New Design

Maya Lin

American Architect and Sculptor

Maya Lin Photo
Born: October 5, 1959
Athens, Ohio
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I am always trying to find a balance ... the place where opposites meet.
Maya Lin Signature

Summary of Maya Lin

Even if she had designed nothing else, Maya Lin's first commission would make her one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. Her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a city known for its imposing monuments, is now one of the most iconic sights. Her use of a spare, low-slung wall to trace the line of the natural landscape became her trademark. Her minimalist approach to public art is to add something that looks like it was not originally there, but somehow belongs. Swells of earth interrupt the grassy terrain ever so slightly in her outdoor installations, so that if one is not viewing the work from high above or far away, one might not even notice them. The indoor sculptures on which she has focused recently maintain an implicit environmental focus, ideologically and visually evoking the rolling contours of remote geographic locations. In a career that began with controversy, Lin's 35-year record of public and private art successfully merges the conceptual and natural world.

Key Ideas

Biography of Maya Lin

Maya Lin Photo

Maya Lin was born to Chinese intellectuals who had fled China in 1948, just as the Communist takeover was occurring. Her hometown of Athens, Ohio, known for its manufacturing and agriculture, is also the home of Ohio University, an institution that played a major role in her youth. Her mother Julia Chang Lin, a poet, was a literature professor at the university and her father, Henry Huan Lin, was a ceramicist and also the Dean of the School of Fine Art. Lin was in her father's studio, "making art as long as she can remember." A precocious student, Lin was fascinated with the natural world and with science, and read constantly. She wanted to be a veterinarian or an animal behaviorist, and her parents allowed her to have a pet parakeet. As she was growing up through the seventies, environmentalism was on the rise and it remained an important part of her sensibility. In high school, Lin did not conform to the stereotype of the Midwestern teenage girl. She steered clear of the prom, football games, and make-up, and grew her hair down to her waist. While still in high school, she took art courses at university level and began experimenting with bronze casting at the foundry. In her spare time, she took walks in the woods, letting her imagination roam, or played chess with her older brother, to whom she looked up. Fueled by the traditional Chinese aesthetic of her childhood home and the surroundings of rural Ohio, Lin's sensibilities as an architect began to blossom. Elements of this background would return in her later work, especially in college.

Important Art by Maya Lin

Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982)

Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982)

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of the most controversial works of the 1980s, lies on the northwest corner of the National Mall in Washington D.C. Two simple walls of polished granite fall ten feet below grade and meet at a 130-degree angle in a V-shape. Its ends point towards the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, respectively. The names of over 58,000 soldiers who were killed or pronounced missing in action are listed, in the order of death or disappearance, rather than alphabetically because Lin wanted it to be read "like an epic Greek poem." A Vietnam veteran can go to Maya Lin's memorial and search for the names of his fallen comrades. In the process, he sees his own face reflected in the polished stone.

A unique pull away from the traditional memorial design with realistic forms, her design contrasted with all other memorials in Washington D.C. It echoes the sentiments of Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs, who raised the money for the project, and stated in his open call for submissions: "We do not seek to make any statement about the correctness of the war. Rather, by honoring those who sacrificed, we hope to provide a symbol of national unity and reconciliation." In relation to a war that was wildly unpopular both at home and abroad, Lin's memorial was a barometer of these sentiments. It presents us with an invitation to reflect and respond. It accounts for the fact that anti-war demonstrators and ex-military men both lost relatives and friends. It acknowledges that each individual will respond differently, and gathers visitors together in mourning, without telling them how to make sense of the military conflict.

This made many viewers uncomfortable. When the project was accepted, the backlash was swift and fierce. Those who had supported U.S. military involvement in Vietnam detected a note of potential criticism in the absence of heroic figures and other obvious symbols of honor and sacrifice, and dismissed it as a "black gash of shame." While its conceptual open-endedness was part of the controversy, so was Lin's ethnicity as an Asian American (her parents were from China), which, remarkably, also came under scrutiny as a possible reason to disqualify her. The design caused such intense debate that Lin had to suspend her career as a college student to defend it, and she was not entirely successful. As a concession to conservative critics, three realistic figures with an American flag were constructed across the National Mall near Lin's monument in a much smaller, more conventional bronze by Frederick Hartt. Hartt's work is visited far less frequently, however, than Lin's historic structure, unveiled on Veterans Day in 1982. In addition to remaining a place of historic honor and reflection, it is now accepted as a major milestone in 20th-century art.

Groundswell (1993)

Groundswell (1993)

This piece, Lin's first major large-scale artwork, is a permanent installation consisting of 43 tons of shattered automobile safety glass. Lin had previously experimented with this material in smaller-scale works. This is a site-specific installation designed to call attention to the "throwaway" (as the artist called them) spaces of the building, filling them with recycled safety glass broken into small bits. The formations, although made from such a harsh medium, evoked a sense of calm much like a landscape or seascape. Lin used two types of recycled glass, which mimicked the color of water when mixed together. She also utilized cultural influences as inspiration for the work, looking both to her eastern and western backgrounds; to the Japanese gardens of Kyoto and to the Native American burial mounds of Athens, Ohio.

Following the success (and elevated expectations) of her early career, Lin sought to become more spontaneous. She made only a few sketches before beginning this installation, invoking a '70s attitude inspired by Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse, and other artists to whom her work is linked, and who based their finished outcome on process, as opposed to a preconceived idea of what the work would look like. Lin and her team dropped bucket after bucket of broken glass onto the rooftop areas with a boom crane, filling the pockets of the building until the work was complete. In an approach that was absolutely consistent with her earlier projects, as well as her background as an architect, Lin incorporated the entire building into her design, applying her comprehensive vision to all areas of the Wexner Center. This work bears the hallmark of her approach as an architect and artist, regardless of space, nature, material, and application. Her vision remains holistic, compassionate, all-encompassing, and always highly analytical.

The Wave Field (1995)

The Wave Field (1995)

Designed for the FXB Aerospace Building on the University of Michigan campus, this outdoor sculptural installation engages one of Lin's earliest and most fundamental passions: science. Specifically inspired by the movement of water, the work is about fluidity. A three-month study of fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, and turbulence, conducted by the artist on site, preceded the work. While visibly indebted to other large-scale Earth Works (Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty comes to mind), alignment between the conceptual and formal properties of Lin's work is much closer. For example, its precise 90' by 90' grid of rising crests mimics that of a naturally occurring wave. Lin selected a particular wave type that brought together all areas she had been researching, including fluid dynamics, flight resistance, and turbulence.

Literally part of the ground on which the artist designed it, this delightful sculpture is at once playful and intellectual. Walking across it is quite different from viewing it through the window of one of the adjacent classrooms. It changes throughout the day as the sun passes and shadows emerge on different parts of it, achieving Lin's goal to highlight the interconnectedness between art and landscape.

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Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

"Maya Lin Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 28 Mar 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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