Maya Lin’s Wall on the Mall, dedicated to Vietnam’s fallen warriors, has long struck me as being less than the optimal commemoration of a national tragedy. Its gash in the Mall looks as if it symbolizes a loss in conflict as much as a loss of life. Balancing this, and equally controversial, was a sculpture added, to Lin’s dismay, of three soldiers, by the late Frederick Hart. The architectural historian Catesby Leigh has written an even-handed account of the memorial’s victory in a major design competition, the artist’s relationship to the committee that commissioned the contest, battles between supporters and opponents of the design, changes resulting from those battles, its erection, its public reception, and the inevitable fluctuations in its reputation and its popularity.
Leigh’s lengthy essay, “Anti-Monument,” appears on a new website called Critical Read devoted to the back story of great works of art, or, in its own words, “Critical Read tells the true stories behind works of the fine, literary, and performing arts.” The subjects on its website so far include queer symbolism, contemporary ballet and Salmon Rushdie.
Leigh properly regrets the recent decline of monumental architecture from traditional memorials honoring community to memorials whose goal seems to be more therapeutic. Here is Leigh’s diplomatic summation of the Wall:
[T]he Wall is an inspired work, if not “a work of genius.” In its stark simplicity and contextually astute insertion in the Mall’s landscape, it enabled a minimalist aesthetic that often repels the public to resonate deeply with it while signaling, as Lutyens’s Thiepval arch had done half a century earlier, a widening of the range of meanings and emotional responses that memorials can elicit.