Older artists who struggle futilely for recognition often envy those who achieve great success at an early age. But never being able to surpass or even equal a youthful triumph can be a cruel fate for those who believe you are only as good as your latest work. This is the potentially daunting reality that Maya Lin has lived with for three and a half decades, since she skyrocketed to fame at the age of twenty-one, when during her senior year as a Yale undergraduate architecture major she won the open design competition that resulted in the most influential public monument created since World War II: the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial of 1981–1982 in Washington, D.C.
Although Lin’s rigorously abstract scheme—devoid of the representational elements and allegorical imagery typical of war monuments since ancient times—provoked great controversy in some quarters when it was chosen from among the 1,421 contest entries, her powerful melding of the period’s two main avant-garde sculptural developments, Minimalism and Earth Art, fundamentally recast popular notions of commemorative architecture. This symmetrical composition of two wedge-shaped, vertically paneled, polished black granite walls set at a 125-degree angle to each other and sunk ten feet below grade at their deepest is inscribed with the names of 58,307 American military personnel who died as a result of the Vietnam War between 1957 and 1975.
The sloping walkway parallel to this 493-foot-long expanse of stone begins at street level and then reaches its nadir at the monument’s midpoint. The transit along the declivity gives one the palpable impression of being swamped by a tide of mortality as the rows of names rise higher and higher above one’s head. Then, as the pedestrian path begins to ascend at the structure’s midpoint, the opposite occurs, the sensation ebbing and abating as one reaches the flat expanse of the Mall once again, filled with relief that the flood of names has finally ended. It is not uncommon to see visitors in tears or even sobbing after they have negotiated this symbolic abyss, a journey made all the more unnerving because of the unconsoling directness of the experience.
The adage that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan certainly pertains to those involved with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial commission, although the person most responsible for its triumphant outcome—the artist herself—has never tried to arrogate sole credit for what became a hugely complicated and highly politicized process. Robert Doubek, who served as executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund—the nonprofit organization created in 1979 to raise money for the monument’s construction—has written a heartfelt memoir of the…
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