A bouquet of aluminum canoes and boats blossoms over a busy pedestrian intersection on the University of Texas campus. Laced together with thick, twisted cable, the collection of boats — 70 in all — cantilevers dramatically over the sidewalk, listing as it perches on a concrete column.
Called “Monochrome for Austin,” the sculpture by Nancy Rubins stands 50 feet tall and stretches about as wide.
Commissioned by UT’s public art program, Landmarks, it is now the largest sculpture on the UT campus.
And it is the first sculpture commissioned by Landmarks from a female artist.
Situated on the northwest corner of 24th Street and Speedway in front of the new Norman Hackerman Building, “Monochrome for Austin” receives its official reception Thursday.
“Monochrome” cost $1.4 million. Funds for public art, established by university policy in 2005, come from 2 percent of the cost of new campus buildings and major capital improvements.
Rubins’ exuberant, theatrical arrangement may seem, at first glance, improvised, open to additions and alterations or even capable of shifting in the wind.
Quite the contrary.
Rubins spends months in her Topanga Canyon, Calif., studio working with assistants and a longtime collaborating engineer, designing, building models and carefully orchestrating every aspect of her colossal sculptures.
The foundation of the sculpture’s armature needed to be planted into the bedrock. It had to occupy a spot that didn’t interfere with underground infrastructure like water lines. Nor could it interfere with sidewalk use.
“There’s a whole structural logistics you have to be conscious of while you’re trying to create this highly organic structure that you’re trying to grow like a vine,” Rubins said by phone recently. “You’re getting a physics lesson looking at it.”
Rubins has hoisted improbably large manufactured objects into organic, seemingly precariously balanced assemblages in a career spanning nearly four decades: appliances, trailers, kayaks, canoes and, perhaps most famously, salvaged jet airplane parts.
“I am attracted to what they are as objects, not so much what they’re used for,” she said of the industrial materials she uses. “I think they’re beautiful objects.”
Rubins began her “Monochrome” series in 2010 with other unique and site-specific boat sculptures in Buffalo, Chicago and on the campus of Université Paris Diderot in France.
A crew began work on “Monochrome for Austin” on New Year’s Day and spent three weeks installing the piece. Much of the time, Rubins was there.
With UT on winter break, at first Rubins and her crew felt like they had the campus to themselves.
Then, as more people began to filter back to campus, the unsolicited comments and questions came. Mostly, Rubins said, she eschews the rogue and random conversations that are an inevitability of creating art in public.
“I find a way to get privacy while I’m working,” she said. “It’s just too hard if I don’t.”
After all, though her work has been exhibited and commissioned internationally and collected by, among other institutions, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Rubins’ enormous, surprising sculptures have garnered their share of grumbles from casual passers-by.
“People will say it’s an ugly piece of junk,” she said nonchalantly of “Monochrome for Austin.” “I think it’s beautiful, and the site is exquisite.”
Rubins sources her boats from a couple of rental concessions on the Russian River in Northern California, acquiring them once the vessels are too banged-up to be seaworthy. The patina, the scuffs and marks hold enormous appeal for the artist, adding a melancholy to the gravity-defying form.
“The (boats) covered with patches and welds, the really well-used ones, that’s what I yearn for.”
“I’ve yet to see such an ambitious program for contemporary art at any university anywhere,” Rubins said.
Born in Naples, Texas, in 1952, Rubins spent a mere year in the Lone Star State before the family moved to Ohio, then Tennessee. Her father was an engineer, researching supersonic combustion at a government think tank.
“My father always encouraged us to question things,” the artist said. “In a way, the sciences helped me be an artist. (I use) art as a tool to investigate and to explore things.
Art is “not a statement — it’s a tool of intellectual investigation. In that sense, art has a kinship to science.”
“Monochrome for Austin” by Nancy Rubins
Where: 24th Street and Speedway, University of Texas campus
“Monochrome for Austin” Celebration and Q&A
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Auditorium, Norman Hackerman Building, 100 E. 24th St.
Cost: Free, but reservations are required due to limited space
Information: 512-495-4315, landmarks.utexas.edu
For a slide show of Nancy Rubins’ “Monochrome for Austin” go to www.austin360.com/arts.