Hidden treasures: Downtown Detroit sculptures often badly placed

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Say what you like about the recently installed "Waiting" by artist KAWS at the former Compuware Building, but visibility isn't one of the statue's problems. 

The glass facade on the downtown building, now called One Campus Martius, makes for a perfect frame. The side-by-side black figures, which some say resemble an alien Mickey Mouse with child, absolutely pop. You can't miss them.

Detroit's "Waiting" by KAWS at 1 Campus Martius is marvelously sited show off the artwork.

Pity you can't say the same about a number of other outdoor sculptures below Grand Circus Park. 

All too often, said "Art in Detroit Public Places" author Dennis Nawrocki, public art falls victim to what the professor and art critic terms the "plop-sculpture" syndrome, which he summarized as follows:

"Let's make it and plop it down somewhere" -- a byword for thoughtless placement. 

Many would say the poster child for lousy siting is Robert Graham's 1986 "Memorial to Joe Louis," better known locally as "The Fist." 

Sitting in the middle of eight lanes of rushing traffic on East Jefferson at the base of Woodward, the 28-foot-long arm, suspended from a huge tripod, is both hard to see and harder to visit. 

Located in the median between eight lanes of busy traffic, "Memorial to Joe Louis" -- best known as "The Fist" -- is both difficult to see and hard to access, a classic case of a site that works against the work of art it's meant to display.

"It's really poorly placed," said Maureen Devine, who curates Cobo Center's growing art collection. 

"I don't think anyone would argue differently," she added. "The setting doesn't do justice to the piece."

In his book, Nawrocki deplored the "visual cacophony of light poles, traffic signals and street signs" that surrounds and obscures the work. 

Obscured in a different way is Isamu Noguchi's "Pylon," just across Jefferson's east-bound lanes from "The Fist."

"Pylon," erected in 1973, is a gleaming, square tower that twists gracefully as it rises to its full 120-foot height. 

The sculpture is well placed, but something right in front of it is not -- a clunky Hart Plaza digital sign that could have gone almost anywhere, and instead elbows its way into the view down Woodward like a rude pedestrian inserting himself into your selfie. 

The elegance of Noguchi's "Pylon" is undercut by the Hart Plaza sign that interrupts its view down Woodward.

If "Memorial to Joe Louis" is the poster child for placement that works against a work of art, "Variations on Logo" surely takes second place. 

This large bronze from the late 1960s is tucked neatly -- too neatly, as it happens -- into a tight, often-damp niche between the white skyscraper at 211 W. Fort and Albert Kahn's Detroit Trust Co. to its left.

"Variations on Logo" by Alexander Hamilton and John Piet at 211 W. Fort in Detroit is wedged into a space far too narrow for it.

Despite its bulk, "Variations" by Alexander Hamilton and John Piet is so easy to miss, shoehorned in as it is, that Devine -- a committed art lover who knows Detroit backwards and forwards -- admits she's never noticed it. 

Nawrocki says the abstract design was based on the old Native American symbol for Detroit Bank & Trust, but you'd never know that the way it's positioned -- with its narrow end facing the sidewalk. 

"It's such an odd siting," Nawrocki said. "You'd expect to look at its long side, not the narrow." 

Its placement, he added, "reads like an afterthought with a piece that could really shine in a different location." 

It may be blowing bubbles to imagine that the badly sited works of art above could somehow be relocated and rescued.

But indeed, there are examples of artworks that have been relocated to great benefit. 

Perhaps the best is the "Spirit of Transportation" by the celebrated sculptor Carl Milles, whose work adorns the Cranbrook campuses. 

Carl Milles' "Spirit of Transportation" was recently moved to a much more visible location on the river side of Cobo.

Devine reports that the statue of a Native American portaging his canoe was located in 1960 on Washington Boulevard in front of Cobo. 

But in 1993 it was relocated into Cobo's north atrium, and largely hidden in a vestibule-like space that afforded a good view only from the back. 

"So we decided to move it back outdoors," Devine said, "and thought it made the most sense to put it on the river side at the Atwater entrance."

Located atop its tall, narrow base, the lone canoeist is not only highly visible, he's clearly headed for the Detroit River 100 feet away. 

It's a happy solution that makes sense, and rescues a long-neglected sculpture by a key artist. 

Year ago, when downtown was mostly empty, wasting an intriguing artwork might not have been such a crime -- there weren't many around to appreciate it. 

But now that Detroit's become something of a tourist destination and people are starting to care deeply about the look of downtown, maybe it would make sense to at least get that conversation rolling. 

Marshall Fredericks' "The Spirit of Detroit" is well sited and, thanks in part to the curving wall behind it, easy to see -- in contrast to a number of other sculptures downtown.

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