Seattle is known for its public art—not for just a couple of big pieces, like the Picasso and the Bean in Chicago, but for integrating art into the landscape and the buildings themselves. This sometimes results in lackluster work, or even art you don't know is art when you're looking at it. Never mind all that. The fact is that there's plenty to appreciate here, and to consider. The best part is that because of the art's embedded nature, it teaches you about the city itself. So let's start with...
The City Itself
Seattle is one of the more outrageous land sculptures in American history. Because its downtown hills (including those along Denny Way at the north and Jackson Avenue to the south) were punishing for commerce, several were actually sliced off and dumped into Puget Sound. There was so much dirt that it changed the water level. Yes. Over the course of 30 years, from about 1900 to 1930, about 50 million cubic yards of earth was added to the Sound. What's more, the Duwamish River was butchered to be straighter and wider; Lakes Union and Washington were brought level with each other, cutting off an ancient river to the south (the Black); and new lands were slapped down where waters once flowed.
All cities are built environments, but Seattle is one of the especially, magnificently fake. And this legacy of artifice is an inheritance to the artists who live and work here today, just as much as Seattle's famous wildernesses of "pristine" mountains and water.
The Ones You Can't Avoid
There's a bronze pig at Pike Place Market. (And that's all there is to say about that.) There's a several-stories-high Hammering Man (Jonathan Borofsky, 1991) out front at Seattle Art Museum; he is an expensive homage to exploited labor. In the center of Fremont, you're going to come across a series of figures that people like to decorate cutely (Waiting for the Interurban, Richard Beyer, 1979). They are not as bad as the two dancing bronze clowns nearby (Late for the Interurban, Kevin Pettelle, 2008, SHIELD YOUR EYES). Cleanse yourself while you're in Fremont with the giant Troll under the bridge (by four artists, 1990). You can climb on him and poke at his hubcap eye. Throughout downtown you will see big, bright, plopped-down sculptures of tulips and popsicles and whatnot, if you like that sort of thing.
This is Seattle Art Museum's sliver of land on the Elliott Bay waterfront, which is free to visit and open during daytime hours. Highlights: the nurse log/reclining nude in its/her greenhouse with tour guides (by Mark Dion), the canyons of steel (Richard Serra), the great red-orange eagle (Alexander Calder), and the eyeball benches (Louise Bourgeois). Bewildering but fun: Bourgeois's fountain of alternating naked father and naked son. (The backstory on the fountain is that a millionaire donor required that his money be spent on a piece of art including "fully articulated" male nudity. He got two penises for the price of one.)
The Other Art Parks
Gas Works Park, on the north shore of Lake Union, and Freeway Park, hovering over I-5 downtown, both elevate landscape architecture to art. Gas Works (Richard Haag, 1975) is marked by the remnants of a coal gasification plant and a huge mysterious mound of earth, as if the industrial ruins were actually buried underground and these remnants were only beautiful ghosts. Freeway Park couldn't be more different. It's been called the first park ever to be built over a highway, and its tiered rock formations and waterfalls culminate in a surprising up-close view of the zooming freeway below (Lawrence Halprin, Angela Danadjieva, 1976).
The Art Outside the City
The entire Sound Transit light rail line is jammed with art, so you may as well ride the line and see it all. Get off at each station and note that some of the art is hidden in plain sight. On another day, make your way to Kent to see the three main earthworks there—they are a major wonderland, and nobody is going to tell you about them, so hear me. Go to Herbert Bayer's Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks (1982), a modernist sculpture garden made of earth that's also a functioning dam; Robert Morris's Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30) (1979), a carved-up former gravel pit with tar-coated tree stumps standing as gravestones that form one of the most beautifully conflicted places in the Puget Sound region; and Lorna Jordan's baroque gardens, which are actually a wastewater treatment plant (Waterworks Gardens, 1990–1996).
The Art That Isn't Obvious
That plaza with a ping-pong table near the corner of Harrison and Terry in South Lake Union? Yeah, that's art. Play on it. It's by Buster Simpson. Another one of his works that will make you wonder: those protective gates around the struggling saplings along super-urban First Avenue. The gates are made of bed frames and crutches cast from the detritus of the buildings that were demolished in that neighborhood in the 1980s to make it the conflicted condo/nightclub/social-services center it is today.
Two more works in the "What are those?" category: In Myrtle Edwards Park, you'll find six giant hunks of hard material arranged in three pairs. Each pair is half-natural, half-human-made: one slab of concrete, one boulder from a Washington quarry. They sit at the edge of natural Seattle and urban Seattle, right on the waterfront, and they weigh multiple tons, but they represent the lightness and motion of adverbs read left to right because they're arranged adjacent, against, and then upon each other (Michael Heizer, 1976). And finally, there are viewers you gaze into at the water's edge along Alki Beach in West Seattle. Inside each one you'll see the beautiful view in front of you that day superimposed with a historical photograph of what came before (Donald Fels, 1998). They're part of an entire system of objects and texts there by Fels, Joe Feddersen, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, all reminding you that this is, still, Native land.