A jolting new sculpture that marks a new era for Albright-Knox Art Gallery's public presence has arisen on the gallery grounds.

The 60-foot-tall piece, a grand floral explosion assembled from dozens of silver canoes in a gravity-defying configuration, is the work of Los Angeles artist Nancy Rubins. Her boat-based sculptures have been raising art-world eyebrows on opposite coasts for the past half-decade.

Rubins' newest work has been doing more than that on Elmwood Avenue, where drivers were slowing to a crawl to watch workers stringing more and more nautical branches onto Rubins' rapidly growing tree. Earlier this week, as members of Rubins' crew in safety harnesses scaled the piece like urban mountaineers while Rubins grumbled commands into a walkie-talkie, passengers leaned out of car windows and craned their necks for a better look at the undertaking.

"We get lots of screamers," said gallery curator Heather Pesanti, referring to passing drivers yelling words of encouragement (or perhaps derision) at the workers. The piece, which Rubins has not yet titled, will have its official debut in a ceremony and fundraiser scheduled June 30.

It is a dramatic change from the work it is succeeding. For more than 40 years, a towering, diamond-shaped sculpture by Antoni Milkowski stood tall on the west lawn of the Albright-Knox. It was a sleek, minimalist form that gradually fused itself into the landscape and became an icon of the gallery's identity.

But back in early May, crews quickly removed the sculpture and shipped it off for restoration before it is reinstalled elsewhere on the Albright-Knox grounds. In its place, the new work by Rubins has been growing over the past two weeks.

Though the artist declined to discuss the work as she and her crew worked feverishly to finish it, Albright-Knox Director Louis Grachos was eager to place the new sculpture in the context of the gallery's history and its future trajectory.

>Creating new dynamic

"When I first got here, the campus hadn't really been addressed for a long time," he said. "The sculpture was pretty much in place for, oh, 20 years, and things hadn't shifted and changed.

"We talked about how we could create a new dynamic in and around the campus, and we have a long list of artists we were excited about."

Rubins was at the top of that list. As was the famed environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose imaginative heated-rock project on the gallery's east lawn has faced some engineering challenges and is shooting for completion in the fall.

Also new to the grounds is Do Ho Suh's 23-foot-tall sculpture "Karma," part of last year's Beyond/In Western New York exhibition, which replaced a 2006 piece made of bright blue driftwood by Shayne Dark. Before that, the more recent major permanent piece to go on view on the grounds was Liam Gillick's 2005 sculpture "Stacked Revision," near the steps.

In this way, after decades of relative stasis, the gallery's campus is changing to reflect the currents of contemporary public sculpture, in much the same way the inside of gallery has long reflected the quickening pulse of contemporary painting, installation and small-scale sculpture.

>A logical evolution

Pesanti and Grachos were quick to note, however, that Rubins' head-spinning riot of silver canoes is not meant as some affront to the classic minimalist form it replaced, but as a logical evolution that reveres the past even as it charges into the future. It sits next to Kenneth Snelson's elegant 1982 sculpture "Four Chances," four steel poles suspended in perfect tension in much the same way Rubins' canoes are improbably supported by a meticulously engineered network of steel wires.

Rubins' work also takes plenty of cues from the iconic sculptor David Smith, whose 1953 piece "Tanktotem IV" resides in the gallery's collection and which Grachos mentioned as an obvious predecessor.

Rubins' piece, however, takes the boldness of Smith's forms and the engineered elegance of Snelson's structure and adds something new and utterly contemporary: the sense that her sculpture is a kind of explosion caught in mid-motion just after the flash-point, its pieces hanging in the air in ways that appear at first glance to be impossible. Along with all that, Rubins' sculptures mirror parts of the natural world, often resembling trees or plants in bloom as much as the result of some violent explosion.

For Grachos, Rubins' piece embodies exactly the sort of head-turning appeal to which public sculpture should aspire.

"To me, public art really works when people engage with it in that way. Maybe it's first out of curiosity, and then it becomes exploring underneath it and around it and then learning that it's multidimensional," Grachos said. From that, he hopes, passers-by will be ushered into the gallery itself, which is gearing up for a much buzzed-about exhibition of new video work called "Videosphere," slated to open July 1.

Pesanti also noted the fact that a major part of the gallery's new public face was the work of a female artist -- the only woman whose work is featured outside the gallery and a sign that the old order of male-dominated artwork is dissolving at long last.

>New energy

"Back in the day, it really was much more of a boys' club, and I think anyone who disputes the fact that it's time for a massive, really important female sculptor on our lawn is talking crazy," Pesanti said. On top of that, the piece signifies the rising appearance of Los Angeles-bred artwork in and around the gallery, which has also hosted recent exhibitions of work by L.A. artists Ingrid Calame, Ed Ruscha and many others.

Bringing a little bit of the edgy Los Angeles art scene to Elmwood Avenue, Grachos hopes, will help build momentum for creating a more unified Museum District (with the Burchfield Penney Art Center directly across the street) and perhaps ignite a new energy and appreciation for public sculpture in Buffalo that has long been lacking.

"With public sculpture, there was a moment there where everyone thought it was dead," Grachos said. "But I think there's a cycle now where all of us are starting to see how public art can engage. My hope with Nancy's piece is that it will have that capacity, to re-engage this area and the space, but also re-engage how we think about art, how we think about our city."