One of Milwaukee’s great public art success stories has been Sculpture Milwaukee. For the past few years, the outdoor art exhibition has peppered more than 20 wonderful, challenging, and sometimes bizarre pieces along Wisconsin Avenue. We ranked them in 2017, and then again in 2018. And now, as the series gears up for its third year (June 7 through October 27), we’re ranking them again. (Make that “arbitrarily” ranking them, because this year’s crop is especially strong. Seriously: there’s not a dud in the bunch. Bravo!)
22. Sean Scully – BLACK STACKED FRAMES (2017) – Saint Kate Hotel
This one wasn’t installed on the day we wandered up and down Wisconsin Avenue, so we can’t really rank it. Sorry! Saint Kate is pretty nifty, though.
21. William J. O’Brien – Sun & Moon Protector (2016) – 211 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Don’t get us wrong: this bronze piece is lovely, and there’s something to be said about how thin it is when viewed from the side. But when you’re competing against giant rabbits and penguins (see below), “lovely” just isn’t enough.
20. Arlene Shechet – Tilted Channel from Full Steam Ahead (2017-18) – 250 E. Wisconsin Ave.
What do you see when you look at this piece? A “decorative brick wall with what appears to be a bright yellow bird buried upside down in the bricks, one claw grasping, the other letting go”? How about a “human whose hands have morphed into a wrench and a file”? Well, actually, it’s a sprue, a “tool used to help cast molten materials like porcelain.” Huh.
19. B. Wurtz – Kitchen Trees (2018) – 929 E. Wisconsin Ave., O’Donnell Park
Located outside the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, this whimsical piece is a nice confluence of art and location. What kid wouldn’t get a kick out of this? Hell, the plastic fruits and vegetables sprouting from the pots and pans look they came straight out of Betty Brinn’s interactive Sendik’s exhibit.
18. Max Ernst – Séraphine-chérubin from the series Big Brother: Teaching Staff for a School of Murderers (1967) – 611 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Damn, Sculpture Milwaukee has a Max Ernst! And one inspired by George Orwell’s 1984! And it’s squatting!
17-16. Haas Brothers – Handy Warhol and Handy Darling (2019) – 600 E. Wisconsin Ave.
When Andy Warhol, Candy Darling, light-up mushrooms, and furry fandom meet. Not that unlikely of a meeting, when you think about it.
15. Angela Bulloch – Heavy Metal Stack of Six: Trichrome Blue (2016) – 411 E. Wisconsin Ave.
The 411 building has a type when it comes to Sculpture Milwaukee, and that type is “towering stack of blocks or beads.” (See 2017 and 2018‘s Mood Sculpture.) Anyway, these look like something out of a retro VR game, which is cool.
14. Tony Matelli – Hera (half) (2018) – 777 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Here we have the bottom half of the Greek goddess Hera, littered with watermelons. The watermelons are fake, of course, and the statue itself is made out of cement (as opposed to marble). Oh, and if you look really hard, you can see a fake water puddle on the upper base of the statue, which reminds us of the fake water in the dioramas at the Milwaukee Public Museum.
13. Beverly Pepper – Curvae in Curvae (2013-18) – 450 W. Wisconsin Ave.
This piece is made out of Cor-Ten steel, yet its laid-back, whirling shape suggests something more natural. It’s easy to imagine curling up in the thing and drifting off to sleep. (NOTE: Do not do this. Like Weird Al said, those ropes are there for a reason.)
12-11. Sam Durant – We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For and Empathy for Everyone (2018) – 275 W. Wisconsin Ave., The Avenue
The sentiments of these signs are stirring (We Are The Ones comes from a 2018 March For Our Lives protest; Empathy comes from the 2017 Women’s March). The fact that they’ve been transferred to electric signs and displayed as public art (in the redeveloping Avenue, no less) is something to ponder.
10. Red Grooms – Tango Dancers (2005) – 310 W. Wisconsin Ave.
If a piece of pop art “popped” off the canvas and grew a few feet, this is what it would look like. Unabashedly large, colorful, and celebratory, Tango Dancers is a reminder of the joy that can be found in semi-public places—even semi-public places outside the CapTel building.
9. Red Grooms – Hot Dog Vendor (2005) – 875 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Ditto for this second Red Grooms piece, which tops Tango Dancers by going 3-D. Yeah, Hot Dog Vendor should have gone up where the Milwaukee Hot Dog Guy sets up every summer (maybe the Hot Dog Guy protested?), but it’s still great. AND THAT DOG.
8. Radcliffe Bailey – Pensive (2013) – 500 E. Wisconsin Ave.
It’s Rodin’s iconic The Thinker, except with African-American author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. The wooden box is a nice touch, as is the (unintended?) juxtaposition of Du Bois and a sign in the background that features the name of our current president.
7. Barry Flanagan – Large Boxing Hare on Anvil (1984) – 777 E. Wisconsin Ave.
At first glance, it’s a nod to Looney Tunes-era Bugs Bunny. At second glance…why does it look like the rabbit is sleepwalking? Why is it so unnaturally tall? Why is it standing on an anvil? And, most importantly, why isn’t it the only creepy bunny in this year’s lineup?
5. Richard Woods – Holiday Home (Milwaukee) (2019) – 929 E. Wisconsin Ave.
There’s a lot to say about this piece, but the only thing we can think of is, “Hey kids, where do you want to go? That’s right! To Uncle Nutsy’s Clubhouse!”
4. Elmgreen & Dragset – A Greater Perspective (2015) – 929 E. Wisconsin Ave.
In a lineup stuffed with funny pieces, this is perhaps the low-key funniest. A gorgeous view! A stunning lake! An iconic art museum! A telescope made completely useless by its ridiculous height! Though maybe A Greater Perspective is also low-key instructive: put down the telescopes, cameras, phones, etc., and just look, man.
3. John Baldessari – Penguin (2018) – 720 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Oh, where to begin with this delight? The fact that it’s touted as a “self-portrait”? That fact that it is indeed as tall as the artist? The fact that it’s a giant penguin just chilling at Northwestern Mutual? Incredible/weird/hilarious.
2. Roxy Paine – Cleft from the series Dendrites (2018) – 720 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Anyone catch that Twin Peaks revival from a few years ago? Remember when Cooper was in the Black Lodge and he came across, um, “The Evolution of the Arm”? Hell yeah. Anyway, this piece kind of reminds us of that. It’s awesome.
1. Carlos Rolón – Gild the Lily (Caribbean Hybrid I, II, III) (2019) – 111 E. Wisconsin Ave.
It’s one thing to plop down a sculpture on the sidewalk and call it a day. But that’s not what Carlos Rolón does with his deceptively light Gild the Lily. This piece (or is it an installation?) completely transforms a building, a street corner, and an entire neighborhood. Point us to the Kickstarter that keeps these flowers in bloom forever. The Hot Dog Guy will thank you, too.
Scott Walker – Foxconn (2017) – 617 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Though not part of the official Sculpture Milwaukee lineup, this bonus piece is truly astounding. A facade of multinational electronics contract manufacturing company Foxconn sits in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, asking viewers to ponder the nature of business, globalism, and half-empty office buildings. At turns high-concept and abstract, Foxconn challenges and confounds, baffles and beguiles. Bravo.