Greater Las Vegas grew thanks to highways, and those desert roads have shaped its public art aesthetic. Many artworks seem designed to be viewed from a moving car, and in fact the signage and neon along U.S. Route 91 (also known as Las Vegas Boulevard) and Fremont Street (Boulder Highway outside the city limits) are a cornerstone of the city’s outdoor visuals. This map is a Las Vegas public art loop that introduces a variety of works and styles, methods and messages, that will tempt you to have a closer look, or take a selfie. That is what public art shares with the roadside experience: a commitment to drawing drivers and passengers out of cars.Read More
A public art tour of Las Vegas
Desert roads have shaped the city’s aesthetic
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Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas Sign
The flashy welcome on Las Vegas Boulevard was designed by the late Betty Willis, making both sign and creator matriarchs of Vegas sculpture. Willis came to love neon after seeing Los Angeles’s Broadway from her parents’ car as a child. Later, when Willis had earned a reputation for standout casino and commercial signs, salesman Ted Rogich asked her to create signage that would identify the region beyond the Strip. In came the shape we all know. Installed in 1959 on the Las Vegas Strip, it quickly became a Clark County landmark; it was protected by locals when endangered in the 1970s, and by 2009 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as “the most iconic expression of the remarkable ascendancy of postwar Las Vegas and its famous strip.”
Marco Cochrane’s “Bliss Dance” is a 40-foot stainless-steel, mesh-skinned figure captured in a moment of uninhibited confidence, a transplant from the Burning Man festival that made a brief stop at the Great Lawn at San Francisco's Treasure Island before being purchased by MGM Resorts International. An arm extends out to balance a soft back kick, giving the nude form a full-bodied gesture of elegance and empowerment. The sculptured pose anchors The Park, an eight-acre passageway that connects the T-Mobile Arena with the Strip between the New York New York and Monte Carlo resorts, a bold gesture of urban planning that turns private space into a pedestrian-friendly experience.
Nancy Rubins’s “Big Edge” is an ensemble of 200 aluminum boats in chaotic sculpture that gives CityCenter a final formal dressing in the middle of a traffic circle, in front of the Vdara tower. The formality of the glass towers surrounding it makes this sculpture a coordinating corsage of color, a formal touch for the site that hosts blue-chip artists in the CityCenter Fine Art Collection. The works of artists like Maya Lin, Frank Stella, Henry Moore, and Jenny Holzer are inside, but “Big Edge” highlights how Las Vegas public art is about seeing spectacle from inside a moving car.
In addition to wheat-pastes on warehouses and graffiti along selected alleys, the Arts District is also home to community-based murals, like the one designed by Grace Ann Morgan and Lois Dohra just over a decade ago. Pink and lavender silhouettes dance in solidarity, the figures floating above a sidewalk around the corner from what used to be called Snick’s Place, a bar that is central to local LGBT history. It’s one work from the 2005 Las Vegas Centennial mural project that stayed relevant, and it remains an authoritative example of a mural serving as a storyteller on the street.
Once planned to share the same corner, the two paintbrush sculptures now stand at different sentry points, separated by circumstances. (The project did not work out as artist Dennis Oppenheim had planned.) The two paintbrush sculptures, designed to beam light as a paint “stroke, 1,600 feet long, going into darkness, thus echoing an artist’s excursion into the unknown,” as Oppenheim initially hoped, are just an echo of the original concept. When I first saw them, I thought the brushes—meant to navigate people toward the Arts District—were too literal, lacking mystery in their message. As it turns out, the backstory is the real mystique, almost as intriguing as the art itself, and the city’s original ambition to send public art in new directions has still influenced the region.
Time Heals All Wounds
Leading a landmark exhibition, Tilting the Basin, is Las Vegas-based JW Caldwell’s theater lobby mural entitled “Time Heals All Wounds.” The artist hopes to “show the art world that beautiful, thoughtful, playful and important art is being made in our state. It’s not just miles of desert punctuated by bright lights,” as he told the Review-Journal. That is a big call to action for this curated collection of works by Nevada artists. The sculpture, paintings, installation, and photography are proving that local artists create works embedded in urban spirit with rural soulfulness, and it is showing until May 17 in a perfect pop-up venue: a 14,000-square-foot warehouse space. Hopefully the mural can stay after it closes.
Monument to the Simulacrum
As Las Vegas public art has changed, there is a tendency to forget the pieces that nudged it in the right direction. Stephen Hendee’s philosophy-driven sculpture from 2007 challenged viewers to consider the vulnerability of natural resources, while being dedicated to Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher who made Vegas a lab for simulacra and hyperreality. “It was also an opportunity to make an enduring physical marker for the future of downtown Las Vegas,” Hendee once said. Yes. That’s deep. Know that it’s also an attractive piece, a quiet meditation that refers to the geometry of the local mountains. At night, the crest reveals itself to be a soft light. Like the better works that claim to represent Las Vegas, it comes alive as the sun sets and the piece goes into an illuminated state.
Las Vegas Signs Project
Nine restored historical neon signs from the Neon Museum’s collection have been repurposed into public art on the downtown segment of Las Vegas Boulevard. In 2009, the same stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard, between Sahara Avenue and Washington Avenue, became one of only three urban streets in the United States to be named a Federal Scenic Byway by the U.S. Department of Transportation. If you let the signs be your guide from Fremont to Washington, you will end up at the Neon Museum.
Tim Bavington is a conductor of public art who used music as the muse for “Pipe Dream,” a rainbow wall of colors inspired by sound that sits on the east end of Symphony Park, next to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Each pipe represents a single note of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” There are 128 steel pipes in all, and the palette is the visual symphonic version of the Strip. Eighty-six feet long and 27 feet tall, the sculpture makes a stunning backdrop when the space is used for performance. The careful composition of color, technique, skill, and Las Vegas as subtext has kept “Pipe Dream” beloved by locals.
Life is Beautiful murals
The Life is Beautiful Festival has left behind large-scale street art by international artists, curated by Charlotte Dutoit, and these pieces have changed the local perception of murals. The downtown blocks in and around Fremont Street and Ogden Avenue, between North Sixth and North Seventh streets, are a street art gallery that includes Zio Ziegler’s detailed chaos, portraits embedded in brick and mortar by Vhils, Alexis Diaz’s illustrative takes on critters, Bordalo II sculpture of large meerkats leaning against a bus made of scrap metal. In early February, on the walls of the Plaza Hotel & Casino, Shepard Fairey and D*Face stepped out of the festival blueprint to complete the largest public art murals in the city. Now the “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” mark sits within a 22-story blossom, and D*Face’s latest Roy Lichtenstein-meets-zombie work shows a fearful female facing invasion by a stranger with skeletal limbs.
These two sculptures by different artists are a sampling of Centered, the Clark County public art project that commissioned 10 works to be created for medians in the region. On McLeod Drive near Desert Inn Road is “Jaguar” by Miguel Rodriguez, a large cat head with decorative patterns inspired by Huichol Indian folk art tradition. Down the road is Adolfo Gonzalez’s "Octosteam," a squid-shaped steampunk time machine that shows viewers what a crazed public artist with a Victorian Sci-Fi mind would drive on long desert road trips. What is intriguing about these two examples from Centered is how they have fostered direct engagement between art and neighborhood. Visitors sometimes leave the Huichol feline offerings of rice and grains, and place flowers inside a vase that is part of the steampunk squid.
Clark County, like other municipalities, hires artists to paint utility boxes in the name of public art. The project is called Zap, and it began as an independent neighborhood beautification initiative in 2005 before the county took over funding. Now the painted utility boxes serve as urban totems that reflect neighborhood identity. Artists are encouraged to talk with members of the community who walk up curious to see a box being painted. Drive Maryland Parkway to see works from the seventh edition of Zap, an example of a program that has a roster of local established artists with an affection for the region and the hope of raising its art profile. Zap just started its ninth edition, and the city of Las Vegas is beginning its own version, called Amp. Artists will soon be painting utility boxes on sections of Maryland Parkway that fall within the city limits.
The 38-foot-tall “Flashlight,” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, set standards for public art when it was commissioned by the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1978. Installed in 1981, it sits between Judy Bayley Theatre and Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall to usher light on those gathering for performances. Oldenburg told the Los Angeles Times in 1988 that he began thinking about light sources when he flew into the region for meetings at UNLV. “Las Vegas was a small patch of light in a vast desert darkness,” Oldenburg said. “A flashlight seemed to be the proper symbol for that beacon of light in the desert.” A 2013 UNLV article reported “Flashlight” was first designed to send light up, until van Bruggen claimed that was “cliched and reminiscent of authoritarian spectacle.” “Flashlight,” and its steel segments that play off the lines of the saguaro cactus, defies look-at-me-look-at-me performance illumination from the Strip by shining its light downward.
“Dream Machine” is a 26-foot-tall abstract reading of Las Vegas by artist Wayne Littlejohn, “A fusion of light and movement … inspired by the geological and technological forces that shape the Southwest,” said the artist during a December 2016 dedication. “It arises from the earth like some mysterious atomic love child of dust devils and drones.” The cast polished aluminum glistens in blues and silvers in a slow spiral upward from the base, magically floating into the air and, by chance or artistic negotiation, reflecting the work’s position next to the airport, in a park named after illusionists. Littlejohn acknowledges that the mushroom shape is a reference to atomic testing. The reference reappears in the landscaping, too: The ground under the sculpture extends out in the same rhythmic circled patterns an underground explosion would create.
A 2016 Smithsonian post detailed the restoration of “Vaquero” outside the Smithsonian American Art Museum and identified sculptor Luis Jiménez as a Chicano artist. The mold that cast that fiberglass Mexican cowboy, waving a pistol while riding a bucking blue horse, was the same used for the “Vaquero” seen entering Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport, a 1990 installation added during an early wave of art programming there. “It tied in with the early movement of cowboys between the American Southwest and our neighbor to the South,” according to Michael Saltman, former member of the now-defunct McCarran International Airport Arts Advisory committee. The Vegas “Vaquero” is on a knoll, faded and cracked after a long pose in the sun. Yet, knowing a Latino artist helped introduce public art to the region, with sculpture charging over a hill, has me wanting to shout “Viva Las Vegas public art! Viva!”
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