America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

Leaf shaped stenciled cocoa mats grouped together and spread over gallery floor, next to house sculpture and other artworks.

Installation view, America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2006.

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Kate Ericson
Mel Ziegler
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Organized by the MIT List Visual Arts Center and the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler is the first retrospective exhibition of the art-making team’s decade-long career, which was cut short by Ericson’s death of cancer at the age of 39 in 1995.

The exhibition features 20 works made between 1984 and 1994, including: five installations; more than a dozen object-based works; numerous drawings and plans for unrealized works; and documentation of public art projects for which they were known. America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler offers a fresh assessment of the artists’ contributions to the re-definition of public art in the early ’80s in a way that was re-engaging with the diverse communities.  

Ericson and Ziegler’s work focuses on unnoticed aspects of public life, by transforming ordinary materials-books, lumber, house paint, canning jars, tap water, to name a few-into artworks with social meaning and commentaries. Rather than impose a conspicuous work of art upon a site or situation, the artists devised projects that altered sites subtly, using poetic language and their idiosyncratic wit to illuminate mainstream American contexts and highlight individual community issues.

While their public art projects often focused on cultural institutions — including museums, monuments, and civic buildings — as sites for active engagement, their work incorporated voices of the ordinary people too often unheard in the world of contemporary art.

The title artwork, America Starts Here, is a 1988 mixed-media installation named after a 1980’s slogan promoting tourism to Philadelphia, once the nation’s capital. To suggest the city’s cycle of early history, industrial boom, and urban decay, Ericson and Ziegler removed more than a hundred broken windowpanes and green plastic replacement panels from an abandoned factory in South Philadelphia, sandblasted them with maps of transportation arteries such as rivers, rails, and roads, and displayed them in positions corresponding to their original places in the old factory’s façade.

Other mixed-media works incorporate farmers’ feed and seed bags, jars of baby food, etched architectural stone samples, and some 80 perfumes custom-designed to capture the scents of pies from many regions of the U.S. A flat-screen presentation will display early works such as Ericson’s Rock Extension (1979), a New England-style stone wall that crossed a Houston lawn, mounted the porch, and proceeded straight through the house.

In the mid- to late-1980s, the couple began to redefine the terms of public art, then widely castigated for its generic-looking artworks. “We tried to fit ourselves into an existing urban pattern, to infiltrate something about to happen anyway and to make art out of it,” said Ziegler. Their Loaded Text (1989) featured the two artists handcopying the 65-page text of a downtown-revitalization plan for Durham, N.C., onto one of the city’s badly cracked sidewalks. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a 216-page exhibition catalogue includes descriptions of all Ericson and Ziegler projects as well as photographs and installation views of their exhibitions and previously unpublished and never-before-exhibited plans and drawings from their archives. The catalogue contains essays by exhibition curators Arning and Berry, an interview with Ziegler, and an extensive biography and bibliography. In addition, curators who originally commissioned Ericson and Ziegler’s public works — Judith Hoos Fox, Kathy Goncharov, Mary Jane Jacob, Patricia Phillips, Lane Relyea, Ned Rifkin, Valerie Smith, and Judith Tannenbaum — provide texts about their experiences of working with the artists.


 America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler has been generously sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency, Peter Norton Family Foundation, The Judith Rothschild Foundation (given in recognition of Kate Ericson), and the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation. The Cambridge presentation is generously supported by Massachusetts Cultural Council and Council for the Arts at MIT. Media sponsor: Phoenix Media Communications Group. Phoenix Media Communications Group.