As the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art officially unveils its giant walk-in “Glass Labyrinth” today, the artist’s first large-scale sculpture for Kansas City languishes halfway across town.
Robert Morris’ “Bull Wall,” a large metal wall pierced with cutouts of running bulls, sits largely unseen near Kemper Arena. A key component of the piece — machinery that generates the illusion of clouds of dust — has been disabled.
Kansas City-born Morris, who now lives in New York, drew his inspiration for “Bull Wall” from childhood memories of visiting the stockyards. His latest piece, “Glass Labyrinth,” commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Garden at the Nelson. Much like the museum’s shuttlecocks, “Labyrinth” promises to become part of the Kansas City artscape for well into the future.
But as the fate of Kemper Arena, which the American Royal wants to demolish, remains undecided, some have begun to wonder whether the iconic “Bull Wall” should be moved.
“‘Bull Wall’ is a really mighty piece,” said Porter Arneill, Kansas City’s public art administrator. “If we could find a new opportunity that’s worthy, it would give it new life.”
A pioneering wall
Over the course of his career, Morris, now 83, has asserted a commanding presence in American art, as both an artist and a theorist. In the 1960s and ’70s Morris played a leading role in the development of process art, minimalism and earth art. His work is in major museum collections around the world.
More than two decades ago, “Bull Wall” was a flagship of the city’s newly revitalized One Percent for Art Program, which sets aside for art 1 percent of public costs of civic construction projects.
The sculpture cleared the path for the One Percent public artworks that followed, including the “Sky Stations” on Bartle Hall and the video screens in front of Sprint Center showing Kansas Citians flying.
Commissioned at a cost of $265,000, Morris’ massive sculpture comprises two parallel steel walls with the cutout bulls. The work was designed to be animated by steam and clouds of vapor emanating from between the walls.
When the steam was turned on, the frolicking cutouts evoked a thundering herd kicking up clouds of dust. Morris’ father worked at the stockyards, and the artist said he remembers seeing animals headed to slaughter.
Today, those simulated clouds of dust rise no more. The city has removed some of the equipment that produced the illusion. In a recent email, Arneill cited “declining events at the American Royal and concerns of possible vandalism” as the reason for the removal.
Morris is aware of the work’s current state.
“I heard about the changing situation in the West Bottoms re(garding) ‘Bull Wall,’” he said. “Sometimes situations are beyond one’s control, but I am sorry that the work now has so little audience.”
Designed to run off the American Royal’s boiler system, the steam works for the wall were complicated from the beginning.
When the city unveiled the piece in 1992, Morris said he thought the opening was premature. The work did not yet have steam because the cost was not covered by the original $219,000 contract for the project.
Eventually, the Municipal Art Commission raised the funds. Within a year the steam works were incorporated into the artwork, bringing the total project cost to $265,000. It took another three to five years before the brick plaza that was part of his original design was added.
“Over the years, the original system had troubles,” Arneill said during a recent visit to the site. “It’s basically a fountain. You have to have water and pipes.”
There was a “significant cost” to run the boiler, Arneill said with input from retired city architect Tom Bean, particularly when the system was off in summer.
Arneill estimates that eight or nine years ago, a theatrical smoke-generating system was installed to reduce the costs related to running the steam system, although the underground metal pipes used for the steam were left in place. The new smoke system was housed in three machines within the artwork connected to an above-ground system of plastic pipes. But this equipment was recently removed and stored for fear of vandalism — a legitimate concern given that one of the lights at the sculpture’s base is smashed.
‘All options are open’
The lack of steam or smoke goes hand-in-hand with the problem of the area’s reduced traffic. And as the standoff continues between city officials and the American Royal over the fate of Kemper Arena, it remains an open question whether or when the audience for “Bull Wall” will rebound at its present location at 1800 Genessee St.
Going forward, “all options are open,” Arneill said, noting that the contract for Kansas City’s public artworks stipulates that after 15 years, an artwork commissioned for a specific location can be “moved or destroyed,” with the artist having the right of removing and reclaiming the work.
Arneill plans to consult with Morris about what he would like to see happen.
“As a public art professional, I know that when a site-specific artwork loses its home, it’s really hard to find a new one,” he said. “Money is a big part of these conversations.”
One option, Arneill said, would be to incorporate the “Bull Wall” into a different city building project. But Arneill is mindful that the size of “Bull Wall” might pose problems in a more congested urban setting.
Another option would be moving it to another site in the West Bottoms.
“We’ve got places we could put it,” said Haw Contemporary art dealer Bill Haw Jr., whose family owns land and real estate there.
Asked about this possibility, Morris said, “I could imagine ‘Bull Wall’ sited elsewhere in the West Bottoms.”
For Arneill, the best outcome would be a revitalized situation at the artwork’s current location, sooner rather than later.
“For the time being we’re in a reactive position,” Arneill said.
“Until we have some sense of what is going to happen around ‘Bull Wall,’ it’s hard to determine if there’s a need to move it or not.”
To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to email@example.com.
The labyrinth opens
A public celebration for “Glass Labyrinth” will be from 6 to 9 p.m. today on the south lawn of the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. The family event will include a ribbon-cutting at 6 p.m., demonstrations and activities led by students from Paseo Academy and the chance to walk through the labyrinth. The evening will include a discussion between Robert Morris and his biographer, Barbara Rose, from 7 to 8 p.m. in Atkins Auditorium. Admission to the talk is free but tickets are required; go to www.nelson-atkins.org or call 816-751-1278.