With the pandemic forcing everyone outside last summer, I became more aware of one of my favorite pastimes: spotting the spectacular free public art that hides in plain sight in locations across America. From interactive installations to mesmerizing statues to thought-provoking murals, here is a sampling of the incredible public art in the U.S.
1. Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that goes double for its outdoor public art. Cadillac Ranch is a picket fence of upright cars right along Route 66 where it intersects with Route 40. The 10 vehicles nose-diving into the sand double as canvases, each radiant with bright pop art paint that makes them burst into view as you roll up in the quiet desert setting. Fun fact: According to Visit Amarillo, the cars are buried at the same angle as the Cheops Pyramid. Unlike most public art, graffiti is encouraged here (part of the aesthetic created by the San Francisco-based The Ant Farm that created the installation in 1974), so feel free to bring along a can of spray paint to leave your own mark on this unusual site.
For more on this one-of-a-kind attraction, read up on the story behind Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch.
2. Cloud Gate, Chicago
There was a time when I thought of Chicago and immediately conjured images of Lake Michigan, the Sears Tower, and steakhouses. That was before I spotted the 66-foot-long metallic Bean that graces Millenium Park, and now that shining image stands out above all others. For the record, I do know it’s called Cloud Gate. And Anish Kapoor’s mirror-like sculpture does reflect the clouds above, but the rounded shape that makes it feel like a mylar kidney bean, Thanksgiving float gave it the nickname that stuck, and who am I to disagree. Regardless of the name, spend some time wandering around the reflective mirrored surface to take in the views of the sky, the clouds, the people, and the great city of Chicago.
3. I See What You Mean, Denver
It seems only fitting that the Mile High City would have a mile-high iconic piece of public art. Well, not exactly a mile, but the 40-foot Big Blue Bear peering into the Denver Convention Center is certainly a mountainous presence. This is another public artwork whose nickname is more popular than its actual moniker. In fact, I had no idea when my son used to cavort by this preschool favorite that it wasn’t called Big Blue Bear. The artist, Lawrence Argent, named it I See What You Mean, picturing locals peering into the wall of windows at the center to figure out what was going on inside, the bear peeking in right alongside them. Give it a try, or just gaze up at the sky blue bear next time you’re enjoying downtown Denver.
4. Twilight Epiphany Skyspace, Houston
Tucked into a grassy corner of Rice University in Houston is what appears during the day to be a spaceship. Or maybe a pyramid? Or is it a floating ceiling with no walls? Honestly, I wasn’t sure at first. But as the sun began to set, James Turrell’s unique Skyspace construction, entitled Twilight Epiphany, became more than just an architectural question. First, the two-story structure glowed with lights mimicking the colors of the sunset, cycling from gold to rust to rose to violet. Then music swelled in time to the lights, turning what first seemed to be a simple structure into a performance you can literally immerse yourself into by sitting inside. The cycle continues for 40 minutes and is repeated again at dawn for early risers.
5. Museum Without Walls, Philadelphia
The City of Brotherly Love is also the city of public art. And while I usually expect to see Colonial-era highlights in the home of the U.S. Constitution, I’m constantly surprised by the modern and contemporary offerings that dot the city like a sparkling jeweled necklace. In fact, there are so many public art offerings the city now offers a comprehensive guide called Museum Without Walls to add context to what you’re viewing and also help you track down these inspired gems. A few highlights to keep an eye out for: The tomato-hued, construction beams of Mark di Suvero’s 40-foot-tall Iroquis (24th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue); The Thinker by Auguste Rodin (in front of the Rodin Museum); and the iconic stacked LOVE statue by Robert Indiana (15th Street and JFK Boulevard).
6. Mending Walls, Richmond, Virginia
Recently, Richmond has made it onto my radar of spots to visit as much for its architecture and location on the James River as for its evolving public art scene. One highlight: a new series of 16 murals created as part of a collaborative public art project called Mending Walls overseen by local artist Hamilton Glass. Each mural is produced by a pair of artists from different cultures and backgrounds and is a response to some of the most difficult moments of 2020. A few colorful standouts include Say Their Names on W. Broad Street, Her Flowers on Hull Street, and Liberty Leads Her People on North Avenue. For more Richmond inspiration, consider The Best Things To Do In Richmond, VA: Where To Eat, Stay, And Play.