Very thoughtful slabs of granite.
Very thoughtful slabs of granite. Courtesy of the City of Seattle/Spike Mafford
Michael Heizer's "Adjacent, Against, Upon" in Myrtle Edwards Park reminds me of how difficult it was to explain prepositions to English-as-second-language learners. I'd use my hands as teaching tools—my left fist acted as the object while my right fist acted as the preposition. At, on, under, around, I'd repeat to a group of glassy-eyed fourth graders. Thinking about how bodies relate to one another in space can be confusing in another language, but it's something that Heizer's minimalist sculpture illustrates quite well.

Running parallel to the shoreline, three 28 to 45-ton slabs of granite quarried in the Cascades rest next to three concrete plinths that increase in complexity. One slab is upon the three-sided plinth; the second slab is against the four-sided plinth; the last is adjacent to the five-sided plinth. This contrast of materials within the work—granite culled from a mountain's belly against very humanmade concrete shapes—showcases humanity's progression with nature. The piece starts with a simple, harmonious relationship and ends with marked space between the two.

Of course, that perspective shifts depending on where you're standing when you look at the piece. As these two Seattleites demonstrate in this short ten-year-old video by UW history professor John Young, a common way to view the sculpture is while sandwiched between it and the body of water. So the progression of these two materials away from each other becomes a coming together of sorts:

"Adjacent, Against, Upon" was the first artwork commissioned by the Seattle Arts Commission in 1976. It was highly controversial, as Young notes in his video above. The general public has never quite liked heavy and expensive minimalist sculpture. The family of Myrtle Edwards protested the work as being inappropriate for a park named in the late councilwoman's honor. Even the artist himself was upset with the restrictions the city placed on him when pulling this together. "I never worked with so many rules before," he told the Seattle Times in 1977.

Fast forward to now, the sculpture has become a beloved public artwork ingrained in the DNA of the park itself (Crosscut's Brangien Davis recently spotted "a cluster of badged office workers were using the artwork as a socially distanced lunch table"). Even if the concept is a bit indecipherable to a casual onlooker, "Adjacent, Against, Upon" still resonates today. The sculpture resting against Elliott Bay, with all those steel hulls cutting through briny seawater, illuminates modern life's contrast with nature. If only my students could have seen it.