Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Zimmerman earned a B.A. in psychology with a minor in fine arts from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1968. Following graduation, she joined the offices of Charles and Ray Eames in Venice, California, as an assistant to the head photographer, while also pursuing an M.F.A at UCLA, studying painting and photography under artists Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Heineken. During this time, Zimmerman became immersed in the Light and Space Art Movement, led by such Los Angeles-based artists as Robert Irwin and Maria Nordman. Originating in Southern California during the 1950s, the movement was characterized by the use of materials such as glass, fluorescent light, and cast acrylic to create installations that experimented with sensory phenomena, including space, light, and scale.
National Geographic Society Headquarters, Washington, D.C. - Photo courtesy Elyn Zimmerman, 1984
Following her graduation in 1972, Zimmerman began teaching art at California State University, in Humboldt, before accepting a second teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, California, in 1974. She also began experimenting in installation design, establishing principles in form, space, and natural elements that would serve as the foundations of her artistic career. Her installations, using such materials as mirrors, tape, glass, and videography, were featured in the Berkeley Art Museum in 1974, the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in 1977, and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979. In 1976 Zimmerman was awarded an Artist Fellowship Award from the National Endowment of the Arts, leading her to travel to India to study sacred and historic sites, including Ellora and Ajanta. The experience inspired her to refocus her career on creating meaningful public spaces using the combined disciplines of sculpture, architecture, and landscape architecture. Following such artists as Constanin Brâncuși and Isamu Noguchi, and continuing to draw inspiration from prehistoric, archaeological, and geological sites around the world, including Machu Picchu in Peru and the cave of Altamira in Spain, Zimmerman created installations that experimented with the interplay of the tangible and the illusionary using natural elements, including stones, light, texture, and water. Early explorations into these dichotomies produced the temporary sculptural projects Monarch’s Trough in Lewiston, New York, in 1978; Conduit, placed at the University of Hartford (Connecticut) in 1978; Sightlines I, featured at the 1981 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York; and the installation Black Pool II at the Chicago Museum of Art in 1979.
Shortly afterwards, Zimmerman was selected by architect David Childs of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to create a public artwork for the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. Zimmerman’s first large-scale commission, the sculptural project MARABAR, named for the fictional caves in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, consists of a rectangular reflecting pool with recessed edges placed amid five granite boulders, three of which have polished reflecting surfaces that mirror each across the water. The boulders sink below the pavement, which is also elevated above the pool, giving the appearance that the work’s natural elements antedate the surrounding built plaza. Completed in 1984, MARABAR garnered international acclaim and led to a number of private and public commissions across the globe, including the public projects Terrain, placed at O’Hare International Center in 1987, the World Trade Center Memorial in 1995 (since lost in the 9/11 attacks), and Assembly of Friends at the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania in 2004. Zimmerman’s site-specific projects required her to frequent quarries across the Midwest. Her time spent photographing fields of discarded granite inspired her to create stand-alone object sculpture. Completed in 1990, her first such artwork, Stalled Cairn, made of clefted granite, was exhibited in Los Angeles in 1991, and then New York in 1992.
Working at Cold Spring Granite - Photo courtesy Elyn Zimmerman, 2017
Zimmerman’s recent artworks include the permanent project Mississippi Meander, created for the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Completed in 2019, the project is significant as Zimmerman’s first work using architectural glass. Mississippi Meander consists of a steel-reinforced bridge made of laminated, tempered glass panels embedded with images derived from geologist Harold Fisk’s color-coded maps tracing the historic deltaic cycles of the Mississippi River. Zimmerman has served as a visiting professor at various institutions, including the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia. Her work has earned numerous awards, including three Artist Fellowship Awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Japan-U.S. Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship, the Noguchi Award, alongside artist Tadao Ando, in 2016, and the Roy Lichtenstein Residency at the American Academy in Rome.
Beardsley, John et al. (2017) Elyn Zimmerman: Places + Projects, Forty Years. Hamilton: Grounds for Sculpture.
Zimmerman, Elyn. "Projects" www.elynzimmerman.com (accessed March 23, 2020).
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