There’s an old saw: Try to please everyone, and you end up pleasing no one. I doubt it was said specifically with public art in mind, but it may as well have been.
Creating a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common may have had its own unique challenges, but it’s no exception: Take a pair of public figures who, for many Americans, are nothing less than the earthly manifestation of virtue, then extract that essence and distill it to be represented, in public, by one thing. Forever. Well, good luck with that.
That said, “The Embrace,” the winning entry by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group, performs an admirable balancing act. It’s mysterious, a gentle knot of arms and hands entwined in shimmering bronze. It’s subtle, oh so subtle, an intimate physical gesture evoking tenderness and care without being prescriptive or lionizing its subjects. And more than anything else, it’s human — instantly relatable, a gesture of connection and intimacy that every one of us craves.
It’s hard to talk about why one is best without explaining why others are not. Not to dwell, but all five finalists named by King Boston, an organization established to memorialize the Kings, deserve accolades for good intentions. “Boston’s King Memorial,” designed by Adam Pendleton and Adjaye Associates with Future/Pace and David Reinfurt, reordered the park in dramatic fashion — a nice nod to King’s enduring impact on civic engagement. But for a project that addresses such specific figures, it felt to me a little too architectural, too impersonal — there are no Kings in it, in other words. That doesn’t seem right.
“The Ripple Effects,” from Wodiczko + Bonder/Maryann Thompson Architects, with Walter Hood, had, if anything, too much presence — a pair of towers with flashing lights, bells, and a news ticker of human rights victories seemed preachy and explicit — exactly what not to do with a public art commission. Barbara Chase-Riboud’s “Empty Pulpit Monument” also felt a little pedantic, with its searchlights reaching skyward and its heavy stone base. Surrounded by gentle curves of earth, it rearranged the experience of the space, the familiar made strange — a good thing. Ultimately, though, it seemed too burdensome, too heavy, pushing away more than drawing near.
Yinka Shonibare’s “Avenue of Peace” offered a clever balance, giving equal weight to Martin and Coretta (two paths around its central tower told each of the couple’s stories separately). But the Kings’ story is loaded with drama and pain — amid the deluge of grief and suffering of the African-American experience and the civil rights struggle, together they dared to stand in the flood — and that seems to demand more than an anodyne monument of sunny hope.
In other words, balance can be hard to find. Which brings us back to “The Embrace.” It checks almost all the boxes of good art, public or otherwise: It has immediate presence — the piece, at 22 feet tall, will tower over passersby — that will make it unmissable, a landmark. It has a gesture at its core that feels universal, unmistakable, human. And it has layers: You’d have to be taken by the hand to know that the image captured by the piece is inspired by a photograph of the moment Martin threw his arms around Coretta after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
But the piece, in both its warmth and its mystery, compels the viewer to ask the question: What, exactly, is happening here? Its moment is one of both triumph and paradox. Martin alone was awarded the laurel, not Coretta, an oversight that Thomas and his team set straight.
At the same time, you wouldn’t be wrong to see in the piece any number of moments where hands fell upon shoulders, whether in joy, exasperation, or pain: an injured protester dragged away limp from a police barricade; arms linked in a human chain, defiant; or a future where an embrace is colorblind, as it is here, cast only in shimmering bronze.
The piece is both elegant and complex that way; it is of one very specific thing, but it still contains multitudes. It uses the most familiar material language — bronze has monumentalized so-called greatness for centuries — both to tell a different story, and to claim that language for its own. With heroic bronze monuments to “great men” stirring controversy and even being toppled countrywide — most often because of their subjects’ aiding or participating in the slave trade — a monument to the Kings in the same material says much about what history’s indelible monuments have explicitly left out.
At the same time, it speaks in hushed tones. For all its grand scale, there is no monumentalizing here. The embrace it captures is notably awkward, imperfect. Some will surely find it cloying or sentimental, or an idealizing sugarcoat of a marriage that withstood King’s alleged adultery. But its strength, I think, is in that imperfection — a frozen moment in the tangle of history, personal and otherwise, where all the pain and complication fractured and let joy shine through.
It also shifts the spotlight away from the Kings and the simplistic false narrative of individual greatness so heavily relied upon by public monuments.
Instead, it turns outward. For a monument about the Kings, this is hardly about the Kings at all, but what the rest of us now do with their legacy. With its mysterious, awkward embrace, it draws us near, then leaves space for us.Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte