Roxy on the Roof

Roxy Paine, "Maelstrom", (detail) stainless steel, 2009, Courtesy of Max Weintraub

Roxy Paine, "Maelstrom" (2009) on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I could imagine no better setting for Roxy Paine’s most recent sculpture, titled Maelstrom, than the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its backdrop of Central Park and the skyline of the city that envelops it. Maelstrom—a vast web of stainless steel tree trunks and limbs weighing over seven tons and measuring 130 feet long and almost 50 feet wide—is the latest in a series of site-specific sculptures by the New York-based artist that have appeared around the city over the past several years (one of Paine’s signature steel trees was installed in Central Park during the 2002 Whitney Biennial and, more recently, three trees occupied Madison Square Park in 2007).

Maelstrom is a beautiful and enchanting sculpture, one that effects a dynamic experience for the spectator as he or she navigates around and through the thicket of shimmering tree limbs. Situated atop the Met, Maelstrom also invites comparisons between itself and its surroundings, in this case with Central Park and the city that circumscribes it. In so doing, Maelstrom quickly sets in motion a dialectical discussion on the tension between nature and culture, a dialectic that foregrounds how our surroundings reflect the ways in which we contain nature and come to terms with our place in it. Indeed, Paine’s arboreal sculpture—a fusion of artificial materials and natural, arabesque forms—resonates with Central Park’s own internal tensions as an expanse carefully designed and calibrated to juxtapose untamed nature with more formal environs.

There is another, more subtle way in which Maelstrom functions as a meditation on the tensions between natural and civilizing forces, a central concern of Paine’s art. I’m referring to certain peculiar sections of Maelstrom’s thicket, where its tendrils appear to be in the process of infiltrating the integrity of the museum building itself, spots where its branches seemingly adhere to and envelop the openings of various standpipes and fixtures jutting out of the rooftop’s walls. Easily overlooked amid the sculpture’s soaring boughs, and serving as neither load-bearing supports nor as structural anchors, these curious grafts are not the result of engineering considerations. Their significance appears to lie elsewhere.

One possible meaning of these particular tendrils might be found in the work’s title, Maelstrom, which refers generally to anything that is tumultuous or disordered, and specifically to a powerful and cataclysmic whirlpool that sucks into its vortex everything around it. If one of Paine’s primary artistic concerns is with nature and our enduring desire to master it, then a maelstrom—an instance of nature in its most destructive and sublime form—is certainly an apt reminder of the inexorable and entropic forces of the natural world. It is in this sense that Paine’s incorporation of the museum itself into his sculptural meditation on the tensions between nature and culture by way of those invasive tendrils seems fitting. After all, much of the art that lines the halls of the museum beneath Maelstrom is a testament to the persistence of civilization’s efforts to harness and discipline the natural world, to bulwark ourselves against its undiscriminating forces.

From Nicolas Poussin’s reflections on the transitory nature of all things to Damien Hirst’s vitrines and so-called pharmaceutical paintings, our determination to overcome nature—and our inevitable vulnerability to it—is a lasting theme of art. Paine’s maelstrom on the roof, with its vortex of branches and probing tendrils that seem poised to infiltrate and eventually overwhelm the museum below, continues the tradition. In short, if Paine’s wild, beautiful sculpture atop the Met reminds us of the power of art to transform and transport, then the aptly titled Maelstrom also functions as a reminder of what it is that we ultimately desire transformation of and transport from, which is, at least in part, what art is all about, and why art endures.

Maelstrom is on view through November 29, 2009 (weather permitting).