Houston's Monument au Fantôme.
Part of the human experience for millennia, public sculpture is a powerful democratic medium. It informs our visual consciousness and shapes the way we engage with the world around us. As a vehicle in which to understand our social environment, public art is a forum for communal exchange, a cultural intervention creating a sense of place and a sense of being. In the United States, we can thank the Federal Art Program of the 1930s for the revival of art within the public domain, a tradition that continued to flourish with the rise of Modern architecture and remains an influential force today.
Now located on the edge of Houston's Discovery Green Park on Avenida de las Americas, French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet's Monument au Fantôme ("Monument to the Phantom" or roughly imaginary city) is an abstracted city, a fanciful maze of sculptural forms. The monumental sculpture, made of painted fiberglass over a steel armature, is a hulking piece of artful dialogue with its highest point (33 feet) towering over the sprawling urban park. Originally commissioned for the 1100 Louisiana building (a polished SOM skyscraper) by Houston's most influential developer Gerald Hines, the sculpture officially opened on October 31, 1983, quickly becoming one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. Twenty years later, the City of Houston moved the Monument au Fantôme from the modern plaza to the newly developed Discovery Green, a 12-acre urban park in the heart of downtown.
A part of Dubuffet's Hourloupe series (with companion pieces in Chicago, New York City, and Europe), the large free form red, white, and blue sculpture is a whimsical urban artifact set against Houston's gleaming skyline. In the early 1960s, Dubuffet began to experiment with his L'Hourloupe style by drawing doodles with a ballpoint pen, a radical technique that would eventually encompass painting and public sculpture. In his Monument au Fantôme, Dubuffet renders the functional aspects of the city unrecognizable by maximizing scale and translating everyday elements into a graphic script of black, white, red, and blue. The tangled urban scene includes seven abstracted forms related to Houston- chimney, church, dog, hedge, mast, phantom, and tree. These elements come together into a single transformative object that animates the surrounding public space. Serving as the anchor to Discovery Green, Dubuffet's lively sculpture remains one of the country's most iconic pieces of public art, a celebrated monument to the modern human experience. You can visit the Monument au Fantôme across from the George R. Brown Convention Center (it's free).
Image at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. John Dubuffet's "Monument Au Fantome" sculpture in Houston, Texas's Discovery Green Park. Its title means "Monument to the Phantom" or imaginary city, in French. Houston, Texas, United States, 2014. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2015630415.
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