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World's Fair Wave returns with new home in City Park

Editor's note: Sculptor Lynda Benglis will dedicate her work, The Wave, in its new location in City Park on Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 10:30 a.m. Afterward, the artist will talk about its journey from the 1984 World's Fair to its new location with curator of modern and contemporary art Katie Pfohl at the New Orleans Museum of Art, at 11:30 a.m. Both events are free to the public.

The Wave, created by Lynda Benglis for the 1984 World Exposition in Orleans, is finding a new home in City Park

The Wave, created by Lynda Benglis for the 1984 World Exposition in Orleans, is finding a new home in City Park

Sometimes, just sometimes, communities can actually get together to do something that transcends politics.

The greater New Orleans area will soon see such an event. Through a collaboration of the City of Kenner, New Orleans City Park and the folks at the Helis Foundation, the public good is going to be served in the most artistic of ways: with the installation of a very special, long-missing bronze sculpture. Created for the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans, The Wave is getting a new home in City Park.

For Chris Alfieri, a New Orleans-based defense lawyer and lover of the visual arts, this journey bridging past and future has been an adventure of a most unusual kind. It all began with an unexpected phone call from Lynda Benglis, a Louisiana native who has made a name for herself as one of this country's most important contemporary artists. She had found a missing bronze artwork from her past -- and in a really odd place, too.

“Lynda told me that she had created for the 1984 World’s Expo a very special sculpture called The Wave, and that somehow it had ended up on a loading dock in a sewage treatment plant in Kenner,” Alfieri recalls. “It had been there for 30-plus years and she wanted to get hold of it so that she could repair and restore it. And did she think I could help her do that? Of course, my immediate response was yes.”

Sitting out on a loading dock for decades had not been kind to The Wave.

“It hadn't been seen by the public since the early 1980s,” Alfieri continues. “I’m not exactly sure when it ended up in Kenner’s possession. We believe it was by donation. Basically, I believe, Kenner didn’t really know what to do with the work.”

But for Benglis, 73, who was born in Lake Charles and graduated cum laude from Newcomb College, Tulane University, The Wave was the first in an internationally important series of her work. It's the piece that she considers her master work.

She wanted to make a cast of the work, Alfieri says.

“She wasn’t looking to make a copy. She just sort of wanted to start where she left off and build upon that.”

And that is how Alfieri explained it to the City of Kenner administration which, by this time, had verified that Benglis was, indeed, a very important American artist.

“The Mayor’s office was very receptive, but I don’t think they fully understood the history of the piece,” Alfieri recalls. “But they were excited to know exactly where it had come from and what it was. And they were very excited to be partnering with us to bring it back to its former glory.

“What I tried to communicate to them then was how important it was to have the living artist restore it.”

Sculptor Lynda Benglis, photographed by Gretchen Wheaton at the Contemporary Arts Center during a visit to New Orleans in 2013 (Photo: Gretchen Wheaton)

Sculptor Lynda Benglis, photographed by Gretchen Wheaton at the Contemporary Arts Center during a visit to New Orleans in 2013 (Photo: Gretchen Wheaton)

By May 2014 an agreement was reached to allow Benglis to transport the sculpture back to the original foundry for repair. But shipping a 2-ton, 19-foot-tall sculpture to New York proved to be a challenge. Jessie Haynes, Deputy to the President of the Helis Foundation, picks up the story.

“So Chris Alfieri comes to the Helis Foundation and we start discussing the possibility of how The Wave can somehow be brought to public view for enjoyment by the entire community at large. That’s what the foundation does; we strive to bring arts access to the entirety of the New Orleans community.

“Aside from that being our mission, I, personally, as well as David Kerstein, the president of the Foundation, was very familiar with Lynda’s work. She has pieces at the New Orleans Museum of Art, at Ogden.”

But where to put such a large sculpture? At the top of their list: City Park.

“We started looking at sites within the park,” Haynes says. “And we all kind of agreed upon a site within the Big Lake.”

Benglis flew to New Orleans from New York to make the final decision on location based on its accessibility.

“And also because it reminded her of her childhood in Lake Charles,” Haynes says. “Because it has that kind of swampy, overgrown, very natural look.”

It's expensive to restore a piece like The Wave. But the unique collaboration of Helis, City of Kenner and City Park worked it out. The Helis Foundation has underwritten some of the repair, the shipment back from New York, and the installation costs in City Park. Benglis chipped in, too, restoring the sculpture at her own expense. Kenner has loaned the work for an extended period, and City Park has donated the space.

“We are just so excited to bring this person’s work to a new generation of New Orleanians to see.” Haynes says. “It’s exciting to be able to have a platform by which we can talk about Lynda’s work and honor the heritage of what’s she’s really done and who she is.”

Plans are being made to install The Wave and have it on view to the public in City Park this summer.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]