Presidential Lecture Series
Maya Lin
Humanities at Stanford
Maya Lin

Maya Lin Lin portrait, courtesy Maya Lin Studio.

Maya Lin has designed several of the most significant and best-known works of public art of the late 20th century. Unlike many artists, she is an articulate and compelling speaker, who talks freely about the meaning of her works, her goals in creating them, and her working methods. She was born in Athens, Ohio in 1959. Her parents, immigrants from China, were faculty members at Ohio University. Her father was a ceramicist and dean of the School of Art; her mother is a poet and retired literature professor. Among her formative artistic influences, Lin counts her parents' art, and the Asian aesthetic of grace and simplicity that they nurtured in their home.[1] She has also written that the surrounding wooded hills where she played as a child, and the local Native American burial mounds, all had a "profound influence" on her work.[2] Lin side view with trowel

Lin's name first became familiar in 1981 when, as a 21-year-old senior architecture major at Yale, she won first prize in the contest to design a Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the northwest corner of the Mall in Washington, D.C. Rejecting the conventional heroics of military monuments, Lin's poignant, contemplative, apolitical design, with the almost unbearable sense of loss that it conveys, was a revelation. Simple, graceful, and abstract, the design specified two 247-foot-long walls of polished black granite, set below grade and connected at a 125-degree angle, on which the names of all the more than 58,000 American dead and missing from the war would be carved in letters a little over half an inch high and arranged chronologically, according to the year of death or disappearance. Vietnam Veterans Memorial

However, almost as soon as the winning design was publicized, it was bitterly opposed by a small but vociferous group of Vietnam veterans who objected to its color, planned placement below ground level, and lack of an "heroic" quality. Some of them referred to it as a "black ditch" or "black gash of shame."[3] They were supported by a few conservative politicians, including then Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who held virtual veto power over the project because the Mall is under jurisdiction of the Interior Department. A compromise was reached when it was agreed to add an American flag on a 60-foot pole and a group of three realistically-modeled, seven-foot bronze figures of Vietnam-era American soldiers by another artist to the monument. In the end, these additions were placed far enough away from the wall so that its artistic integrity was not seriously affected. But the whole affair had been a searing experience for Lin, who was forced to endure public airings of much unfair, scurrilous, and chauvinistic criticism of her design.[4] Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The monument was dedicated and officially opened to the public on November 11, 1982, Veteran's Day. To say it has been a success with most Vietnam veterans, families of the fallen, and the public at large would be a gross understatement. Attendance at the Memorial averages more than 10,000 per day. The names of the dead or missing, which seem to float on a translucent black plane, have a numinous power that makes the monument capable of evoking strong emotion. The fact that the polished black granite of the wall dimly reflects the face of the spectator, draws the latter into a direct relationship with the monument. Lin has written, "I like to think of my work as creating a private conversation with each person, no matter how public each work is and no matter how many people are present."[5] And in a recent interview, Lin said of her work: "I think psychologically all these pieces are requesting very quietly that you really complete the piece. The piece begins as something for me, but it ends only when a visitor has interacted with it. It is not finished as a finite object; it requires an act of participation." [6] Vietnam Veterans Memorial

For her next major work, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated on November 5, 1989, Lin created a sculptural genre called a "water table," in which the interaction between spectator and monument occurs when the former is moved to disturb a thin layer of water flowing over the monument's horizontal, circular face. Engraved on the face of the Civil Rights table is a clockwise timeline of crucial moments in the history of the U.S. civil rights movement, including the deaths of 40 of the movement's most prominent martyrs. Lin's inspiration for using water as a medium to connect spectators and the monument came when she read Martin Luther King Jr's words, paraphrased from the Bible, in his "I have a dream" speech: "We are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." King's words are engraved on a circular wall, also part of the monument, which serves as a backdrop to the table. Civil Rights Memorial

Lin used the water table form again in 1993 for the Women's Table at Yale University, a monument made to commemorate the presence of women at Yale. In this piece the engraving on the table top, arranged in a spiral form to imply an open future, represents the number of women in Yale programs in each year from its founding through 1993.Yale Women's Table

Maya Lin's Stanford sculpture, Timetable (2000), located in a plaza in front of the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building, is also a water table, formed by a slowly revolving circular 16-ton granite on which an arrangement of eccentric, revolving metal wheels and sets of engraved numbers track seconds, minutes, and hours in Pacific Standard, Pacific Daylight, and Greenwich Mean time. The work seems to represent Lin's meditation on the concept of time in a world shrunk by the instant access that the Internet makes possible. Timetable was commissioned by Helen Bing, a long-time friend of Stanford University.[7] Timetable

In a quote from her book, Boundaries, reprinted in the Cantor Art Center's publication that accompanied the dedication of Timetable, Lin points out that "my work has always involved the use of time"-demarcations of periods of time are an important element of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Civil Rights Memorial, and Women's Table at Yale. In 1995 Lin's piece Eclipsed Time was installed in the ceiling of Pennsylvania station in New York city. In this work the clock "face" is a circular piece of frosted glass with a light source behind it. As the hours pass from noon to midnight, the light source is slowly eclipsed by a moving shield and the glass of the clock face gradually goes from being brilliantly lit to total darkness. Eclipsed Time

Another distinct strand of Lin's work (but which also seems to have a direct relationship back to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) is her landscape art, which she has created either by interceding in nature, or by imitating natural forms with synthetic media, such as mounds of shattered safety glass. Avalanche & Topographic Landscape

Lin has a strong interest in conservation and has said and written many times that her goal in her landscape art is to cooperate with nature rather than to try to overpower it and bend it to her will.

In Topo (1989-91), Lin and her collaborator, landscape architect Henry Arnold, shaped the 1600-foot median of the approach to the Charlotte (NC) Sports Coliseum with berms and then planted it with 12-foot Burford holly bushes pruned to look like balls in some outsized mythic game. Lin says, "To make something as playful and irreverent as this after the completion of the Vietnam and Civil Rights memorials was crucial to me. After creating two memorials, I needed to prove to myself and others that I wasn't going to be stereotyped."[8] Topo

In 1992-93 Lin was artist in residence at the Wexner Center (designed by Peter Eisenman, 1983-89) at Ohio State University. A major landscape project that she carried out there was Groundswell, which involved creating wave-like forms in some of the Wexner Center's visible (but inaccessible to the public) interstitial spaces with 43 tons of recycled, shattered automobile safety glass. Lin has written of Groundswell that "the piece is a conscious effort on my part to combine my Eastern and Western cultural heritage-namely, mixing my affinity for the southeastern Ohio terrain and its regional burial mounds with my love for the raked-sand gardens of Japan."[9] It was also significant because it was Lin's first major work using methods and materials that previously she had reserved for small studio works that she had created purely for her own purposes-to explore aesthetic issues and experiment with certain materials. Groundswell

Lin's next major landscape work was Wave Field (1993-95), designed for some open ground next to the University of Michigan's FXB Aerospace Engineering building. To create a work relevant to research taking place in the building, Lin studied aerodynamics and fluid dynamics. She explains, "I discovered that turbulence resistance and the study of fluid dynamics were fundamental aspects of the field, that images of fluid dynamics were powerful and intriguing. Responding to a request for more images dealing with turbulence study, one professor sent me a book entitled An Album of Fluid Motion, by Milton Van Dyke, and one of the images was of a naturally occurring water wave called a stokes wave. The image was the one I knew I had been looking for-and with this one image, I began to translate it into three-dimensional models in clay and sand, as well as sketches."[10] Wave Field

Although best known as a sculptor, Lin has also worked steadily as an architect, an activity she likes to keep separate from making sculpture, since she finds that the practical, detail-oriented dimension that is so important in architectural work can stifle the creative intuition from which ideas for her sculptures well up. However, Lin's buildings clearly reflect the design issues that have consistently engaged her. For example, the Weber Residence (1992-94) in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which was constructed concurrently with Wave Field, has a roof line that is the result of Lin's free-hand drawings in which she was echoing the undulations of the surrounding Berkshire mountains. Weber Residence

Another of Lin's buildings, the Langston Hughes Library (1999) in Clinton, Tennessee, is a marvelous example of adaptive re-use in which she transformed an 1860's barn and a couple of corn cribs into a 1200-square-foot reading room for a collection of research materials on civil rights. As an example of the "green" character of this project, Lin cites, among other things, using a near-by pond as a natural heat exchanger to reduce the library's heating and cooling costs.[11] Langston Hughes Library Langston Hughes Library

Go to the Works page to see a chronological list of Maya Lin's most significant works, and to check the credits for the photography on this site.


[1] Lin, Maya Ying, Boundaries, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000, p.5:04, 7:03

[2] Ibid., p.6:04.

[3] Scruggs, Jan C. and Swerdlow, Joel L., To Heal a Nation: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, New York, Harper & Row, 1985, p.81-82.

[4] Maya Lin: a Strong, Clear Vision, videocasette, 98 min., American Film Foundation, Sanders & Mock Productions, Santa Monica, 1995.

[5] Lin, Boundaries, p.2:03

[6] Rabinowitz, Cay Sophie, "Making Waves: Cay Sophie Rabinowitz Interviews Maya Lin," Art papers, v.24, no.2, (March/April 2000), p.29.

[7] Lin, Maya Ying, Timetable: Maya Lin, Stanford, CA, Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, [2002?], p.19.

[8] Lin, Boundaries, p.6:13

[9] Ibid., p.6:17

[10] Ibid., p.6:18

[11] Ibid., p.10:29


Text by Alex Ross, Stanford University (c)2002.

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