Secrets of the Garden

An inside look at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden as it turns 25

We love the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, so much so that we’ve spent the past 25 years—and 325,000 annual visits—smothering it with physical affection. We’ve fogged up Dan Graham’s Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth with smooch marks. Our butts have smoothed the stone pews of James Turrell’s Sky Pesher. And we’ve had some major misunderstandings (most recently when “Kony,” a reference to the Ugandan guerrilla leader, was spray-painted onto the Spoonbridge and Cherry). As the Walker Art Center marks a quarter-century of marvel and maintenance, chief curator Darsie Alexander walked us through the garden to reacquaint us with its inhabitants.

Spoonbridge and Cherry, Claes Oldenburg and Cossje van Bruggen (1985–1988)

The garden’s crown jewels. But why a spoon? Why a cherry? Oldenburg, it seems, had a thing for spoons. The humble food-scooper had appeared in his drawings and lithographs since the early 1960s. Also, van Bruggen, Oldenburg’s wife and collaborator, was so irked by the geometric puritanism of garden designer Edward Barnes—he insisted that the park have the rigid order of a French garden—that she associated the place with the fussy formalities of Louis XIV’s Versailles. So the cherry was her idea, the fat, mirthful fruit lampooning the dining etiquette of a royal court.

Arikidea, Mark di Suvero (1977–1982)

The first piece installed in the garden—and the best place to make out, thanks to its flat wooden swing. But beware. “Wouldn’t a rusty brown spider standing on a bed of snow be lovely to behold?” asked artist di Suvero when he first envisioned his creation. Made of I-beams salvaged from New York skyscrapers, it’s an industrial arachnid, with the swing representing a strand of silk dropping from its hairy belly.

Untitled, Mario Merz (1996–1997)

Part beer sign, part grad-school graffiti, the cursive neon sculpture atop the conservatory says “città irreale”—Italian for “unreal city.” Written in the artist’s hand, it’s a recurring phrase in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It’s also the most damage-prone piece in the park: two summers ago, it was removed four times due to hail.

Tombstone for Phùng Vo, Danh Vo (2010)

A gravestone for Vo’s still-living father. The gold-leaf inscription reads “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” a line from John Keats’s anonymous headstone in Rome. When Vo’s dad dies, the stone will be shipped to Copenhagen, where he wants to be buried, and the Walker will receive four of his belongings in exchange.

Anonymous II, Kris Martin (2009)

In 2009, Martin had an anonymous human skeleton buried somewhere near the parking garage. Curators can’t say offhand where it is: there is no marker, and the only record is a certificate listing the GPS coordinates.

Untitled, Jim Hodges (2011)

Four boulders resembling stainless-steel Easter eggs huddle together in a ring. Stand in the center and it’s an ever-shifting, 45-ton cacophony of color, texture, and reflection. Installed last summer, it’s one of Walker Director Olga Viso’s proudest acquisitions—and a teaser for a Hodges exhibition planned for 2014.

Woodrow, Deborah Butterfield (1988)

A horse is a horse, of course. But Deborah Butterfield’s equine statue isn’t quite what it seems. Though it looks like a fragile joining of driftwood, bark, and mossy tree droppings, the pieces are actually cast in heavy-metal bronze. Butterfield first constructed her horse out of branches, then dismantled it completely to patinate each component before reassembling it with backbreaking effort. The trompe l’oeil is as striking as it is functional: it looks as if a sneeze could knock it over, yet it’s survived 25 Minnesota winters.

How the Garden Grew

There is no single 25th birthday bash for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, rather a summer-long series of attractions: artist-designed mini golf returning on May 24, several new sculptures being installed, and, in September, the largest-ever exhibition of Spoonbridge and Cherry creator Claes Oldenburg’s early sculptures. To appreciate how far the place has come, here are the key moments in an unusual transition from bayonets to beauty.

1907 – The Kenwood Armory is built where the sculptures are now. (Nearby Parade Stadium takes its name from the parade grounds.)

1913 – Elaborate gardens designed by Theodore Wirth are created around the armory.

1928 – The Walker Art Gallery, showcasing the collection of timber baron T.B. Walker, opens across from the armory.

1933 – The armory is torn down. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board oversees the garden.

1970 – Siah Armajani’s Covered Foot Bridge (Bridge Over a Nice Triangle Tree) is exhibited on the future site of the garden, a playing field at the time.

1988 – The Walker Art Center and Park Board convert the playing field into a 7.5-acre sculpture garden.

1992 – The garden expands to 11 acres, becoming the largest urban sculpture garden in the country.

1998 – Atelier van Lieshout’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is unveiled on the garden’s 10th anniversary. The Jayhawks headline the inaugural Rock the Garden concert on the street between the garden and the Walker.

2008FlatPak in the Garden, a version of designer Charlie Lazor’s prefabricated home, opens behind the Cowles Conservatory.

Look behind the scenes at how the garden grew and how you can celebrate its 25th anniverary (mini golf!) at

For more on the sculptures, read “The King of Pop Art.”