Friday, December 7, 2012

What happened with Frank Gehry on the Eisenhower Memorial

Last summer I visited the Lincoln Memorial for the first time in several years. I was struck by how visceral my reaction was. I walked into the shady, temple-like structure and I instantly felt at peace. I was uplifted. I felt like I belonged to something bigger than myself.

The powerful, gravity-hewn figure of Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the architecture, did its job. A monument must transform and uplift the visitor; it must impart to him a feeling of power and potentiality, of what can be. At that moment, I was proud to be an American sculptor who belonged to a tradition of grand importance.

Shortly thereafter, I received an email asking me to phone Gehry Partners ASAP. I was, again, deeply moved. It could not be an accident that I received this call so soon after my experience with the Lincoln memorial. I felt that I was in sync with my purpose in life. The sculptures that I would make would not only represent Eisenhower as a man of tremendous achievement, but would also represent our country at its best. I felt that I had spent almost thirty years, and tens of thousands of hours in my studio, to reach this moment. I had never followed the fads of the art world, but instead worked to create an art that was connected to the rich tradition of classical art, but had the dynamic, expansive energy of America. My art has always been a statement about our highest potential as human beings—about rising to the occasion.

On August 10th, I was flown to L.A. to see the project plans for the Eisenhower Memorial and to meet with Frank Gehry.

When I saw the memorial models, my heart sank. The project was trying to reinvent the wheel with newness, and it was missing the point entirely. Components were stiff and compartmentalized like a natural history museum exhibit. There was no focal point, but a lot of elements that did not work together to deliver a unified visual message.

How could I tell the famed Gehry that the design and sculpture of this project had to lead our world and to direct us towards our potential? The sculpture must serve as a focal point in a sacred space that transforms the viewer, just as Eisenhower transformed the world through his actions as a leader. Perhaps Gehry was unaware of what could be.

My first question to Gehry partners was: Did you bring me in to be your in-house sculptor, or are you asking me for my creative opinion and 30 years experience as a figurative sculptor? They replied that they were basically unhappy with their current design and that they wanted to know what I thought.

I was thrilled. I thought of the Lincoln Memorial and the sacred space with its elevated energy.

After lunch, we began the meeting with Mr. Gehry himself. I shared my thoughts.

I spoke of the need for a sense of hierarchy within the sculptures of Eisenhower surrounded by his troops. The format should be changed to a relief, in which Eisenhower is the dramatic focal point, which is accomplished in several ways. In a relief, the use of perspective creates depth, and ultimately scale, within the composition. Eisenhower would be sculpted in the foreground in high relief, almost in the round. The troops would be situated farther away, smaller, and in lower relief.

Eisenhower would not only stand out as more important, he would also be more luminous. He would spatially project out more and catch more light. The values of light falling on this part of the composition would create a clear hierarchy and focal point. He would be part of the men, and he would also stand out as their leader. Working extemporaneously with a partner, I created an ad-hoc composition that opened up the central space, eliminating a giant tree that stood in the center and blocked the view of the sculptures. I cut wood blocks that took a horizontal composition and made it vertical.

I stated in the meeting that the design had to become sacred, because of Eisenhower’s historical importance. Making the blocks vertical would lead visitors to look up, giving them an expansive feeling. They would also be able to read the writing about Eisenhower with a sense of elevation, because of the heightened perspective.

Within this quickly constructed design, the relief is attached to one vertical block, and opposed on the other side of the piazza by a similar block, in front of which would stand the solitary figure of President Eisenhower. The president is elevated on a pedestal of five feet. The scale of the figure would be 9-10 feet in height. The relief would be approximately 18 by 11 feet.

The architecture would create symmetry and tie these two different sculptures together. The symmetry would leave the visitor with a memorable, visceral experience.

I stressed to Mr. Gehry and his team that there needed to be a sense of monumentality, yet the sculptures still had to feel human. I mentioned the Houdon sculpture on Wall Street as an example of the refined, yet intimate character that the free standing sculpture of Eisenhower needed. Mr. Gehry said, “I like it. I see what you are trying to do.”

We talked for another hour, coming to the arrangement that I would receive funds from the GSA to make these two models, the relief and the figure, which would then be presented to all the committees. The meeting ended with Mr. Gehry saying, “This has been a great meeting and we are really happy.

I was instructed to submit a proposal with numbers to procure funds for my work. I was specifically instructed to make the numbers adequate for my needs, that is, to raise them from my initial ballpark figures. I did so and submitted a document. I was told that they wanted me to get started right away, and they would get GSA to release funds the following week. 

Several weeks passed. I waited with growing confusion, as I had been explicitly told that I was Mr. Gehry's first choice. I submitted two more documents concerning pricing.

On November 16, I received a phone call from the team at Gehry Partners saying that, stylistically, I would not be selected for the project. I am puzzled.

Moreover, I am disappointed. I was inspired and excited to be able to use my talents to create a work to honor one of our greatest presidents. Needless to say, stylistically, my work would have been created in form and finish appropriate for a presidential memorial.

I was never given a chance to show my sculptural skills in an honest competition. Things were decided with the submission of paperwork, and perhaps, with behind-the-scenes political concerns in mind.

I am a visual artist, so my art is first and foremost visual, not written. It is unfortunate that I had been judged by a verbal proposal.

My dream had been to create timeless art in a transformational space. When I lived in Rome, I walked into the Piazza of the Campidoglio and I immediately felt different. I was struck by the central sculpture of Marcus Aurelius, uplifted and regal on a pedestal. The simplicity of what had been designed by Michelangelo was a template. I envisioned Eisenhower both as a statesman, exemplifying the contemplative life, introspective in thought, and Eisenhower as a soldier, exemplifying the active, expansive life. These striking images of a hero who leads a nation through transformation would serve to inspire viewers and to show what we, as a nation, can be. The memorial would have been designed for the benefit of the people.

In the end, I am writing this piece not because of my own disappointment, but because I feel the needs of the people and the nation are not being served by the discordant vision imposed on the memorial. I am arguing for quality--that's why I am posting these words.

Sincerely, Sabin Howard


  1. What a shame that you not do this work. As I see your work time and time again I know that It would have been perfect and perfectly represented. You are a man of vision and creation. Keep us posted as this project develop if you can. You also should post the complete text on Facebook not just you blog link. Keep creating you are an inspiration to the world Raymonde

  2. The fact that you came so close to this commission is a testimony to your genius Sabin. Given your proposed work's depiction of Eisenhower's true noble status, it ought to have been chosen. Let's hope Gehry comes to his senses. Your creative vision might still find a way to compete here. As Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over till it's over." Try to keep hope alive. Might you have a supporter within the Gehry inner circle? A monument of this importance ought to be debated on a larger public stage. This story should be on CNBC or Charlie Rose. Perhaps even conservative media would cover it. Ike must inspire future generations just like the Lincoln Memorial does. In addition to guiding our country to victory in WW2, politically he was a great liberal Republican who had no problem maintaining the New Deal and its top tax rate of 90%. And his warning about the military industrial complex was a great gift to humanity--if only we would begin to heed it. I still "like Ike," in the words of his famous campaign slogan, and so will more future Americans if YOUR design is chosen for the Washington project. Maybe Elton John can write a letter? Don't give up this heroic fight!

  3. My eyes welled up with tears as I read this...not just for you, but for those of us who recognize inspirational pieces that DO capture the potential of the human spirit. As I read this proposal, I could imagine the space and how the elements of your design would work within it. Your heart is in the right place, Sabin; your skills are in line with your heart. Exellence in concept, design, and execution is what all artists strive for, but few accomplish. You are one of those few. Stay the course; opportunity will come.
    chris m

  4. sorry for the way you were treated - harsh - and sorry we have lost or rather will not have the inspirational monument you envisioned. My heart soared reading your description, then plummeted with you at the GSA's brusque dismissal. Best as always. ROB.

  5. Michael E. SchmidlenDecember 8, 2012 at 10:45 AM

    Unfortunately my dear friend, it appears that they felt threatened by someone who had a better vision for this project than they did.

    Not only did you "lose", but so did future generations of Americans, as what they will be provided to view in its place is highly likely NOT to be deserving of the place that it will be installed!

    Do NOT give up because smaller minds were unable to grasp your vision and whatever you do, DO NOT CHANGE who you are!!!

  6. I'm impressed that you got as far as you did, Sabin. In the recent documentary film on his life and work, Frank Gehry states that he was raised as a Modernist, and in Modernism, "decoration is a sin." That you were selected and asked to make a proposal indicates to me that we are about to experience a thaw in the long iconoclastic winter imposed by Modernism. It really is a pity that your great talents will not be added to this memorial, but I have no doubt that other opportunities will come to you very soon. In the meantime, it looks as if Mr.Gehry's project is itself the subject of controversy, and may not even be built.

  7. watch them steal your ideas and hire someone else to do them. Then you could sue!

    1. The united states does not have Moral rights clauses within its copyright protection. It would be incredibly hard, and most likely a complete waste of time to sue.

  8. It is sad that they failed to see the eternal narrative, and beauty of your artistic vision. Your work is beautiful, and your idea sounded monumental..There can be little doubt that others will also appreciate the greatness of your proposal. I am sure you would have done tremendous honor to the spirit of this great American.

    -James B.

  9. How typical around the world of people who do not understand magnificence, revert to the mundane - the mediocre when artistic brilliance stares at them in the face.
    Your work is uplifting and and iconic ... Your time must surely come. Thank you ...
    RL Australia

  10. Thank you for sharing this experience and I am saddened to hear that you will not be creating a masterpiece for this monument. This is, indeed, a disservice to America and the American people. I do sense that an even more spectacular project or opportunity will present itself and you will be open to create your greatest works yet. Be assured that your work is brilliant and beautiful and your talent and energy is going to exactly the perfect place.

  11. Sabin,

    This is John Coppola. I am sorry to hear of your disappointment. When I look at Frank Gehry's recent architecture I see a guy who seems to like to collapse form and space inward and across horizontally. He has always been a fervent modernist and so there is no way he is going to be behind anything too "classical" or in any way design against his own predilections.

  12. Sabin,
    Thank you for sharing this with me. Just reading your concept for the project had me visualizing the Memorial in my head. I hope Mr. Gehry comes to his senses, but I have a feeling being that the Memorial is in Washington other forces are at play here. Influence of people who know nothing about visual art. I'm just curious to see what these idiots have finally decided upon. I sincerely hope that your concept was not twisted about and given to a sculptor of lesser talent and vision. Also I'm surprised that no explanation was given for your exclusion from the project. For someone of Gehry's stature one would have expected more especially after his interest in your concept.
    It is unfortunate that you were not able to support your vision with drawings or scale models. Your art and vision are great Sabin! Don't be discouraged by the politics that accompany such a project.

    Ron Unger
    ps Stay faithful to your Vision and Art

  13. No one living American artist was, or is more suited to design and complete this memorial. When you had your one man exhibition with us a few years back, the New York Times stated that no one living sculptor can be compared to your talent. The public lost for unknown reasons. In the eyes of people who know better, you are a winner

  14. Sabin,
    I would love to see some visual representation of your compelling proposal to accompany your prose. A sketch? A sketch model?

  15. Dear Sabin, Your recent blog post on the dealings with Gehry and the Eisenhower Memorial was insightful as it was disappointing. Thank you for posting it.
    Also, the poignancy of the your impressions at the Lincoln Memorial was critical to the appreciation of what a memorial should be: an experience of something greater than ourselves but to which we are intimately twined. It should not be first about the artist, which it is for Gehry. [As in: Look there's Gehry's memorial. Most people do not know the names of the architects or sculptors of the world's renowned monuments but they do experience those artists’ profound hopes and aims].
    Your accounts of Rome served to confirm that these sacred experiences have a long and noble tradition in the history of humanity.
    It is Gehry's and ultimately our lost that he does not have the vision you do.
    With best regards,

    Patrick Connors

  16. Sabin,
    This is indeed quite disappointing. I echo all the other voices that you would have been the perfect choice for this project. The images you laid out in words are wonderful and, of all artists alive, I know you would be the one to deliver. I happen to agree that not offering you an explanation for Gehry's decision is an indication of some “foul play”. I hope you will remain positive and not let it distract you from your beautiful vision of the art.

    All the best,