Weird Al,” it would have been the perfect venue for another songfest from Lyle (see Music City, USA).
We must return some other day…after checking the concert calendar first.