LINCOLN — Monika Sosnowska’s “Tower” is the first sculpture you see as you enter the grounds of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, and it is magnificent.
More than 100 feet long, it looks like a whale’s dark skeleton twisting along the deCordova’s lawn. Stand at one end and peer inside, and you see a tornado-like vortex of torqued and crumpled steel. Terrific force tangles with destruction and decay.
Sosnowska replicated the structure from part of the steel façade of modernist architect Mies van der Rohe’s “Glass House” apartments along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, which were being erected at the time the deCordova first opened, in 1950. The piece doesn’t mince its meaning: the singular purity of modern architecture has toppled, and the behemoth lies expiring by the roadside. For Sosnowska, a Pole, the communist ideology associated with modern architecture is another beast, slain.
“Tower” welcomes viewers to “Architectural Allusions,” a riveting exhibition of outdoor works exploring the relationship between sculpture and architecture, and presenting a new, more focused way to experience the sculpture park.
Back in 2009, the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park changed its name to deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, and sought to re-focus its mission: more sculpture, grow the park. Since then, several pieces in the museum’s ongoing “Platform” series of commissioned projects have played off the landscape.
But this is only the second themed exhibition for the sculpture park, and the first to seriously highlight sculpture (“Work Out” in 2013, focused more on performance art and installation). There will be more.
“This is signaling a formalized commitment to utilizing the park as our premiere exhibition space,” said Jennifer Gross, deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator, in an interview. Each year, she said, the deCordova will have two major shows in the museum and one in the sculpture park. She is plotting an outdoor exhibition for next summer spotlighting the work of a single artist, but she’s not ready to reveal who it is.
“Architectural Allusions” works so well in part because it’s framed by the landscape — nature plays along with art and architecture. Whether the sculptures contrast to the park’s greenery and sloping hills, as Sosnowska’s does, or declare kinship to them, they set up enchanting associations.
Esther Kläs’s “Ferma (5)” falls into the latter camp. It nestles in a grove of pine trees. Two hefty granite slabs lie on the earth. Are they paving stones? Grave markers? Pine needles fill rows of straight grooves left by the quarry and circular holes the artist had bored into the stone — nearly hieroglyphic marks. Like Sosnowska’s piece, “Ferma (5)” feels like a ruin, only an ancient one.
Nearby, Oscar Tuazon’s “Partners” engages just as directly with nature: His nearly two-story concrete post and lintel structure connects with an ailing sugar maple. It’s not quite a crutch propped beneath the tree branch; its awkward, upside-down
L shape would fall if the tree weren’t supporting it. Hence the partnership, albeit with a comic formal tension between organic and man-made.
Most of the works in the show play with modern architecture, and some spring from its aesthetic cousin, minimalism, such as Sol LeWitt’s “Tower (DC)” which makes a pithy retort to Sosnowska’s “Tower.” It stands clean and erect, a ziggurat of concrete blocks, nodding to ancient stepped pyramids and modern skyscrapers. Despite its mundane materials, the piece lofts proudly toward the heavens.
Contrast that to Kenneth Snelson’s sleek, undeniably horizontal “Wiggins Fork.” The artist built it in 1967 using tension wires running through stainless steel tubes — a method he calls “floating compression.” Two nearly 12-foot-long tubes hover, one crossing over the other, airy and streamlined, tethered to shorter vertical tubes. In these sculptures, the modernist purity feels impish, like serious architecture’s goofy younger sibling.
Dan Graham takes a more ominous approach. Employing stainless steel and glass, materials associated with modernism and corporate architecture, he has built a transparent chamber visitors can stand in.
“Crazy Spheroid — Two Entrances” features two adjoining rooms in a semicircular structure of two-way mirrored glass. You see yourself and the person in the other room. Reflections ricochet unnervingly around the curved walls. Despite the openness of the landscape outside, everywhere you look is your own reflection. There’s a feeling of surveillance, of being trapped. I did not linger.
But I could have spent all morning with Boston sculptor Stephanie Cardon’s “Beacon,” commissioned for this show. You’ll notice it first looking toward Flints Pond from the museum’s back entrance: Several bright yellow cords strung horizontally between two mammoth concrete blocks. The yellow sings out to the black-eyed susans surrounding it on the hillside.
Go stand beneath it. It’s a gateway, a portal. With its burly concrete and clean lines, it has the same modernist references as other works in the show. Then, Cardon’s layers of tautly strung cords ripple optically as you move, the yellow gathering and opening against the blue sky. I found the visual effect similar to the strum of harp strings — a swift burble, a rising delight.
One quibble about “Architectural Allusions.” The works scatter about the sculpture park, conversing with all the other pieces there. If you did not know that these seven sculptures connect, you might never realize there was an exhibition, and the deCordova has not printed up a brochure. A treasure map is definitely required.
At deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, through May 1.