Bay Area FAVs: Alice Aycock’s Functional & Fantasy Stair
By LIZ HAGER
In these recessionary times when most Bay Area museums charge entrance fees in the double digits and scores of galleries have closed, we highlight San Francisco’s commitment to art in public spaces in our ongoing feature—Bay Area Free Art Views (FAVs).
Alice Aycock, Functional and Fantasy Stair, 1996,
Aluminum and structural steel with painted steel sheathing,
approx. 24’ high x 32’ long x 20’ wide. San Francisco Public Library
(all photos © Liz Hager 2009)
Alice Aycock is a member of the group of artists (Laurie Anderson perhaps a better-known member) who came artistic age in the early 1970s, grappling with the stylistic transition from modernism to postmodernism. Although her pieces feel architectural, they are not, as Aycock has said: “… functional architecture, but architecture as an umbrella from which you could hang many things—psychology, history, or culture.”
Aycock has held a life-long obsession with the nature of reality; that is to say, her work deals with various states of mind and body, sometimes real, but often fictional, sometimes downright peculiar. But always complex. Typically, her work mines a vast array of references—physics, psychoanalysis, literary, computer programming, mental disorders, even ancient languages. This subject matter makes for intensely psychological environments.
Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Louise Nevelson, and even her father, a construction engineer, have been Aycock’s inspiration. She was drawn to the “land art” movement from early on, making site-specific works from earth, wood, stone, and other natural materials. In the 1980s, Aycock began to employ industrial materials like steel, with allusions to the growing presence of machines in our lives.
Aycock designed a spiral stairway between the fifth and sixth floors of the library, just off the suspended, glass-enclosed reading room that projects into the library’s great atrium space. A functional staircase is nestled inside an askew cone structure (it mirrors the shape of the atrium skylight). Cyclone Fragment, suspended above, is its companion piece.
Stair contains some hallmarks of an Aycock work. The stairwell is an intriguing, if confusing, architectural space. Proceed up or down the functional stairwell and glimpses of the fantasy stairs (leading nowhere) are revealed through fragmented openings in the cone. (Multiple views of a parallel universe?) Overall the cone structure envelops, but the environment it creates (its materials complement those of the library) is sleek, shiny and cold, very cold. Further, the whole sculpture is hermetically sealed by the glass encasement of the reading room.
Stairs are a central and sustaining motif for Aycock. As early as 1974, she began incorporating them into her work with These Stairs Can Be Climbed. As the (man-made) vehicle by which man ascends or descends, stairs signify movement, even progress. It’s the reason most monuments (to impressive men) are placed at the head of a set of stairs. In dreams, stairs are often interpreted as the states of consciousness—the lower levels equivalent to “facts,” the upper levels with higher consciousness. One set of the Library’s stairs do allow progress; the other just ends in thin air. Is Aycock asking us to think about power versus impotence?
One is left puzzling the connection of this piece to the Library environment, indeed even whether there needs to be one.