Emmy Award

Emily Pulitzer's gift to St. Louis has arrived in a concrete box. Hidden inside: the portrait of a woman who changed the city.

More than a few probably wondered what a parks-and-recreation budget and employees were for, other than maintaining public art and public space, but Rice didn't show too much concern for the $100,000 already invested in the project. Disregarding the city's own artistic-review policies, Rice had those trees and plants -- and weeds -- taken out.

Pulitzer, in a rare display of public pique, pinned the destruction on "the bureaucrats in the city Parks Department [who] sabotaged it from the beginning, because they didn't want to do the extra work that it required."

She had reason to be heated up over the Sonfist after the negativity hurled at Richard Serra's "Twain," which was installed in the Gateway Mall in 1982. She had been a patron and champion of Serra's for many years, giving the artist one of his first significant museum exhibitions, alongside an illustrious group of peers (including Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Christo, Mark DiSuvero and Donald Judd) at SLAM in 1967, when she was curator there. The man who would become her husband, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., commissioned one of Serra's first site-specific works on the grounds of his Clayton Road home in 1970 (with, one suspects, the encouragement of curator Emily).

The Pulitzer Foundation has been called "one of the finest small museums of our time."
Robert Pettus
The Pulitzer Foundation has been called "one of the finest small museums of our time."
The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, designed by Tadao Ando. Although the cost of the Ando has been estimated at $17 million, that figure is probably low.
Robert Pettus
The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, designed by Tadao Ando. Although the cost of the Ando has been estimated at $17 million, that figure is probably low.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council and 35 corporations and individuals, "Twain" was commissioned. A group of Cor-Ten steel panels set in the shape of a skewed triangle, with openings through which to walk or gaze, it offers alternative perspectives of the surrounding environment.

People hated it -- and still do. One renegade group showed their disdain by placing white dots on the steel plates to make the Serra look like a set of dominoes.

Serra's "Tilted Arc" was removed in 1985 from Federal Plaza in Manhattan by the federal government in the culmination of one of the most dramatic battles in the decade-long culture wars. The act emboldened one St. Louis alderman, who called for a referendum to remove "Twain." Pulitzer again went public with her defense, describing the steel curtain as "a very comforting enclosure."

Harriet Traurig, former director of the Forum for Contemporary Art and a longtime friend, recalls the effect of the criticism on Pulitzer: "She took it partly personally and felt very hurt by it and didn't understand it. She really didn't understand why people wouldn't like these things that she felt would stand the test of time. There was a genuine, sincere naïveté about that."

The calls for removal died down, but to many, "Twain" remains an example of public art at its worst.

A walk around the piece today reveals it a little the worse for wear. Many of the plates have been heavily grafittied, remnants of protest remaining as palimpsest on steel. On a sunny fall afternoon, no one taking a smoke break from the surrounding office buildings seeks comfort in the enclosure. A clump of burned charcoal is long cold, a sign of the homeless who used the sculpture as windbreak to help warm them through the night.

The distance between disappointment and triumph is never as far as it seems. The aesthetic will that saw the good in the Sonfist and the Serra, that worked to have them made, then saw one destroyed and the other disgraced, is the same that created the Ando. Where others see coarse materials, dull simplicity, an arrogant slap in the public's face, Pulitzer sees a reinvigoration of steel and concrete, subtle intelligence, a gift.

It has taken nearly 20 years from Sonfist to Ando, from "Twain" to "Joe," but St. Louis is coming to see things Emily's way.

"Emily has a particular kind of vision, and it is a vision for the subtlest, the purist and, in many ways, the most tranquil art. Maybe it's just this whole thing with Sept. 11 that seems to make this so particularly important." Sissy Thomas does not include herself as a close friend of Pulitzer's, but, as a longtime follower of the St. Louis arts scene, she has observed with appreciative attention the artistic mark Emily has made on the city. "She has never been someone who embraced easy answers," Thomas notes. "She's never been somebody for whom flash-and-dash was of interest. I think she's given an unbelievable amount to this city in a very quiet way -- she and Joe, of course. Together they shared an incredible vision."

Before she took on the Pulitzer name, she was Emily Rauh, arriving in St. Louis in 1964 to become SLAM's curator. A native of Cincinnati, she was educated at Bryn Mawr, l'Ecole de Louvre and Radcliffe. She apprenticed briefly at her hometown museum before becoming the assistant curator of drawings at Harvard's Fogg Museum in 1957. When Charles Buckley came from the Fogg to become SLAM's new director, Rauh came, too.

She was serious about her career. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published around this time, giving voice to the disaffection of a generation of educated women trapped by domesticity, but Rauh, single at 31, was not among them. She was the sole curator for an institution that today employs 12 full-time curators.

In the SLAM archives, yellowed clippings from the Post-Dispatch portray an era in which arts coverage could be found on the women's or society pages. One color photo spread from the early '60s presents a pair of prominent St. Louis wives in their finest gowns, posing beside one of Willem de Kooning's grotesque "Women" portraits in a particularly perverse juxtaposition.

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