CURT DOUGHTY

Jon Shirley is first to take the podium. He is president of the board of trustees of the Seattle Art Museum, and out the window next to him is the enormous red steel Eagle sculpture by Alexander Calder that Shirley, former Microsoft COO, and his wife, Mary, bought for $10 million in 2000. It is the centerpiece of SAM's new Olympic Sculpture Park, like the bird on a holiday table, and already referred to as the mascot. Shirley is introducing the park to press and VIPs, cutting the ribbon unofficially. At least 10 years in the making, he says, the park was born of a conversation between the Shirleys and the other leading collectors in Seattle, the Wrights. "When I talked to Jinny [Wright] about it, she had a very Jinny response: 'I love the idea, let's do it—we'll sell it to Mimi.'" Mimi Gates, director of the museum and stepmother of Bill Gates, "was supportive right from the beginning." TV and newspaper cameras are rolling and snapping. Shirley declares that the $85 million Olympic Sculpture Park is "the most unique sculpture park in the world," a tribute "to our great city."

When the park's founding curator, Lisa Corrin, met the park's landscape architects for the first time, she told them that above all, she did not want anything romantic. It is impossible not to be romantic at this site. From the light-drenched pavilion on Western Avenue, the park falls down and away to the west, toward Elliott Bay, and into a tree-lined valley to the north. And yet the overt utopianism of the project makes it equally impossible not to be aware of what this land almost became, and what it has been. These 8.5 acres form the last giant porch onto the water in downtown. The museum bought the land moments before it was to become condo high-rises, keeping the million-dollar views free. Unlike every other privately owned sculpture park in the middle of an American downtown, this one has no walls. (It does have guards and an infrared security system.) Beneath the monumental modern sculptures was once a field of petroleum-soaked sludge—the primordially murky postmodern, provided by the land's former owner, Union Oil of California—and governmentally mandated gauges implanted near the beach monitor pollution, like ankle bracelets for someone still under house arrest. Just beyond the shoreline, under the cold dark water, park engineers built a rock shelf habitat to welcome migrating juvenile salmon, an unseen functioning monument to ecological thoughtfulness. Behind Shirley as he talks, and looking over Richard Serra's field of graceful ruddy-steel sculptures, is an unmarked blue building on Western Avenue where the University of Washington quietly conducts AIDS research on primates.

The Olympic Sculpture Park sits at a thrilling locus of aesthetic, social, and environmental potential, a site formerly used to process the fuel for modern cities, now cleaned up and made into a place for this city to come and process itself. In tension all around the park are the allure of the natural, the promise of the scientific, the call of the commercial, the nagging sense of the ethical, the mixed bag of the philanthropic, and the basic desire for comfort. The park is part of this tension, a transcendental space surrounded by—and, again, not walled off from—the bluntly temporal. The problem, at this point, is that the sculpture inside is more a donated canon than a gathering of works that engage the complexities of Northwest urban life or contemporary sculptural practice. Instead of picking up on the tensions between the mountain motive and the money motive, or between the Seattle that was and the Seattle that is becoming, or even between the permanence of traditional outdoor sculpture and the transience and speed of contemporary art and life, and instead of aggravating those tensions in interesting ways, most of the sculptures make triumphant noises to accompany Shirley's triumphant words. This place is exciting. But it is the possibilities—the mist, the murk, the fuller horizon—that beckon.

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The Olympic Sculpture Park has siblings, but no twin. Like the parks at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, it is owned and operated by a museum. Unlike those parks, though, it is not adjacent to SAM; it's an independent complex. The Nasher Sculpture Garden in Dallas is urban and independent, but small, fenced in, and charges admission. So does Storm King, the mother of American sculpture parks, which spans 500 remote acres an hour outside New York City. Seattle's park is less than nine acres, bounded by tall buildings on three sides, and utterly permeable, penetrated by Elliott Avenue and active train tracks. Multiple entries and the slow fade of the park on the beach and into adjacent Myrtle Edwards Park to the north make the far boundary of the park fuzzy. People on the tours at the preview kept asking where the park ended, which, marvelously, may as well be unanswerable.

In the half-hour or so that it takes to walk the park, you will find yourself in an embracing, gravel-floored valley; head-to-head with wind and rain on exposed turf; eyeing the young plants of a sloping meadow to consider whether it's worth trampling them to get closer to the art in there; and meandering along a self-consciously picturesque S path through a sheltering grove of trees. An orange and green Burlington Northern train—at least one—will whistle and rumble by. The Space Needle, the white Minoru Yamasaki arches at Seattle Center, the Post-Intelligencer globe, and the omnipresent Belltown crane all will jump into view and present themselves for consideration as sculptures.

The circulating awareness the park inspires is extraordinary. "I always talked about not a sculpture park, but a place where art can happen," says founding curator Corrin. Now director of the art museum at Williams College in Massachusetts, she's responsible for much of what's remarkable about this park, along with the New York architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi.

Corrin's "not-a-sculpture-park" links to a long tradition of institutional critique in art. Some of the best art created in the last 150 years has positioned itself as anti-art or non-art, upending art's complacent conventions and misbehaving in front of powerful people. At the same time there has been plenty of art that's had nothing to do with art. Art about existential despair, being black in America, war, the psychology of the family, the plain old provision of pleasure—you name it. The better-known ups, downs, and S curves in 20th-century painting are nothing compared to the wild ride sculpture has taken. As Rosalind Krauss understates in "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," her 1978 landmark essay, "rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture."

Despite the generation of writing since 1978, Krauss's account remains the Gray's Anatomy of the medium. She lays it out this way: From Renaissance to 19th century, sculpture is inseparable from monument, a representation set in a certain location in order to commemorate something at that location, but separated from the world—made symbolic—by a pedestal. Beginning with Rodin and Brancusi in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sculpture removes itself from its pedestal and becomes autonomous, emancipating itself from commemorative purpose. At first, it becomes abstract, idealized, and "nomadic"—like Calder's Eagle—capable of sitting anywhere and bringing its own meaning with it.

By the 1950s, sculptors begin to spread themselves out. They've done away with the pedestal and they start interacting with the land they're on and the architectural spaces they're in. The shift is profound, as the sculptures actually start to become dependent upon viewers, time, and environmental conditions. Robert Irwin, the California light-and-space artist, explains that "the figure, this thing of value, is no longer isolated or dissociated from ground by meaning, but that it's interlocked and interwrapped with this ground, that they're interdependent... When I married the painting to the environment, suddenly it had to deal with the environment around it as being equal to the figure and having as much meaning." Krauss calls this "the expanded field" of sculpture. Corrin calls it "sculpture's restless relationship with the plinth."

So the park would have active interconnections with its surroundings, even restless ones. It would be an expanded field of its own. Corrin, Weiss, and Manfredi planned not to hide the complexities of the site but to use them to break the clichés of sculpture parks as blank picturesque oases or glorified minigolf courses, where plop art does nothing—to paraphrase pop artist Claes Oldenburg—other than sit on its ass.

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"The very first work of art in the park is the design of the park itself, and there's no park in the world that looks anything like this," Corrin says. "Weiss/Manfredi said to me, 'In 25 words or less, what's your vision?' Michael Manfredi wrote it down in his notebook, and what they sent in for the competition exactly matched what I said: I said that the most important development in the history of 20th-century sculpture had been the relationship between the object and the plinth, and that I wanted them to think of that as a metaphor for the park, and that I wanted them to design a series of precincts like plinths, in order to stage sculpture's restless relationship with the plinth."

The plinth, or pedestal, is what's between a sculpture and its ground. The park was intended to dramatize the great debate of art in a modern democracy: How closely is it related to life? How does it become special without being rarefied? Artists have proposed answers; the park was designed so visitors could consider the question for themselves. This is what Corrin means when she says that the park ought to "keep the discussion about sculpture alive," and what Serra means when he exclaims, "To have a park that is accessing the language of sculpture is not only rare, it's fucking magnificent."

The arbitrarily shifting landscape that Weiss/Manfredi created, with Seattle landscape architecture consultant Charles Anderson, is not just a portrait of diversity but also a collage of proposals. Each section will age and season differently, and each provides its own conditions for artists to play with. The waterfront promenade, for instance, is a touristic zone, while the valley is Zen. And the parts are tied together not smoothly, but by a willful, scarlike zigzag along the skin of the ground. The museum may prefer to emphasize the park as glossy and perfect, but the scar is a reminder of the surgery that took place here, of the before and the after. It is restless.

And it is cunning, but, like good postmodernists, the architects give you every chance to see through the deviousness (see what they did there) without being whimsical, didactic, or ironic. Crucial to the design is the treatment of the long-spanning retaining walls that bind the site together. They are unprecious concrete slabs stacked and leaning against one another, like a hand of playing cards unfurled. The graphic quality tacked on by the sandblasting on their surfaces is grating, but the detailed, angled cuts between each of the slabs form a satisfying secret layer of skewed shapes, sculpted gaps. It is thanks to these walls that the park has no view-cluttering guardrails.

Underfoot is another fiction hiding in plain sight. When the architects took over the site, it was three flat lots next to a drop-off at the edge of Western Avenue. To create the sloped grade from Western to the water, 260,000 cubic yards of earth were trucked in—basically reversing the Denny Regrade that took place in the early part of the 20th century, when this area of hilly land was flattened so that a business district could flourish.

All the staging is emphasized by a visual trick that repeats throughout the park: a long-armed isosceles triangle that is the equivalent of a vanishing point on a picture plane. These cunning triangles elongate the park in all directions. There's a promontory near the southwest corner of the park (overlooking the fountain by Louise Bourgeois) that thrusts outward into the city, catapulting the eye to the Smith Tower and the rows of red industrial cranes miles away. If you turn around to face the other direction, you'll notice that the path narrows slightly toward the water, and the lengths appear to be almost equal. In this park, there is no such thing as the untampered-with view.

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In Corrin's job interview with SAM at the turn of the millennium, she asked the museum why. "Why do you want a sculpture park, given the fact that artists have such a problematic relationship to those spaces and that a lot of contemporary work seems not to find a home there?"

When Corrin says, "We're trying to do something serious here; this is a place where really serious conversations about this medium can happen," she doesn't mention that it is also a place powered by donors who want the museum to have room for their things. Ten of the nineteen sculptures outdoors were donated by the Shirleys and the Wrights. While several of the pieces were donated or loaned especially for the park, few were made by young artists with contemporary concerns. Most of the art here is mid-to-late-century modernism, which means the opening lineup represents more a limited register than an expanded field.

The park as it looks today is a cross between a staid group exhibition and the introduction of city infrastructure. All of the artworks are movable, in theory, and only a few were made with the park in mind, but the only plan for turnover is annually inside the pavilion. (The rest will depend on the museum's new modern and contemporary curator, Michael Darling, who for now is busy filling the galleries of SAM's new downtown headquarters, opening in May.)

Serra's Wake seems the least likely ever to leave, which is good. Serra's work makes its own weather so effectively that it never looks like it's wandered in from some business plaza. In all likelihood, Wake will go down as a terrific late-period piece for Serra, different from the frightful brawniness and awe-inspiring qualities of his Torqued Ellipses at Dia:Beacon and the Tilted Arc that once stood in Manhattan, or the cleverness of his echo chamber, Vortex, outside the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Wake is, as KUOW arts commentator Marcie Sillman has said, almost feminine. It is five hollow, 14-foot-tall and 48-foot-long pods made of Cor-ten steel. Each pod is two S shapes reversed so they interconnect. If today they are reminiscent of a fleet of ships moving imperceptibly away, eventually these associations may become muted as the trees around them grow to 100 feet or more and the valley becomes a place of melancholy contemplation with the slightest sensation of burial. That would be apt; Serra named the piece, which he made for a gallery show in New York when he was 65 (in 2004), after the death of his friend, the curator and writer Kirk Varnedoe. Inside it, the curvaceous geometry triggers a curiosity that is unquenchable, a search for a center point that keeps you moving, and longing.

While the pods of Wake direct attention away from themselves, into the spaces between them and around them, the 39-foot red Eagle by Calder draws the environment into itself as it becomes the centerpoint of what's around it. This is a traditional act for a modernist monument, perfectly—almost parodically—staged by its placement on the horizon. (All the works were installed by SAM's Michael McCafferty.) When Calder made this piece for the Fort Worth National Bank square in 1971, it was a classic case of plop art, or what critics dubbed "turds in the plaza." The chaining of the national bird in front of a house of money? If Calder could see it now, perched over the Seattle waterfront, I think even he would be surprised at the triumph of the rescue.

Stinger by Tony Smith sits at the end of the grove of trees near the park's southern tip, not far off Broad Street. Smith liked to throw around the dry theoretical that his sculptures were neither objects nor monuments, but he also ascribed to a mysticism that his austere counterparts—true minimalists like Carl Andre and Donald Judd—did not. Like Wake, Stinger (1967–68, fabricated 1999) is an environment as much as an object, and its effects are visceral, like the sweet, sneakily strong cocktail that provided its title. (Ingredients: brandy, white crème de menthe. Vodka optional.) A snakelike enclosure with four matte-black steel sides shaped like diamonds rests on a sharp edge. When you're inside, it tampers with your sense of gravity, and the light and shadow make it appear two-toned. Being aware of the discrepancy between what you see and feel and what you know is there encourages letting go, release, and the acceptance of opposites.

Smith is one of a few artists who have multiple works in the park, along with Roy McMakin, Beverly Pepper, Mark Di Suvero, and Louise Bourgeois. Smith's other work is Wandering Rocks (1967–74), which looks like five irregular crystals painted in black and scattered in the grove—inscrutable "spiritualist" objects, as the postmodern theorist Thomas McEvilley might dismissively say. Their stone faces are made playful by being installed in a grove of trees that are the landscape equivalents of hair transplants.

More than any other single thing, the park is a titans-of-modernism tour. In that category, Wandering Rocks, Stinger, Wake, and Eagle are among the best of each artist's works. But the selections from Di Suvero, Pepper, Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen are more uneven. Di Suvero's Schubert's Sonata (1992) is by far the lesser piece to his Bunyon's Chess (1965), what Judd would describe as timbers balanced in space with as much energy and tension as the brushstrokes of the abstract expressionists. Unfortunately, Bunyon's Chess is installed below and at a distance from the path so that its larger-than-lifeness is lost. Nevelson's goofy figural abstraction, Sky Landscape I (1976–83), is so-so compared to her enigmatic box reliefs. Pepper's Persephone Unbound (1999) is a dull, mute masquerade with very little visual payoff, a bronze monument made to look like a slim, rough block of stone. By contrast, her Perre's Ventaglio III (1967), which looks like a flipping Rolodex in blue and silver, is a likable early experiment in using industrial materials with reflective surfaces to make a sculpture partially disappear by melding with what's around it. Again, the installation is poor. The piece sits on a cramped slope; the effect is like setting a telescope on the other side of the room from the window. This narrow strip of the park, along one side of Serra's valley, is not a good place for looking at sculptural objects. They're against a wall, so you're forced to face them as if they were paintings.

Anthony Caro's Riviera (1971–74), a steel abstraction that gives the impression of a canvas and its stretcher torn to pieces, and Ellsworth Kelly's erudite Curve XXIV (1981), are both beautiful and dated. As for Oldenburg and van Bruggen's Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (1988, fabricated 1999), the piece is stale, but the installation is fresh: set so that it looks like it is rolling down the hill toward Elliott Avenue.

The last of the famous names is Bourgeois. Her two pieces are Eye Benches, six (three pairs of) benches shaped like eyes, and Father and Son. It is not finished by press time, but Father and Son's story has been underway for a few years. When Seattle's rich, gay Stu Smailes died, he left the city $1 million to build a "fully articulated, realistic male nude" to be displayed publicly. This meant penis. Seattle's first. But instead of an homage to an object of pleasure, Bourgeois proposed a chaste father and son. Bourgeois is known for cryptic, aggressive sensualism, which doesn't fit the theme of father and son in the first place, but also, early photos from the studio make the figures appear to be inert, lifeless. This park isn't getting great Bourgeois by a long shot. Whether it's getting good Bourgeois remains to be seen.

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There is such precedent for great, even controversial, outdoor art in Seattle—Michael Heizer's Adjacent, Against, Upon (1977) in Myrtle Edwards Park, Robert Morris's blackened human-height tree stumps (1979) near the airport—that the general conservatism of the art in the park seems like a step backward. Here's what's missing: the absurd, the messy, the political, the profane, the feisty, the transgressive, the futile, the digital, the abject, the neurotic, and the mark of the artist's hand. In short: the contemporary. Consider the sculptors highlighted just this fall around Seattle: Erwin Wurm's one-minute sculptures performed for the camera, at the Frye Art Museum; Susie Lee's videos "touching" physically sculpted surfaces at Lawrimore Project; Lead Pencil Studio's temporary and transparent Maryhill Double tethered on an empty bluff across from the Maryhill Museum; Dan Webb's Little Cuts at Howard House, where the final object is not a wooden bust, but wood shavings, deposited in a Plexiglas urn, produced by the creation and destruction of the bust.

Granted, outdoor sculpture is not a major category in contemporary art, and the most beloved sculpture gardens—the Wanås Foundation in Sweden, for instance, which opened in 1987 and changes its art every two years—emphasize ephemeral exhibitions instead of permanent installations. (The newest American park is at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Set to open in 2009, the IMA will devote 100 acres to projects by contemporary artists.)

But where some of the modernist-era works in the sculpture park were daring for their time, the same can't really be said for the new pieces. It's not because the park is not equipped—for example, the park has a sophisticated underground power and teledata system, and Corrin originally intended to show video, but couldn't find money to do it—but because this opening is about the Shirleys and the Wrights, and they don't specialize in contemporary. Roy McMakin's furniture tableau with benches and a tree that spell out "Love & Loss" is amusing, and the red-neon spinning ampersand is a sly reference to waterfront chain restaurants, but the work is a snooze compared to what McMakin originally proposed: a "cell site"—a cell-phone tower, basically—available for rent to corporations whose revenue would go to fund a performance-art space. The events would be advertised in posters on the base. That would have had the capacity to subvert crusty notions of nature, sculpture, and corporate sponsorship. It was rejected by the museum.

Instead, there's the perky (Teresita Fernandez's Seattle Cloud Cover is the pretty glass wall on the bridge over the train tracks, imprinted with a panorama of Miami sky photographs) and the obvious (Roxy Paine's Split, the gleaming 50-foot stainless-steel tree, similar to the one made in 2002 to stand in Central Park). Split is an especially heavy-handed and tedious piece of stagecraft, standing out in the middle of a meadow, unlike, for instance, Terry Allen's Trees at the University of California San Diego (1986): real eucalyptus trees encased in skins of lead and disguised among the other trees. Most ambitious of the Olympic Sculpture Park's contemporary commissions are Mark Dion's Neukom Vivarium (named after donors the Neukoms) and Glenn Rudolph's photographs of the park's dilapidated site and its down-on-their-luck inhabitants from the 1980s until it began to look like a park last year. Both honor the destructive quality of time's passage. Rudolph's images implicitly question the upper-class vibe of the finished park, and propose the old view as its own sculpture to be considered. Dion's nurse log lying on its side in a greenhouse resembles a reclining nude, as Corrin has said, but it also looks like a patient hooked up to life support, its watering tubes and temperature-control valves visible, the way they are above Buster Simpson's 1991 nurse-log installation in Portland. Field guides and magnifying glasses for schoolchildren—the whole pedagogical overlay—leech from the poetic potential of the piece. When asked about the fate of small trees that will grow out of the rotting log, Dion said, "This is a garden; it will be pruned." So we shouldn't expect to see a tree jutting out of the greenhouse someday? "That could be really cool, and maybe it will make sense to do that." Asked again about his general intentions, he said, "The piece is done today. We need to be true to the piece, and being true to the piece is seeing what happens." Which is it? Not answering the question is cheating, and it takes away from the work.

But a piece that raises these questions—about life and death and permanence in art and sculpture—is the right sort of piece for this park. The grand opening is on Saturday, January 20, and the donors will have their day. The city will be drunk with pride. It will feel like a culmination, and if the museum's own rhetoric is any indication, it will probably feel stiff and grand. But this place was made to fidget, and the influx of Seattle when the construction fences come down will agitate it, expand its field, hook up its circulation system once and for all.

jgraves@thestranger.com