|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|Best known for her unconventional public monuments, the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the Civil Rights Memorial in
Montgomery, Alabama, Maya Lin combines intuition with the tools of
science. Some have called her work a "spiritualized geometry,"
which she achieves by working with computer- enhanced imaging, aerial
and satellite photography, topographic mapping. |
Maya Lin was a
21-year-old undergraduate when her design for the Vietnam Memorial was
chosen in 1981 from a field of more than a thousand proposals. Though
she did no research prior to creating her design, she didn't want to be
swayed by politics. Lin sensed that Americans were still in pain.
"I was trying to come to some understanding of mourning and grieving,"
Lin achieved an uncomfortable fame because of the
Memorial and the controversies that at first swirled around her
design. As a result, she declined to discuss the experience
publicly for more than a decade. Filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and
Terry Sanders finally dissolved that reluctance while creating Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,
their documentary that won an Academy Award in 1995. Since then,
the rift that had grown between Lin and a lot of Vietnam veterans
Now 43, Lin, reticent, with a slight physique, lives in
New York City with her husband, Daniel Wolf, an art dealer, and their
two young daughters. In her SoHo studio, she is currently working
on a dozen design and renovation projects, such as a sculpture center
in Long Island City, New York, and a chapel for the Children's Defense
fund in Clinton, Tennessee. A recent commission will consist of
installations along the Columbia River in Washington State marking the
Lewis and Clark expedition, while also acknowledging Native American
and environmental concerns.
Her work has frequently tested the
boundaries between architecture and art, a tension that she
cultivates. Her sculptures have drawn crowds to gallery shows,
and she is in demand as a lecturer. She has also produced a line
of minimalist furniture. "I have to model everything," she says. "I
can't see in two-dimensions." One of her first models of the Wall was
constructed, in a college dormitory, of mashed potatoes.
Her designs since the Vietnam War Memorial have many of the
attributes that made the Wall a triumph, such as a respect for nature
and a less-is-more aesthetic. "I do like the simplicity of her work,
the way she strips things down," says Carl Pucci, a New York City
architect who has followed her progress since her undergraduate days.
"And she's gained confidence in that style over the years."
the veteran's piece, she went on to produce other memorials, and in
response to requests, she has sketched ideas for a World Trade Center
Memorial. Though she insists that she won't officially be
involved in creating one, the fact that she springs to mind as a prime
candidate for that immense and solemn undertaking is ample evidence
that Americans have grown to appreciate her singular talent. This
circumstance was not true when she was chosen for the Vietnam Memorial.
Initiated by Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs, more than 175,000
individuals, civic groups, unions and corporations contributed $8.4
million to the war memorial fund, which sponsored an open competition
for the Vietnam Memorial design. In May of 1981, after reviewing
1,421 entries (including a two-story combat boot, a two-acre flag and a
40-foot rocking chair), the eight-member jury of architects and
sculptors announced that the winner of the $20,000 competition was Maya
Ying Lin, the daughter of two native Chinese who had fled Mao's
Communist regime, and settled in Athens, Ohio.
Maya Lin, an
architecture student at Yale University, had entered the competition as
an assignment for a funereal architecture class. The drawings for
her winning concept are deceptively simple---an extended black V
suspended in a murky blue-green wash. "They almost look like
kindergarten drawings. A lay jury would never, never have chosen
that design," says Paul Spreiregen, a Washington-based architect who
organized the competition and helped select the judging panel.
But he views Lin's design as an effective symbol: "It's a rift in the
earth, as the war was a tear in the fabric of the American experience."
accompanied her drawings with an essay, handwritten on a single sheet
of paper, that helped make her case. "For death is in the end a
personal and private matter," she wrote, "and the area contained within
this memorial is a quiet place meant for personal reflection and
Though the judges selected her design, she
had to fight to see it built as envisioned. Some members of the
veterans' committee responsible for raising the funds, wanted the names
of the dead listed alphabetically, to make locating friends or loved
ones easier. But Lin argued that dozens of Joneses and Smiths
lined up in rows would prove monotonous. Plus, she wanted to
depict the passing of time from America's first fatality in Vietnam, in
1959, to the last, in 1975. Initially, she thought that the
chronology would begin at the far western point and play out as one
walks east. But, on the advice of an architect who evaluated her
class work, she began the chronology in the center instead, and
continued it along the eastern wing before resuming at the start of the
western wing and finishing at the center. Because of this, it is
said that time loops back upon itself, symbolizing closure (Indexes at
the site help people find specific names).
No sooner had the
plans been made public than proponents of heroic statuary
objected. Some veterans grew so vociferous that Secretary of the
Interior James Watt told the Memorial Fund to look for an alternative
design. Scruggs says he was one of Lin's staunchest supporters,
but his group was torn between defending her design, and achieving its
goal of building a memorial by the fall of 1982.
Practically every detail was debated. Many critics who
attacked the design were appeased after General Michael Davison, an
adviser to the memorial group, proposed that a conventional
representational statue be added to it. Lin opposed the change,
but the Memorial Fund commissioned sculptor Frederick Hart, who died in
1999, to create a statue. "Hart looked me straight in the face
and said, 'My statue is going to improve your memorial,'" recalls a
still-indignant Lin. "How can an artist say that? And at this time, the
statue would have gone at the apex, and their heads would have stood
above the wall." In a compromise, Hart's statue, which depicts three
resolute foot soldiers, would be situated about 120 feet from the
Wall's western ramp. It was dedicated in 1984.
of the Vietnam Memorial made Lin an obvious choice for other projects
that aimed for quiet eloquence. But after graduating from Yale, and
going on to earn a master's degree in architecture there in 1986, she
turned down offers to design monuments, worried that she might become
typecast. And, she says, she feared she might not again conceive a
memorial as inspired as the Wall.
Then, in the spring of 1988, while working toward an internship at
a New York architectural firm, she was asked by the Southern Poverty
Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, a pioneering civil rights group, to
design a memorial to Americans who fought for racial justice. She
accepted, immersed herself in the movement's history, and found a theme
in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, in which
he said the struggle for equality would not end "until justice rolls
down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
had King's phrase engraved into the curved black granite stone wall
that serves as the memorial's backdrop. Water flows down the wall
and wells up from the center of a 12-foot-diameter stone table onto
which a timeline of the civil rights movement is engraved, from the
U.S. Supreme Court's landmark "Brown v. Board of Education" ruling in
1954 to the assassination of King in 1968. Dedicated in 1989, the
Civil Rights Memorial was an instant sensation. Visitors feel
compelled to touch it, as they do the Wall, and run their fingers
through the moving water.
"I'm asking for a one-on-one
relationship between the viewer and the work," Lin says of her
memorials. "They're large-scale artworks, but they are anti-monumental.
No matter how large the piece might be, in the end, it breaks down to
an intimate, psychological experience.
A subsequent project by
Lin was closer to home. Installed at Yale in 1993, it is a
tribute to women at the college (founded in 1701), who studied or
worked on the campus beginning in 1873. Water flows across the
top of the granite Women's Table, which is scored with a spiral of
numbers radiating from the center and representing the number of women
students year by year from zero to 5,225 in 1993.
Lin's love of nature's handiwork is evident in one of her favorite installations, Wave Field,
dedicated in 1995 on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann
Arbor. Inspired by a photograph of water waves in a book, she reshaped
a campus quadrangle into a series of gently undulating berms. She
raked the "waves" herself before the grass was laid down. "When
you walk up to it, it's completely changing, it unfolds before you,"
she explains. "What I'm not after is trying to re-create nature,
but to use nature as a taking off point. It's a way of looking at a
natural landscape through an unexpected lens."
In the spring of
2002, she completed another installation that challenges perception: an
indoor courtyard at the American Express corporate office in
Minneapolis. The square is enclosed by glass walls. Water
flows down one wall in warm weather. During winter, the water freezes,
changing the appearance of the courtyard as well as the view. The
wave-like hardwood floor evokes a natural landscape.
Also in 2002, Lin was designing four private houses. In her 2000 book, Boundaries,
she describes her design style as one that borrows elements from
Japanese temples and Shaker, Scandinavian and early modernist
ideals. She favors uncluttered space, natural materials and as
much natural light as she can coax into the interiors. In the
only house she has so far completed from the foundation up, a residence
in Williamstown, Massachusetts, built in 1994, she brought nature into
play with a roof that has peaks and valleys, mimicking nearby
mountains. A New York City apartment she designed in 1998, echoes
Japanese tradition. Adjacent bathrooms can be combined by removing a
temporary wall. Two of the apartment's three bedrooms can also be
made one by rolling away a wardrobe.
By 2006, Maya Lin was creative seven massive commemorative sculptures
along the Lewis and Clark trail, 450 miles in length of the Columbia
River---the last leg of their journey. For each piece, she is
using materials native to the area and is incorporating texts from
diaries of the travelers and the Indians they encountered.
Robert F. Howe, Smithsonian, November 2002
Carly Berwick, "A River Runs Through It", ARTnews, December 2006, p. 44
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