If you walk up Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans, cross the former swampland of Bayou Road, and look to your left, you may see a 15-foot fish suspended from the trees. If it’s nowhere in sight, you can expect bad weather ahead.
The giant fiberglass fish—modeled on a marlin—is one of the many sculptures that inhabit the garden of the artist, urbanist, and environmental planner Robert Tannen. With its soaring columns and wedding-cake pediment, the house beyond is as ornate as any along the avenue, an impression at odds with the stacks of construction materials piled in the front yard. A pyramidal tower of concrete blocks is installed by the gate, and steel boxes shaped like southern shotgun houses are smashed in a heap—a sculpture made in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina. The marlin sometimes swings from the porch or between two live oaks. But when a storm is forecast—and those storms have become stronger and more frequent since Tannen moved to New Orleans in 1972—the marlin is tightly tied to the trunk of a tree, barely visible behind the palm fronds and crumpled steel.
Over the years, many have made the pilgrimage to the house on Esplanade, where the 82-year-old Tannen has played host to a surprising array of characters. The musician Alex Chilton (from the ’70s rock band Big Star) lived in Tannen’s garage, and Ray Davies from the Kinks took up lodging in the attic. When he was considering making a film in New Orleans, Michelangelo Antonioni reportedly stopped by in search of a story. And then there are all the curators and art collectors who make the trek to see what can be extracted from the vast assemblage of art on site.
“I don’t think it’s useful to make a distinction between art and life,” Tannen explained, while walking under the model of a bridge that bisects the ground floor of his house. The room is a spatial conundrum, a labyrinth of artworks intentionally arranged to test the inhabitant’s understanding of inside and out. Melted green glass bottles are piled like old socks. Coat hangers are twisted into complex compositions. A taxidermy arctic goose flies from the neck of a neoprene diving suit. Wooden shotgun-house blocks are arranged into utopian city plans, while others are submerged in sealed jars of salt water.
Alongside Tannen’s own art are works by notable artist friends. A plaster and chicken wire sculpture by Lynda Benglis is installed on the wall, and a ceramic Klein bottle by Kevin O’Keefe rests on a chair. A grid painting by Peter Halley is placed under the bridge, and above the bedroom door is a sketch by Mark di Suvero, proposing to catapult one of Tannen’s own sculptures—a sandstone boulder—into outer space.
Tannen’s sculptures are typically made from found objects or construction materials, and his drawings, paintings, and texts are playful and spontaneous. The characteristic directness of his work—intuitive to a degree that can seem almost cryptic—is perhaps because he doesn’t consider “art” to be separate from other disciplines. Although he identifies primarily as an artist, his practice is interwoven with his work as an environmental and urban planner.
Since the ’70s, Tannen has played a significant role in shaping the New Orleans cityscape, leading projects including the first comprehensive planning study of historic neighborhoods and the siting of the city’s second bridge over the Mississippi. His civic practice is underpinned by his role as an artist, experimenting with materials and performance as a way of testing ideas and generating spatial proposals. Retrospectives of his work have been staged at the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center (which Tannen and his wife, Jeanne Nathan, campaigned to establish in 1976), the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In 2011, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas commissioned Tannen to make a series of works for their sculpture trail—to which he responded with characteristic frankness, presenting the museum with 15 locally sourced boulders.
His latest exhibition, “Box-City,” will be on show at the Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana, from February 7 into May, with a cityscape of cardboard boxes envisaging the patterns of high-density living that will result from climate migration. Expanding to fill an entire gallery space, the installation models a possibility and invites visitors’ to interpret it, both in terms of building the artwork on the exhibition’s opening night and by taking an active role in shaping the future we create. Such installations are what Tannen, as artist and planner, calls a “preconcept”: not a completed work but a preparation for possible interpretations, a form on its way to becoming something else.
Tannen is part mystic, part pragmatist—an approach to life forged in the Coney Island neighborhood of New York, where he grew up making driftwood sculptures on the beach. His father, a member of the Communist party, co-owned the legendary rare book store Biblo & Tannen in the East Village; on Saturdays, Tannen would help out at the shop, where he had the chance to meet Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, and Milton Resnick. With the support of Resnick’s wife, Pat Passlof, he had his first East 10th Street show in 1957 as a member of the March Gallery collective, exhibiting one of his piled wood sculptures and a large abstract ink drawing.
After studying industrial design, art, and environmental planning at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Tannen became part of the RAND New York Institute and manager of the Lazy Eight, a think-tank whose members included R. Buckminster Fuller, Bill Wainwright, Marvin Minsky, and Mark di Suvero. It was the early ’60s, and maverick thinkers were blurring the boundaries between art and science—among them Robert Burden, an engineer and father of artist Chris Burden who recruited Tannen to work on a plan for the redevelopment of the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Camille swept through the region in 1969. That was Tannen’s entry point to the South, where he found a home and a new freedom for his art and planning practice.
Tannen’s freewheeling creativity is tempered by an underlying seriousness and existential anxiety. His art has always circled the idea of disaster. Sometimes his sculptures have a practical application: together with Frank Gehry, Tannen designed a form of modular emergency housing based on shotgun-house building blocks. In other cases, Tannen’s sculptures have taken the form of obtuse, awkwardly placed objects that force the viewer to ask difficult questions. In 2008, he placed four boulders marked with the points of the compass (N.E.W.S) around a former Confederate monument that stood at the center of Lee Circle in New Orleans. Last summer, he bought a 74-passenger lifeboat from a movie prop shop and installed it on Julia Street, the city’s main stretch of galleries, for the occasion of White Linen Night. Dressed as a lifeguard, he invited passersby to register for a seat on board, drawing attention to the fact of rising sea levels. The lifeboat—once a working vessel, then a prop in storage, then part of an art performance—is now a sculpture.
For Tannen, art is a means of imagining futures for a planet increasingly ill-suited to living organisms. “Everything is part of an evolving process,” he said. “I view the universe as a huge memory bank, a vast invisibility. Science, art, and mathematics are all ways of tapping into that memory bank, generating new forms and ideas which become part of our visible world.”
Visitors who make it to the museum in Lafayette can see and experience Tannen’s work. Others will catch sight of his sculptures when passing by the house on Esplanade. Sometimes he’s there, standing by the garden gate to engage people in conversation. “It’s important to talk with everyone,” he explained, “regardless of how much you have in common. It’s a way of expanding the data set. We can only act in accordance with what we know and see.”