At its best, public sculpture is stirring and inspiring. At its worst, it's an assault on the senses -- a visual blight that prompts passers-by to avoid eye contact or (in extreme cases) attack the art with invective, graffiti, or even legal threats of removal. San Francisco has its share of divisive sculpture. Consider Cupid's Span, the giant red bow and arrow on the Embarcadero, which is a classic case of good intentions gone awry. Done in 2002 by the New York-based team of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the sculpture -- "inspired by San Francisco's reputation as the home port of Eros" -- is whimsical but way too trivial for its size and placement. Life is too short to stand in front of works like Cupid's Span. Instead, visit these free public sculptures, which should resonate with art lovers of all tastes.
Visitors to Paris' Rodin Museum see The Thinker there and often believe it's the only sculpture of its kind, but The Thinker at the Legion of Honor is also an original, bought in 1915 from the artist himself by San Francisco socialite Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Later, she donated it -- and the Legion of Honor -- to the city. This bronze Thinker, like the others executed in Paris, is a monumental work that depicts a nude man in the middle of serious contemplation. Located in the front courtyard of the museum, which is open to anyone, The Thinker is timeless art -- an iconic rendering that inspires many visitors to take photos of themselves standing at the sculpture's wide base.
Stephen De Staebler's Angel, in a building entrance at 720 Market (near Third St.), is a mysterious, semi-abstract presence -- a winged figure without eyes and other facial features, who is standing at attention, as if waiting for instructions on what to do next. De Staebler, who died last year, has said his angel sculptures symbolize the power to change life's outcomes -- but that these flying figures also have their limitations. It's this fine (tense) line between wishful thinking and diminished expectations that makes Angel so intriguing.
The parade of sculptures at the Palace of Fine Arts date to 1915, when the palace was built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The most intriguing sculptures are the women holding onto the upper heights of one structure, their faces hidden as we see them from behind. For years, people have debated what the women represent. Introspection? The possibility of life without seeing art? Whatever the explanation, the sculptures are thought-provoking. Located at Lyon and Bay streets in the Marina, the Palace of Fine Arts offers a setting that has no equal in San Francisco.