Nollen Plaza, Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, Des Moines, Iowa
Cor-Ten steel painted with polyurethane enamel
37 x 37 x 58 ft. (11.3 x 11.3 x 17.7 m)
Sited: 33 x 37 x 56 ft. (10.1 x 11.38 x 17.1 m)
Commissioned September 1978 by the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, with a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and donations from local sources
Installed November 27, 1979
Inaugurated November 29, 1979
In January 1978, after a year living and working in the Netherlands, we returned to the studio in New York, resolved to devote ourselves entirely to outdoor scale site-specific sculptures permanently located in public situations.
Coosje van Bruggen pointed out that previous sculptures of this kind tended to have a geometrical, symmetrical subject chosen for its suitability to standard procedures of metal fabrication. Instead, she wanted to try more organic subjects, perhaps using plant shapes. The opportunity to do this came that September with a commission for a site in the center of Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, in front of a new civic center. The space where the sculpture was to stand was much like an island in the city surroundings with a large pool of water along one side.
A visit the previous year to Coosje’s bearded father, a retired physician tending his garden in the North of the Netherlands had inspired a comparison to Robinson Crusoe, resulting in an etching of the legendary figure’s hand-made umbrella, the first object made by the castaway and one of the few he took away with him when he was rescued. The umbrella of Crusoe was as structured as it had to be, yet organic in form, made of branches and plants on the island. This image became our point of departure. We wanted to place an exotic element in the midst of prosaic circumstances and turn the center of the continent paradoxically into an island in the sea.
Consistent with Coosje’s desire to originate the subject in plant forms, one of our first models was made of the sawed-off branches of our Christmas tree, which developed through models that followed into flat segments with organic contours overlapping one another, curving where necessary to form the skeletal shape of a huge, opened umbrella, 37 feet high, reclining mysteriously on the regular pattern of the concrete plaza. The handle, which was part of the sculpture closest to the spectator, was treated as a sculpture in itself, with a prominent curled shape at the top. The Crusoe Umbrella was set apart from the other plants around it not only by its unique form and construction but also by its color, a deep blue-green with marine associations. We noted later that, by coincidence, the shape of the Crusoe Umbrella suggests the path of the street beside it and its culmination, after a rise, in the city’s cupola-topped Capitol, a link to the present which seemed to confirm the subject in its site.
After a trial assembly at the Lippincott factory, the segments of the Crusoe Umbrella were trucked to Des Moines, the first Large-Scale Project to arrive in parts, which were fitted together over the Thanksgiving holiday of 1979.
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