Friday, September 7, 2012

Leviathan in Arlington

Robert Boyd

(continued from Dallas if a rich man with a death wish in his eyes)

Cowboys Stadium, in Arlington, TX, holds 80,000 people on most game days, but that can go up to 100,000 for special events. Most of the seats are not only reserved for season ticket holders, but have multi-decade leases. And that's not even counting the numerous luxury boxes. The stadium features a retractable roof and end doors, so if the weathers nice, the Cowboys can play in fresh air.

Why even bother looking at the field?

Hanging from the ceiling is a 160 foot by 72 foot two-sides high-definition video screen. The main supports for the stadium are two parallel arches, a quarter mile long. As a piece of engineering, Cowboys Stadium is remarkable.

As architecture? Eh, not so exciting. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones should be commended for resisting the lure of nostalgia of Camden Yards in Baltimore or Rangers Ballpark a few blocks away in Arlington. But compared to other modern stadiums--the amazing Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, or the BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, it doesn't have much style beyond a general sense of sleekness. But it has something else that makes it truly unique. Jerry Jones, a former oilman from Arkansas, decided that the stadium should have art in it. It was actually Gene, his wife, who came up with the idea. Now if the Nashers had owned the Cowboys, this decision would have been unexpected but logical. The Nasher family is a clan of art collectors, after all. But the Jones' family didn't really collect art at all. So their decision to put art into Cowboys Stadium must have seemed completely out of the blue. The rationale was that they were building a gigantic contemporary building open to the public, so it should be decorated with contemporary art.

Given his lack of art knowledge,  Jones outsourced the commissioning and purchase of the art to an art advisory firm, Mary Zlot and Associates from San Francisco. The whole process was highly technocratic. You half expect NFL team owners to be a bit eccentric in the way they run their business. But the entire experience of building Cowboys Stadium reads like a Harvard Business School case study--including the art purchases. And while Dallas was at one time home to really eccentric (if not out-and-out insane) capitalist tycoons like the Hunt family, it now projects the confident but calm facade of skilled MBAs taking care of business. Jones, a somewhat polarizing figure in Dallas (he fired Tom Landry!), nonetheless managed to evolve into a new-age Dallas technocrat, and Cowboys Stadium--and its art collection--are an expression of this. The upside is that the stadium is full of interesting artworks. But unlike other personal collections, the Menil, the Nasher, etc., you don't get any sense that this work expresses anything about Jones himself. It's just marketing.

I signed up for a tour of the art at Cowboys Stadium. You have to buy the tickets for this tour through Ticket Master and it's more expensive than any museum that I've ever been to. I was the only one on the tour, though. A nice little old lady showed me each piece (except for those in the Owner's Box, alas). She knew the spiel about each one, but she didn't know much about contemporary art. That was to be expected, and the tour was more than just the art--over the course of two hours, I saw virtually every nook and cranny of the stadium, including the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders locker room. (It's kind of a 12-year-old boy's dream space.)

Mel Bochner, Win!, 2009, acrylic on wall, 38' 2" by 33' 3"

So this project is so eccentric that in the end, you end up with something rather surprising. I mean, if you had told me that Cowboys Stadium was putting in contemporary art and didn't tell who the artists were, I would never have guessed most of the choices. I certainly wouldn't have guessed that they would pick conceptual word-based artists like Mel Bochner or Lawrence Weiner. Bochner did a thesaurus based word painting, and it turned out that the Cowboys organization thought it might have some appeal beyond wall-decoration.

Mel Bochner, Win!, 2009, reproduced on a drink cup

So Bochner's piece Win! is reproduced on drink cups, t-shirts and baseball caps. Interestingly, each piece of Bochner merchandise says "© Mel Bochner" on it. In the Cowboys gift shop, you could buy Spider-Man or Hulk Cowboys T-shirts, and no doubt some royalty is paid to Disney for them. So it's logical to assume that Bochner earns a small royalty on every cup, cap or t-shirt sold with Win! on it. Not bad for a conceptual artist.

Terry Haggerty, Two Minds, 2009, acrylic on wall, 21" by 126"

The general genre was "enormous wall piece." There were a few sculptures, but mostly the artwork made use of the large curvilinear walls inside the stadium. The artists don't tend to find new solutions for this unusual space. Instead, they create works that fit into the continuity of their oeuvre--Terry Haggerty's quasi-Op Art ribbons, for example, or Daniel Buren's trademarked blue and white stripes.

Daniel Buren, Unexpected Variable Configurations: A Work in Situ, 1998, wall painted yellow with hand-drawn grid and 25 screen-printed aluminum plates, edition 10 of 15 and 11 of 15, 21' by 118'

In the context of a stadium, where viewing art is not the reason people are there, and where the art is viewed either while finding your way to your seat or waiting in line at the concession stand, it becomes purely decorative. Given the 80,000 people that show up on any given Sunday, there may be a small number who end up stopping and contemplating the work. But I can't imagine very many do.

Franz Ackermann, Coming Home and (Meet Me) At the Waterfall, 2009, acrylic on wall, dimensions variable

One of my favorite pieces was Franz Ackermann's Coming Home and (Meet Me) At the Waterfall. According to the description of the work on the Cowboys Stadium website, it is a "mental map" of his trip from Berlin to Dallas and his time sightseeing around North Texas. Elements of it look slightly map-like, but what I liked about it was that it wasn't just on a wall--it practically surrounds you. More than most of the pieces in the stadium,you have to confront Coming Home and (Meet Me) At the Waterfall, because for a moment, at least, it is your environment. And I liked the colors--many of the pieces at Dallas Cowboys Stadium are very brightly colored. I suspect the artists sensed they would be competing against a lot of distracting noise and movement. Color helps even the playing field.

Jim Isermann, Untitled, 2009, vacuum-formed styrene wall, 40' by 96'

An exception to this rule was Jim Isermann. His white, high-tech geometric wall relief makes its impression in a completely different way. (Ironically, Isermann has done very colorful work before.) But this piece feels so right for Cowboys Stadium--high tech, impersonal, lacking in any indication of the hand or the soul of the artist, machine-fabricated.

Matthew Ritchie, Line of Play, 2009, powder coated aluminum, vinyl and acrylic, approximately 30' 6" by 20' 5"

Matthew Ritchie also uses high-tech means to create his artwork, but the result ends up feeling a lot more personal than Isermann's. According to the website, the figure on the left is tossing something to the figure on the right. But one thing that is really cool about this piece is that it is the only one to incorporate the native graphic art of football--play diagrams. The X's, O's and arrows of a football play are jumbled together at the bottom of each figure.

Matthew Ritchie, Line of Play (detail), 2009, powder coated aluminum, vinyl and acrylic, approximately 30' 6" by 20' 5"

Most the artists at Cowboys Stadium are from somewhere else. The only piece by a local artist is Coin Toss by Annette Lawrence. This seems very much in line with how elite institutions in Dallas do it. As A.C. Greene said, Dallas prefers to rent culture. In this case, too many Dallas/North Texas artists would have sent the wrong message. It would have said "provincial," not "world class."

Trenton Doyle Hancock, From a Legend to a Choir, 2009, vinyl print, approximately 41 feet by 108 feet

When I saw this utterly demented (but fairly typical) Trenton Doyle Hancock piece, I thought, "Nice, here's another Texas artist they are using." To put a piece so eccentric up on the wall felt quite brave. But while Hancock is from Texas and is completely eccentric, he has one thing going for him that made it possible for his inclusion at Dallas Stadium--New York's approval. Consequently, Cowboys fans, if they stop for a few minutes, have the opportunity to have their minds blown by Hancock's maximalist tour de force, From a Legend to a Choir.

Jacqueline Humphries, Blondnoir, 2008, oil and enamel on linen, 90" by 96"

The one part of the stadium I wasn't permitted to see was Jerry Jones' private box. Too bad, because it apparently has some nice pieces, including the lovely Jacqueline Humphries painting above.

Cowboys Stadium represents the apotheosis of the aspects of Dallas I discussed in my previous two posts. It mainly ignores local artists and their art--it looks for validation elsewhere. It exhibits works by famous contemporary artists--the choices at first seem unexpected, but given the high profiles of of the artists, the logic of the choices is undeniable. Cowboys Stadium is a piece of marketing, a part of an entertainment product. It is no different (except for the scale) from Leon Harris, Jr. hiring George Grosz to make paintings for his department store in 1952. Among the many messages Cowboys Stadium is meant to convey to the world, sophistication is one of them, and art is the means it communicates this. Just as the art in NorthPark Center says, "This is a sophisticated place and you are sophisticated for choosing to shop here," Cowboys Stadium says, "Forget about Big Tex and the Hunt Brothers--Dallas is a place of taste and class." This is a deeply insecure message hidden inside puffed-up boastful grandiosity.

But Cowboys Stadium also brings some fairly challenging contemporary art to tens of thousands of football fans who rarely go to a museum and never to an alternative space or commercial gallery. The art is forced to compete for their attention in a way that it ordinarily never has to do. And the viewers are forced to confront art in a way that they rarely have to do, too. In this regard, it's an interesting experiment. And it is one that is likely to be imitated--already, the Kansas City Chiefs are moving to commission art for Arrowhead Stadium.



  1. Not quite like the Rothko commission for the Four Seasons but somewhat similar....

  2. I think this is part of a broader trend. Marlins Park just opened in Miami with their own collection. THe Bilagio's Gallery in LV also comes to mind. It is all an extension of a World's fair mentality.

  3. Don't forget about Annette Lawrence, current Dean of Studio Art at UNT. Here is a link to her piece at Cowboy's stadium

    1. Whoops I guess you did mention it haha well anyway, a link to the image can't hurt.