Artist: John Wilson // Bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. // In Martin Luther King, Jr. Park
John Wilson's 8-foot tall bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. installed in October 1983 in the park named for its subject, and no doubt now dusted with several inches of snow, is one of Buffalo's most imposing public sculptures.
It looks out stoically across the vast expanse of the park, a hulking symbol of the park's namesake and the spirit of defiant optimism and perseverance that characterizes his legacy.
Last week, we learned that Wilson, an artist who lived and worked in Brookline, Mass., had died at 92. Of his formidable body of paintings and sculptures, none are more widely viewed or revered than his tributes to King. And one of the best examples of that career-defining work sits right here in Buffalo, in a quiet corner of one of the city's most handsome Olmsted parks.
Like any piece of public artwork -- we're looking at you, "Shark Girl" -- Wilson's tribute to King was not universally loved at the time of its installation, nor is it now. Some critics remain upset that Wilson's statue does not bear a precise enough resemblance to King. They oppose his somewhat more abstract approach, which depicts a kind of African American everyman as opposed to the exact features of its subject.
Here's Wilson on one of his King busts, quoted in The Boston Globe:
“To me the eloquence of the piece is not only in the face, but in the rhythms of the gesture,” Mr. Wilson told the Globe in 1986, just before the bust was unveiled in the Rotunda on what would have been King’s 57th birthday. “The head is tilted forward, as if to communicate with the viewer. I hope the sculpture will stimulate people to learn more about King, to perpetuate his struggle.”
I think Wilson's piece does this marvelously, though I understand why others may disagree.