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Visual Arts

How a Chance Connection Helped Save Robert Irwin’s Dallas Sculpture

The sculpture was in such disrepair, even the sculptor gave the city permission to remove it.
By Doyle Rader |

The sculpture was in such disrepair, even the sculptor gave the city permission to remove it. By 2013, artist Robert Irwin’s Portal Park Piece (Slice), a long dark metal wall that ran through Carpenter Park on the east side of downtown Dallas, essentially cutting it in two, had become scarred by years of neglect, graffiti, and half-hearted graffiti removal attempts. When a new vision for a redevelopment of the park didn’t include Irwin’s piece, Irwin himself granted the city permission to scrap the work, citing the condition of the piece. In mid-March of this year, crews began the removal of the piece.

But it wouldn’t be the end of the sculpture, thanks to a chance connection between Irwin and the designer who was charged with creating a new vision for the downtown Dallas park.

When the city announced plans to deaccession Portal Park Piece (Slice), the arts community began calling for the preservation of Dallas’ only public sculpture by one of the most influential post war artists. But it would take an old Harvard connection between Irwin and the park’s designer to really set the gears in motion.

Carpenter Park, along with three other downtown parks, are the focus of the newly formed Parks for Downtown Dallas, formerly the Belo Foundation. The foundation pledged $30 million to redesign and build the parks last year and John and Cele Carpenter III added an addition $3 million solely for the renovation of Carpenter Park. The City of Dallas selected Hargreaves Associates to spearhead the redevelopment of Carpenter Park.

It just happened that George Hargreaves, the Design Director of Hargreaves Associates, has been friends with Robert Irwin since the early-2000s. Hargreaves taught at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design for 20 years, and he was the chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture there from 1996 to 2003. In 2001, he invited Irwin to give a lecture, and the two became friends. When Hargreaves Associates was pegged with the task of remodeling the downtown Dallas park, the first thing he did was reach out to Irwin in the hopes that they could work together to save Portal Park Piece (Slice).  Irwin agreed.

Salvaging Irwin’s piece raised some challenges. In addition to the physical preservation of the artwork, the sculpture’s setting in the new park had to be re-imagined in a way that would allow it to enhance the experience of the place, rather than serve as the barrier it became in the old park configuration. When reinstalled, the sculpture will be reoriented on an east-west axis rather than the north-south one it originally had. It will remain a continuous piece, stretching through the park, incorporating berms once again. Almost all of the original sculpture will be used in the redesign. Two new COR-TEN, the weathering steel out of which the sculpture is made, 20-foot sections will be added to the work, however. They will both have water jet cut filigree detailing designed by Irwin.

With the specifications of Irwin and his fabricator, Jack Brogan, the sculpture was excavated, cut in to sections approximately 20 feet in length, and disassembled. Right now, the park is in the design and development phase which will last until this summer. The redesign of Portal Park Piece (Slice) is expected to be completed sometime this year but it will remain in storage until the park is reopened. The removal, storage, and re-installation of the art are being funded with $400,000 from the donation of John and Cele Carpenter III.

A few years ago Irwin’s sculpture appeared to be doomed. It sat neglected as the city changed around it. However, through the efforts of various organizations, Portal Park Piece (Slice) will find new life in a new park rather than being scrapped. That’s a win for the arts community and the city.

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