PEPPER GAME

Laumeier Sculpture Park director Beej Nierengarten-Smith broke all the rules and ordered the removal of Beverly Pepper's "Cromlech Glen." Then the artist heard about it.

On Aug. 16, Beej Nierengarten-Smith, director of Laumeier Sculpture Park, met with members of her staff to discuss conservation problems with various works in the collection. One of those was Beverly Pepper's earthwork "Cromlech Glen," a piece that has been a part of the park's collection since 1985.

"Cromlech Glen" is a site-specific piece made of earth, grasses and stone. When viewed near its base, "Cromlech Glen" appears to be two steep walls of earth and grass, with stone steps leading to the rim of a wide oval. A narrow entryway between the walls opens to a soft lawn that rises along with the slope of the hillside like a small natural amphitheater. Viewed from above on the wooded trails nearby, "Cromlech Glen" appears to be an oval of grass, until the trail descends and the dimensions of the artwork become more apparent.

Pepper is a sculptor of international renown, and "Cromlech Glen" has considerable art-historical significance. The piece was one of Pepper's early earthworks and can be considered a precursor to her later artistic interventions in the natural landscape in Europe. Beyond its art-historical implications, "Cromlech Glen" is one of Laumeier's most significant holdings, a work that invites investigation, a place where children play, lovers embrace, individuals meditate and many walk around shaking their heads at the eternal question "What makes this art?"

Beej Nierengarten-Smith, director of Laumeier Sculpture Park
Beej Nierengarten-Smith, director of Laumeier Sculpture Park
The planned demolition of Beverly Pepper's "Cromlech Glen" began on Aug. 18 with the removal of the stone steps to the piece.
Carol L. House
The planned demolition of Beverly Pepper's "Cromlech Glen" began on Aug. 18 with the removal of the stone steps to the piece.

In terms of maintenance, the piece has been a headache since its installation. The grasses that were to bind the soil to the steep slopes have not been wholly effective in resisting erosion. "Cromlech Glen" requires watering, but there is no water source nearby. After heavy rains, there is a drainage problem, leaving the nearby ground soft. There have been liability concerns, but since the piece was installed there have been no injuries or lawsuits.

After 14 years, Nierengarten-Smith determined that the piece had taxed the resources of the park for too long. She told her staff that the piece had to be removed, leveled by bulldozer. Nierengarten-Smith instructed Kathryn Adamchick, the park's curator of exhibitions, to draft a "courtesy letter" to the artist and her representative at the prestigious Marlboro Gallery in New York, Dale Lanzone, informing them of her decision and letting them know that the piece was to be removed within 30 days.

Adamchick says her first draft of the letter, dated Aug. 17, was edited by Nierengarten-Smith. She changed the phrase "we are losing the battle against the elements" to "we have lost the battle." The phrase "In a collections meeting on August 16, 1999" became "After careful assessment" in Nierengarten-Smith's modification. Within the phrase "It is our plan to deinstall Cromlech Glen," Nierengarten-Smith crossed out the word "deinstall" and substituted "remove." At the close of the letter, where Adamchick had written Nierengarten-Smith's name for the director's signature, Nierengarten-Smith instructed Adamchick to sign her own. In this way, Nierengarten-Smith distanced herself from her own decision.

On the day the letter went out to Pepper and Lanzone, initial demolition work began on "Cromlech Glen," as directed by Nierengarten-Smith. The stone steps leading to rim of the piece were removed, as were the stone slabs for the rim's walkway. An orange plastic fence was put up to keep people off the site, with a sign reading "Conservation in Progress."

According to a Laumeier official, a request went out to the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation for heavy equipment for earth removal the next week, the week of Aug. 23rd, although Paul Andrews, head of the county's excavation department, denies such a request was ever received.

This same week, Lanzone and Pepper received the 30-day removal notice. Both Lanzone and Pepper say that they had not heard anything about problems with the work in years. According to Laumeier files, there had been no correspondence with either Lanzone or Pepper since 1990.

Both the artist and her representative were seriously concerned. Given the nature of the piece, says Lanzone, "You don't remove it and put it in a warehouse — removing means destruction."

Lanzone is the former head of the Arts and Architecture program of the General Services Administration (GSA) and oversaw the installation of hundreds of public-art projects. He was one of the prominent advocates for the Artist Rights Act of 1991, which was established in the wake of the "Tilted Arc" controversy — the public artwork by sculptor Richard Serra that was removed from New York City's Federal Plaza in 1989.

In Lanzone's estimation, the Artist Rights Act "spelled out that a serious public discussion and administrative procedures should be followed" before an artwork is removed or changed. He acknowledges that, legally, "Cromlech Glen" does not come under the jurisdiction of the 1991 law because it was constructed in 1985, but he questions the park's motivations: "Laumeier works with artists — why would you do this and make it look like you were going against the artist's wishes?"

On Aug. 31, Lanzone sent a response, addressed to Nierengarten-Smith. In the letter, Lanzone — writing on behalf of Pepper — suggests that the artist be allowed to submit a proposal to stabilize the piece. According to Lanzone, with current soil-stabilization techniques — which did not exist in 1985 — "you can grow grass on a 90-degree slope." Pepper's more recent earthworks in Europe do not exhibit the problems of "Cromlech Glen." "Beverly has been aware that the piece has been an ongoing problem," says Lanzone, "but not a problem that can't be solved."

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