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Metal scraps and bottle caps strung together by wire form a towering, rippling tapestry draped opposite Carnegie Museum of Art’s fountain entry. It’s an imposing mosaic, 16 feet high and 32 feet wide, a charcoal blanket with rivers of canary yellow and crimson.
First unveiled in May, the new Scaife Lobby installation titled Palettes of Ambition was created by Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, who was featured in the 2018 Carnegie International. It’s the most significant acquisition for the museum’s lobby in a half century, and one of the largest installations in the museum’s permanent collection.
Anatsui is known for creating remarkable tapestries woven from post-consumer materials. He transmutes refuse such as discarded bottle caps and aluminum scraps—a metal important to this region’s industrial history—into large-scale installations that are laced with history and cultural narratives. His work has been compared to traditional Ghanaian kente cloth, western mosaics, and Gustav Klimt paintings.
“In terms of scale, the artwork is one of the largest and most ambitious projects in terms of acquisition that we have undertaken,” says Liz Park, the museum’s Richard Armstrong Curator of Contemporary Art. “This work really has been many, many years in the making.”
Five years in the making, to be exact. The museum invited Anatsui to create a permanent public work following his participation in the 2018 Carnegie International.
“This is particularly meaningful to us as it demonstrates the long-term relationships forged with artists from around the world during each Carnegie International,” says Eric Crosby, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art and Vice President
of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
In 2018, Anatsui draped the museum’s granite exterior in thousands of discarded bottle tops strung together with copper wire to create the 30-by-160-foot Three Angles sculpture. He had made numerous trips to Pittsburgh, where he was inspired by the city’s cold, drizzling, and gray days.
“I want the work to be as much as possible related to the area,” Anatsui said in 2018. “I like things to grow organically, and therefore community comes in.”
The Three Angles project came to life with the help of Wilkinsburg-based sculptor Dee Briggs, locally sourced materials, and an army of artists, installers, engineers, and fabricators. The artist incorporated discarded bottle caps, mirrors, and aluminum printing plates donated by Knepper Press, a Clinton, Pennsylvania commercial press, to assemble the artwork.
“This is particularly meaningful to us as it demonstrates the long-term relationships forged with artists from around the world during each Carnegie International.”–Eric Crosby, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art and Vice President of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh
Pieces of the 2018 sculpture were returned to Anatsui’s studio in Nigeria, and he spent the past three years reincorporating them into the new installation.
The use of discarded or recycled materials compels viewers to consider their impact on the environment, what they’ve left behind; it reflects the story of the Anthropocene, a theme being explored by the Museum of Art’s neighbor, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
The Anthropocene refers to the current era in our geological history—beginning in the mid-20th century—when human activities began making a profound impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.
The bottle caps in Anatsui’s artwork hint at the impacts of global consumerism, Park explains. In weaving these items together, Anatsui beckons museumgoers to confront and examine their impact on the environment.
In that vein, the work itself is molded and impacted by its environment.
“[Anatsui] is really open to how his artwork can be shaped in a number of different ways, depending on the context, depending on the architecture, and depending on the individuals who actually installed the work,” Park explains. “There’s a degree of subjectivity and openness to how his artwork gets shaped every time it gets installed.”
Palettes of Ambition, Crosby adds, is “as important as any one of the masterpieces in our collection and positions El among other celebrated artists of historic renown.”
While the installation was logistically challenging, Park notes, it was a rewarding team effort—with art handlers and the conservator collaborating on the process. To mount the work, staff had to close off a portion of the museum lobby and work around stone walls. The undulating sculpture was cloaked behind a black sheath for weeks before being unveiled in May.
Park says she enjoyed watching visitors, many of them in town to celebrate graduation week at the University of Pittsburgh, come inside to take photos of themselves with the installation.
“The fact that they’re coming to the museum to celebrate an important occasion in their life also speaks to the significance of our institution in the cultural landscape of the city,” she says. “This is a statement of how our museum collection is a living archive of past exhibitions, especially the International series.”
Park adds that the installation so beautifully builds on existing museum themes of interconnectedness, artist relationships, and the legacy of the Carnegie International.
“Our museum’s collection has a strong identity as being built on the foundation of past Carnegie Internationals,” Park says. “Anchoring this acquisition to that very history is critical.”
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