Two Artists, Two Artworks, Decades Apart

When you visit Nicollet Mall in fall 2017, you will experience Jack Nelson’s Sculpture Clock and Nimbus by Tristan Al-Haddad at opposite ends of the Mall – works of public art created 46 years apart.

Jack Nelson: Studio tinkerer. Low-tech machinist. Eccentric improviser. Personal iconography and suggestive narratives. Surrealist motorized kinetic sculptures. Maker of constructions and assemblages.

Here is Jack Nelson, engrossed in devising elements for Nicollet Mall’s Sculpture Clock in his workshop in the late 1960s. He produces multitudes of sketches and then translates them into brass and steel forms, shaping them by hand. Spins the spidery pin-wheel-like element on a rod to check its movement. Trial and error. Piece by piece, he collages a composition of disparate elements – until they interrelate and interact – jiggle, spin, bounce. Some are stationary as if enjoying the agitation around them. Islands of calm in the composition of the perpetual motion Sculpture Clock.

Some parts are highly polished, glowing like pieces of jewelry, and others are
distinctively tarnished and dull. The welds joining different metals are often blobby, becoming a kind of unintentional decoration. Nelson’s presence is everywhere in the work – his aesthetic decisions in its eccentric composition, his choice of contrasting materials and textures, and the touch of his hand in the work’s machining.

Tristan Al-Haddad: Architect of visceral and primal sculptural forms. Envisions new formal vocabularies translated through astute use of computer software. Explores new materials and construction techniques. Sculptures derived from extrinsic site forces that project their own intrinsic desires.

In his warehouse-size studio, Tristan Al-Haddad and a team of assistants and fabricators is constructing wooden jigs to guide shaping a series of 1/8-1/4 inch thick weathered steel plates to be welded together. Constructed like an airline wing, Nimbus is a series of puzzle-pieces that will fit together into a seamless whole. Heavy, rusty industrial material machined and welded into an elegant arcing, counter-balanced form that appears to levitate above the ground plane.

The form is initiated by a sketch and then generated by computations; rendered by a computer program that produces a 360-degree view to enable pre-visualizing how the sculpture might function in the forecourt of the Central Library. How would it feel to be within the enclosure of the sculpture, or to view it from within the Library, at ground level or overlooking it from the mezzanine and upper floors?

Public art on Nicollet Mall spans decades of artistic production – how artists work and approach their art, and the physical making of it, and how opportunities for their work has expanded in the public realm. It exemplifies different generations of artists, available materials, and technologies. But it also expresses the evolution of public expectations of what art might or should be.

When the office of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, original designer of the Mall, contacted Jack Nelson in 1964 about the idea of producing a Sculpture Clock, the contemporary public art movement was in its infancy. During the 1950s-1960s, art was often the centerpiece of windswept plazas fronting Modernist buildings. Calder and Picasso were favored artists because corporate patrons and the public acknowledged the quality of their museum-sanctioned work. This predominantly abstract work was open to interpretation, and offered a formally interesting counterpoint to the architecture.

Nelson’s Sculpture Clock, an early example of what we now recognize as the contemporary public art movement, was created through a collaboration with design professionals especially for its location on the Mall. It was not an existing work selected because of the artist’s cachet (Nelson was only regionally-known) but because Halprin’s office found the artist’s work intriguing and wanted to work with him. It was their vision for the Sculpture Clock originally created in 1968, that you will see when it is restored, installed and activated on the Mall this fall.

The next works of public art were commissioned for downtown more than sixteen years later. In 1984, the Minneapolis Arts Commission sponsored a design competition for artist-designed manhole covers and in 1987, for benches along Hennepin Avenue.

The major renovation of Nicollet Mall in 1991-1992 brought a wave of public art that reflected the breadth of artistic practice of the times. None of the works were set apart from the public on a base, pedestal or plinth. Many of the works were functional (Stanton Sears’ benches, Kate Burke’s manhole covers, the seating ensemble by Kinji Akagawa) or integrated with infrastructure (transit shelter glasswork by Philip Larson, George Morrison’s granite mosaic carpet, bronze castings inset into the pavement by Seitu Jones, Ta-coumba Aiken and Soyini Guyton) and meant to engage, celebrate and serve the public.

Over the past twenty-five years, public art in the city has tended to be functional and socially-responsive; conditioned by the expectations generated by the work from the 1990s. The work installed in 2017 departs from this tradition, and establishes new approaches, reflecting current public art practice and cultural shifts. The work is phenomenological, experiential and participatory – each person will experience it differently with his or her senses. It takes advantage of the choreography of the street’s linear space and complements the Mall’s overall re-design by James Corner Field Operations.

The elliptical geometry of Tristan Al-Haddad’s sculptural work Nimbus completes the composition of James Corner’s Theater in the Round. The work frames the sky and the apex of the entry canopy of architect Cesar Pelli’s Central Library. Its weathered steel echoes the material in Ptolemy’s Web, a nearby sculpture by Beverly Pepper. At night, the work will emit a glowing halo of light. Nimbus is conversant with the design vocabularies of architects, landscape architects and sculptors. Combined with Theater in the Round, Nimbus creates a public place that is flexible and useful, but also an enveloping aesthetic environment.

Jack Nelson produced the Sculpture Clock in his studio for a commission through landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s firm. It was created from his musings and related to his ongoing body of work; kinetic sculptures which he exhibited annually in a gallery in New York City in the 1950s-60s. Sculpture Clock is a work you study closely, examining its intricacies. Various compositions and relationships are revealed; some of the forms have distinctly humorous personalities. The artist’s playful wit is abundantly apparent.

Original drawings by Jack Nelson (left) and Tristan Al-Haddad (right) reveal the birth of their respective works for Nicollet Mall.

Nimbus boldly expands the vocabulary of sculptural forms and experimentation with materials that Tristan Al-Haddad began in his large outdoor work Stealth in Atlanta. From a sketch, to a sophisticated computer rendering, to a jig cut out of plywood that becomes the template for forming the weathered steel that goes on to be seamlessly welded into an elegant form – the work moves from a sketched idea, to an electronic abstraction, to a physical thing. But at a colossal scale compared to Nelson’s clock which is made up of assembled parts, much like a real timepiece. In concert with Theater in the Round, Nimbus will provide a place for people to inhabit, experience and customize. Over time, it may not even be perceived as a discrete work of art, but as a memorable and appreciated public place.

For photo essays and videos documenting the restoration of the Jack Nelson’s Sculpture Clock leading up to its re-installation on the Mall this fall, click here.

Progress with the fabrication of Tristan Al-Haddad’s Nimbus may be viewed here.

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