Museum News | The Public Art of Maya Lin

Two interrelated works of art by Maya Lin will be the latest additions to Princeton University’s campus art collection. A folded earth piece, to be installed this spring, and a water table, to be installed in the fall, will be sited near the new Lewis Arts Complex on the western edge of the Princeton campus.

Lin typically draws inspiration for her work as a designer, architect, and artist from culturally sprawling sources such as traditional Japanese landscape gardens, Native American effigy mounds, and earthworks of the 1960s and ’70s. But ultimately all of it—including what she terms her “last memorial,” the digital project investigating species loss entitled What Is Missing?—asks how we experience and relate to nature and the natural world, including its physical topographies.

Catapulted to fame while a senior at Yale University with the winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC—often characterized as a gash in a gentle landscape—Lin interprets the natural world through science, history, politics, and culture. Like her earthwork pieces elsewhere, the work Lin is making for Princeton invites viewers to reconsider nature and the environment at a time when it seems essential to do so. The landscape is one of Lin’s most abiding interests across a career spanning thirty-five years, merging Eastern and Western interests and influences, and defying simple characterization. Lin herself notes: “I feel I exist on the boundaries. Somewhere between science and art, art and architecture, public and private, east and west. . . . I am always trying to find a balance between these opposing forces.”

Lin’s work with the earth dates to 1995, when she completed Wave Field at the University of Michigan. Inspired by diagrams of fluids in motion and photographs of ocean waves, she was intrigued by the possibility of capturing the motion of water by sculpting its movement in the earth. This intimate work became the first of several variously scaled earthwork pieces—mounds that “curl and wind through rural dairy fields and manicured patrician fields alike,” in the words of Joshua Baize.

Lin’s work with what she calls water tables likewise has a long lineage that began with the Women’s Table (1993) at Yale, a cylinder of green granite that chronicles the number of women at the college from 1701 until 1992, when female enrollment first equaled that of men. Her 1989 Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, combines a black granite water wall inscribed with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and a circular table inscribed with names and dates significant to the civil rights movement.

With Under the Laurentide, completed at Brown University in 2014, Lin continued to explore the movement of water, mapping the landscape buried beneath Narragansett Bay. In a sense, all the water tables map the past in order to confront the future. Princeton’s water table will be Lin’s sixth and probably the most abstract to date. In this, it may find its nearest precursor in a project completed for the University of California, Irvine, in 2005. There, in place of inscribed words and numbers, the surface features a simple, fluid line drawing through which the water flows. Describing this, Lin noted that the text of her earlier fountains “has been reduced to the mark of the human hand. . . . the human hand, the drawn form, has become my language.”

These commissions from Maya Lin grow from extensive discussions shepherded by Princeton University’s Campus Art Steering Committee that included faculty, students, and other users of the new arts complex. It joins recent commissions from the artists Ursula von Rydingsvard, Doug and Mike Starn, and Shahzia Sikander. And like all of Lin’s work, it will demand the active participation of the viewer. In her own words, “In all my work I have tried to create works that present you with information allowing you the chance to come to your own conclusions; they ask you to think.”