It’s a blessing and burden when an artist’s first commission is a project of a lifetime that catapults her into the spotlight. Maya Lin was a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale University when her concept for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was selected by a blue-ribbon panel of architects and artists from among 14,000-plus entries.
Enrolled in a senior studio on funerary architecture, Lin reflected long and deep on the meaning of a memorial before arriving at her strikingly pure solution: a V-shaped slab of black granite receding below grade and stretching widely in distant directions. Inscribed on its reflective surface is a chronological roll of the American war dead. Lin envisioned the memorial as a geode; she would open up the earth and polish it. “It’s a memorial that does not force or dictate how you should think. It asks and provokes you to think whatever you should think. In that sense it’s very Eastern,” commented Lin.
Though art critics were accurately predicting that the wall (dedicated in 1982) would become one of the world’s great war memorials, Lin’s concept unleashed a flurry of bitter protest from a faction denouncing the design as a “black scar” and a “degrading ditch.” Interior Secretary James Watt nearly aborted the project, and Lin was under tremendous pressure to capitulate to alteration schemes, which included changing the stone to white, bringing it above ground, and planting a flagpole at the V’s vertex. Lin was unwavering in fending off such suggestions. Ultimately, a compromise was struck, and a realistic bronze sculpture of three soldiers was placed at the site’s entrance.
Through no mere stroke of luck or industry did Lin produce a work so powerful and appropriate. She was born in 1959 in Athens, Ohio, into a brilliant and creative family, whose Chinese ancestors were accomplished literary, artistic, and political figures. Lin’s parents immigrated to the United States in the late ’40s. Professors at Ohio University, her mother taught literature while her late father, a ceramist, was Dean of Fine Arts. Says Lin, “When I was growing up there [Athens], there was a kind of American arts and crafts movement going on, very clean, very simple, but with an acknowledgment of artisans. My father made a lot of furniture in our house, and all our professor friends were making things. That was definitely an influence.”
Lin works out of her home/studio loft in Manhattan (and also from a farmhouse in Vermont), taking on a limited number of commissions. Her portfolio is now filled with a range of successful sculptural and architectural projects, including two other memorials, one (dedicated 1992) at Yale University to commemorate the opening of the school to women in 1969, and the other at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. Here, her critically acclaimed Civil Rights Memorial (1989) interweaves individual lives with the larger Movement. It consists of two main components: A curtain of water flows down the face of a nine-foot-high, 40-foot-long bowed stone wall, inscribed with the words “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (a biblical allusion from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech). Adjacent to the wall is a low table whose elliptical top is bathed in water; pivotal events of the Movement (from 1954 to 1968) and the names of 40 who died in the struggle are incised into the stone.
To each project, Lin brings her intellect as well as her intuition. With “Groundswell” (1993) at the Wexner Center for Arts in Columbus, Ohio, she selectively spilled 43 tons of shattered safety glass in three residual spaces of a Peter Eisenman-designed building, creating her version of a Japanese Zen garden. “Eclipsed Time” (1994), a 14-foot-long elliptical ceiling clock in New York City’s Penn Station, offers frazzled commuters a moment of visual relief.
Lin’s reputation as an architect is emerging. Working with registered architects (she has yet to sit for the boards), she has two residences to her credit, as well as the renovation of a SoHo loft for Manhattan’s Museum for African Art (1993). Though Lin cites clear distinctions between sculpture and architecture, her remarkable body of work is driven by knowledge and passion for both disciplines.
Eclipsed Time, Pennsylvania Station, NYC (1994)
The Museum for African Art, (co-designer) SoHo, NYC (1993)
The Women’s Table, Yale University (1992)
The Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, AL (1989)
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC (1982)