Heavy Hitters: The Art of Football, Dallas-Style
Report from… Dallas
Cowboys Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys football team, officially opened on June 6, 2009. Jerry and Gene Jones, owners of the Dallas Cowboys, funded the majority of the 1.2 billion dollar project. The 3-million–square-foot structure of glass and steel is full of architectural superlatives: the world’s largest retractable glass doors, the world’s largest HDTV video board, and arched trusses that span 1290 feet. The space is so vast that, according to the catalogue, you could fit the Statue of Liberty comfortably on the 50-yard line and it would not touch the roof.
But those are not the facts that initially astounded me. In an unexpected marriage of art and sport, the Joneses hired Mary Zlot to serve as art consultant, and she quickly assembled an art panel of distinguished curators and collectors to help choose artists to exhibit in the stadium. As a result, the stadium is home to 21 museum-worthy contemporary art pieces by 19 internationally renowned artists: Olafur Eliasson, Ricci Albenda, Franz Ackermann, Lawrence Weiner, Jim Isermann, Dave Muller, Matthew Ritchie, Doug Aitken, Terry Haggerty, Gary Simmons, Mel Bochner, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Daniel Buren, Annette Lawrence, Teresita Fernández, Wayne Gonzales, Jacqueline Humphries, Eva Rothschild and Garth Weiser. The Joneses privately funded the art collection beyond the 1.2 billion dollar building cost. In Gene’s words, “a great building needs great art.”
Upon hearing about the art in the stadium, I was intrigued and apprehensive. I was concerned that the artwork would be exhibited in limited-access areas to enhance the cultural cachet of the Cowboys brand without allowing the art to interact with the public. And, if the work were prominently visible in the public area, had the art committee suggested “appropriate themes” or did the artist retain control?
Mel Bochner has a text painting prominently located on the wall facing the Monumental Staircase. The painted blue box contains the black text of exclamatory words and phrases in capital letters, starting with “Win!” Bochner?s signature style delivers complexity through language. (The words seem aggressive, lighthearted, out-of-fashion, and silly all at once.) I asked Bochner if there was any pressure to change his design. Bochner explained that initially the owners suggested some changes to some of his phrases. So he set the stage for the relationship, explaining that artwork is: “an all-or-nothing situation. The language was not negotiable. [The Joneses] accepted those conditions and, I must say, [they] have been extremely enthusiastic ever since.” The relationship was one of trust, Gene Jones told me, and “of course, the artist was right.”
As for accessibility, the higher-priced suites and club levels have some wonderful works that are not visible to the general ticket holder (unless you purchase an art tour through the Dallas Museum of Art). But the main entrances, the concession areas, and the Monumental Staircase all have art, so every fan will see at least 3 or 4 artworks on any given path.
And these main stairways and entrances hold some of the most transformative pieces. The show stealer is the wall-wrapping painting from Franz Ackermann. It’s not only the enormous scale but also the brightly colored imagery based on architectural forms and memory of place that create an energetic and intimate escalator ride. For those walking the large pedestrian ramps, they will be ascending and descending next to an odd and powerful grid of striped mounds set in brightly colored flowers—the kaleidoscopic world of Trenton Doyle Hancock. Even above the concessions counter, which in my opinion is the most difficult spot, the Terry Haggerty has a captivating rhythm of red and white stripes, with an op-art, hypnotic wave. The A/C vents take on a humorous role, punctuating the bottom of this striped form.
The 19 artists are all heavyweights, but the works that interact specifically with their installation site are the most effective. In a calculated risk, Eliasson relies on light for thematic unity. The sunlight streaming in from the entrance windows gives his clunky, mobile-like celestial shapes the lightness that his materials contradict. Through reflection and refraction, these discreet metal and glass objects, in their suspended pull from the ceiling, become connected to each other and to the walls of the passageway.
Though many of the chosen artists had completed permanent installations prior to the stadium project, some had not yet had the chance. Such was the case for Annette Lawrence, creator of “Coin Toss,” a muscular yet elegant work of opposing tension made of stranded cable attached in a c-shape on each opposing wall. Normally, Lawrence works with string and tape, creating delicate and impermanent installations. I asked her if the new installation was a conceptual challenge. She replied that the impermanence was not a philosophical stance, but rather a reaction to the functioning of the space. “I just didn’t have the opportunity before. […] In a gallery or alternative exhibition space, exhibits are temporary situations. The luxury of space made these pieces possible.”
The Dallas Museum of Art is holding a concurrent exhibit with many of the same artists, entitled Big New Field, which runs through February 20, 2011. On one hand, this dialogue between the stadium and the museum can be seen as an effort to capitalize on the tourism associated with the Super Bowl, but it’s also a study in context.
For those interested in the cultural future of the museum, this dialogue is important. Charlie Wylie, a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art and part of the art panel that chose the artists for Cowboys Stadium described the experience of seeing artwork there as: “exhilarating […] more spontaneous and direct than in a museum where you specifically go to encounter works of art. A big reason we organized the Big New Field exhibition was to provide visitors with the chance to compare the experience of seeing art in both the stadium and the DMA, and I hope they realize both venues have their own unique qualities and will come back to both often.”
Art is an ongoing education. I asked Gene Jones, herself a collector of Norman Rockwell, which of the artworks surprised her the most once she saw it realized. Her original conception of the stadium’s interior was sleek and subtle, a palette of neutral tones. Franz Ackermann’s piece was assigned a multi-storied wall in the southwest area of the Monumental Staircase and his proposal was bold, bright, and saturated—oranges, pinks and blues! She was apprehensive about this vivid color and large-scale palette switch, but it would be her greatest surprise—when she saw the Ackermann on the wall, she “fell in love with it.” In many ways, her stadium experience has shifted her prior understanding of art. She has now embraced contemporary art, and recently collected her first piece for the Joneses‘ private residence in Dallas.
In a 2001 critique of the sculptural-spectacle architecture of Frank Gehry at Bilbao, Hal Foster complained that the architecture “trumps the art.” Prior to seeing Cowboy Stadium, I was concerned that the interior functioning of the building—the signage, the scale, the volume, the throngs of activity—would “trump the art.” But in the best pieces, those feared distractions are integrated as tension, movement, and energy. If the artist can counter the moment of Brand marketing, and make a piece that connects to the mystery of individual awareness, then the artist has “trumped the frenzy.” And in this stadium the artists were given the space and the freedom to do just that.