Lin portrait, courtesy Maya Lin Studio.
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. 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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
by Alex Ross, Stanford University (c)2002.
Site maintained by Ever Rodriguez