When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced this past August that the State of New Jersey would restore internationally known artist Athena Tacha’s “Green Acres” public art work — erected by the state in 1986 behind the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection building in Trenton — people in New Jersey and around the country applauded.
There is a good reason for the decision and its reception.
The 77-by-85 foot landscape-designed sculpture represents the efforts of one of the country’s artistic pioneers.
According to the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, DC, Tacha is one of the initiators of “site-specific” architectural sculpture — a significant shift in attitude that brought “land art” into a social context.
Tom Moran, chief curator at Grounds For Sculpture and past manager of state public art projects, including “Green Acres,” adds that Tacha took a 1970s American art movement that had focused on sculpting land in remote places and brought it East and into urban areas. “She is the pioneer of that movement,” he says of the artist who is also represented in the current GFS show, “Mythos” (see sidebar).
Since the 1970s Tacha has received more than 40 national public art commissions, ranging from New York to Alaska. One includes an entire city-block park in downtown Philadelphia.
Besides her work being represented in international and U.S. collections, the artist was also the focus of a 40-year retrospective, “Athena Tacha: From the Public to the Private.” That 100-piece exhibition was coordinated in 2010 by the Contemporary Art Center in her home region of Thessolonia, Greece, and included outdoor commissions, body sculptures, photographic works, films, and conceptual art.
Tacha’s work came to Trenton through the Percent for Art Program. Part of the 1978 Arts Inclusion Act, the measure sets aside up to 1.5 percent of construction budgets for the commissioning and installation of artwork in state-financed construction projects. Rather than a frill, the law is designed “to complement the artistic and esthetic effect of any buildings,” notes a New York Times article on the subject.
“Green Acres” is located in the red-tiled DEP courtyard on East State Street in Trenton, minutes from the Trenton train station. The work — which had shown disrepair and was the target of potential demolition by the state — incorporates green granite tiles etched with sandblasted photo images of state wildlife, vegetation in crescent shaped planters, and designed seating areas. Its biomorphic shape is a counterpoint to the geometric architecture of the DEP building and the courtyard.
Of “Green Acres,” Tacha says, “It is a substantial size environmental sculpture that includes all of my principles — fluidity, irregularity, and complexity of step, body rhythms, etcetera — with curvilinear forms, which are the most appropriate for expressing them.”
In addition to the appropriateness of the site, she continues, the work also reflects the aims of the DEP, which is saving the natural environment.
“For the first time I was able to combine hard materials expressing fluidity — for example, brick — with natural materials — plants and rocks,” she says.
There was also another innovation, and Tacha says that she was excited to “use the then-new photo sandblasting technique for further specificity of the content: 45 polished green granite slabs embedded in a subtle random pattern into the green slide pavement in the middle of the sculpture contain sandblasted photos of the endangered species of N.J. and the names of all the departments of DEP — one of which is Green Acres, which I used as the title,” she says.
Those photographs, she adds, were by New Jersey nature photographer Lee Rue III and DEP employees who created an in-house competition for inclusion.
“I could go on and on,” she says of the significance of the art to her the body of her art work. “The curved steps encircling the green pavement (which evokes a meadow or lagoon) are organic like vines, waves or sand dunes. I’ll stop here by saying that at the time I finished this work, after over a year of hard work with excellent local contractors, brick-layers, and 25 day-inspections, I was so happy with it that I said to myself, ‘Now I can die, because I said what I wanted to say!’”
What may perplex the casual art viewer is that “Green Acres” does not present itself in a traditional manner, where a viewer stops and gazes. Instead, the work slowly engages, causing visitors to become physically involved, discover aspects of the work, and then slowly find that the pieces converge and suggest. In “Green Acres,” one encounters both written statements, images, and the waves of materials that Tacha mentions.
As art critic Theodore F. Wolff observed in his book “The Many Masks of Modern Art,” Tacha “invites us to participate in a physical activity that creates rhythms and patterns in our minds and sensibilities as we walk with her through time. And the result, as is natural to art, is a sense of harmony, design — and of beauty.”
“I always want to get away from typical art that goes in museums and collections. That’s why I do public art, to escape the consumerism and the contextualization of art. It goes against the grain to follow Duchamp’s principle that art is defined by the context,” says the Washington, DC, based artist in a printed interview.
The reference to Marcel Duchamp is a challenge to the provocative 20th-century French artist who said, “Art is not about itself but the attention we bring to it.” Duchamp is famous, among other things, for the introduction of “Readymade” art, the entering of everyday items, such as a signed urinal or snow shovel, in gallery and museum exhibitions.
“I simply don’t think that whatever you put in a museum is art. To me, it has to be made or intended as art; the context is not sufficient. I don’t care if people call my work art, but I make it to communicate something,” Tacha says.
While she believes that “all my art is nature-oriented and particularly inspired by water and land formations, or biological rhythms,” she is also interested in life, science, and, of course, art — elements that come from her background.
Tacha was born in 1936 in the Greek city of Larissa, where the attributed father of Western medicine Hippocrates died. By coincidence Tacha’s father was also a doctor, a neurologist. Far from an ideal life, the Tachas — her parents, an adopted sister, and the young artist — lived perilously, fleeing the Nazis during World War II, caught in the Greek Civil War (1943-’49), and enduring the post-wars famine.
Despite the harshness of these early days, the young Tacha, who showed artistic talent from age 10, continued to draw and study, eventually receiving a master’s in sculpture from the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens in 1959. With the support of a Fulbright travel grant, Tacha came to the United States and received a second masters degree in art history from Oberlin College in 1961. Two years later she received a doctorate in esthetics from the Sorbonne in Paris.
She returned to the United States, served as a curator of modern art at the Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College from 1966-’73, and then joined Oberlin College where she has taught sculpture, media arts, and welding, activities that paved her way to creating public art.
“Maybe I’m a failed scientist,” she says in an interview, “my curiosity is like a scientist’s. It may have started with my father being a doctor and infusing me with an admiration for science. When I was a child during the war and we had no light at night, he showed me the stars and told me about them — and the night sky in Greece is so beautiful! But I think it started more seriously when I decided to become a sculptor.”
To create in that new form she had to relearn in order to create. “I thought I had to understand, go to the roots of my art: what is sculpture? Ultimately, it comes down to matter that you shape in space. Space, three-dimensionality, is the essential element of sculpture, but matter, too — it has weight, and therefore gravity is a key force. So I started to ask, ‘What is space, what is matter, what is gravity?’ That’s what led me to all the science reading. Concepts of space and matter change constantly, of course. I have to keep up with it, and accordingly, my art changes because of our present perceptions of space, time, matter, energy, and gravity.”
The artist also became intrigued by quantum physics. “The concept that interests me most is space foam, the tremendous activity of subatomic matter and space. I want to express that energy. The outer universe seems to be a foam structure, too, because conglomerates of galaxies appear to behave as a foam structure in infinite space. I’m also very interested in the concept of scale, of testing how the mind can conceive extremes of size, and how those extremes can be expressed in my work,” she says.
As an individual who had lived in times when living was uncertain, she understandably has life on her mind and says, “I really have to understand the outer limits of reality, and you can’t stop asking, ‘Where do I fit?’ ‘What is this universe, and how am I part of it?’ Living systems are a really beautiful development of matter, and yet there is so much else. I believe everything is one whole, and I am a little part of it, like a wave in the ocean.”
But the artist also sees that life also includes its opposite, death. “Another thing that interests me,” she says, “is how one can face death with equanimity, and what is death? On my website, I have a piece called Death is Life, which encompasses my current thinking. Handling all those dead animal parts or the shells constantly reminds me of death as a part of life. The living matter, the matter of my body, is really inseparable from inanimate matter like the rocks and water, from the universe, the galaxies, the subatomic particles, and the energy that makes us.”
Tacha says her early essay “Rhythm as Form” is her manifesto. “It begins with the Indian notion that dance is the mother of all the arts, because it includes space, movement, color, everything. I love Indian art and architecture, dance and music. They are really essential to my esthetic.”
The approach also informs “Green Acres” and other public art works. Says Tacha: “I studied art in a very traditional fashion in Greece, where I worked from the nude for four years, four hours a day. I studied anatomy for four semesters with doctors, so I know the body very well, and how it moves. And I also love dance. All of that has gone into my sculpture, ultimately.”