The wide variety of reactions I heard following my recent post on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates got me thinking about public art, which can be highly controversial, but which also becomes such a part of the everyday environment that people stop noticing it, like that bum that’s always on that certain corner every time you pass by. The Gates was only up for a few weeks, but most public sculpture stands for decades or even centuries. It is much more widely seen than any other kind of traditional visual artwork, but most of the artists are not well known. In preparing this post I researched the pictured sculptures so I could provide names and dates for them. In many cases it was easy to find pictures of these sculptures, but surprisingly difficult to find information about the artists, dates, etc. If you live in or have spent much time in New York, you’ll surely recognize many of these pieces, but I’ll bet you didn’t know the names of the artists, and if you look at the captions here you will see that most of them are not exactly famous names in art history. Public sculpture is ubiquitous but anonymous.
In this post we’ll take a look at a wide variety of public sculptures in New York City. I took most of these photos, but not all of them. The ones I didn’t take link back to where I found them on the web.
The lead picture above, with its incredible leaping energy, is in the Flushing Meadows Park location of the 1939 and 1964 Worlds Fairs. This sculpture has the Art Deco style of the 1930’s, but it was actually made for the ’64 fair, and its title, “The Rocket Thrower”, makes it a monument of the space age.
Here’s another allegorical naked man in Queens:
Queens congressman Anthony Weiner has recently created a lot of publicity for the old statue “Triumph of Civic Virtue“, calling it sexist and offensive, and suggesting it should be sold on Craigslist. This piece was originally installed in City Hall Park in Manhattan, but it was always controversial, as it presents an allegorical male figure of virtue standing victorious over two female siren or mermaid figures representing vice and corruption. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia finally “exiled” the statue to Queens in 1941, and there it has continued to be ignored or objected to to this day.
I wonder why we haven’t heard such controversy about another old-fashioned monument, the equestrian portrait of Teddy Roosevelt that stands in front of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. This statue shows Roosevelt on a horse, leading an Indian and a Negro who flank him on foot. I’m not sure what this sculpture is trying to say, but it seems to embody a kind of paternalist colonialism that we’re no longer comfortable with, and this piece is in a much more prominent location than “Civic Virtue”.
“Tilted Arc“, one of Richard Serra’s curved and leaning steel walls, was installed in Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan for eight years. People who worked in the area hated having to navigate around this 12-foot high, 120-foot long barrier, and it was eventually cut into pieces and removed, against Serra’s objections. I’ll side with the workers on this one. Serra’s space-bending works are quite popular when people can experience them in an appropriate location, but there is something oppressive about imposing such a wall on people who have no choice in the matter.
Of course, most public sculpture doesn’t arouse such animosity that it has to be chopped up and junked or put up for sale on Craigslist. Most commissioned memorial sculpture looks dated and stodgy as soon as it goes up, but it does add an element of human liveliness to the built environment. Plus, it’s very popular with the pigeons.
There must be hundreds of traditional bronze figurative monuments in the city, 19th century depictions of the Great Men of the era. The craftsmanship is classical but the style is stiff and generic. Sometimes an unusual point of view can make one of these into a fascinating abstraction.
There are stores that sell cast sculptures for private gardens, reflecting the common taste rather than the institutional preferences of public monuments. In the display below, I’m struck by the similarity between the busts of Elvis and David on the right, as well as the middle finger and “kiss my ass” sculptures in the front row.
Many public sculptures are war memorials. Such monuments exhibit an interesting range of styles. There’s the “realistic” depiction of the band of brothers-in-arms:
The gothic romance of the young soldier embraced by the angel of death:
And this depiction of the soldier as void. This reminds me of the traditional symbol of the “released spirit” in Jainism.
Gandhi is a different kind of warrior, a figure that is both a spiritual and a political icon.
Some sculptures salute the power of love, like these kissing cherubs, not a public monument but a type of decorative sculpture that adorns many homes in my neighborhood in Brooklyn.
A youthful and willowy Romeo and Juliet gaze into each other’s eyes outside the Central Park theater that hosts free Shakespeare in the Park every summer.
And these full body casts by George Segal commemorate the gay civil rights movement just outside the Stonewall Inn, where a 1969 riot sparked a rebellion of the oppressed.
Many sculptures use figures to depict the spirits of Nature, and the human connection with Nature, like this boy dancing with goats.
Or the irrepressible nature spirit Pan.
Or the trickster imp Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, best known as a character in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. This Puck shows us ourselves in a mirror.
Of course the supreme god in Manhattan is The Almighty Dollar. One of Manhattan’s Subway stations features many little bronze figures and scenes by Tom Otterness commenting upon both rich and poor in the money-driven society. These figures embody a cartoon aesthetic in the traditional monumental medium of cast bronze. Many people rub this moneybag head for luck as they pass by on their way to transfer trains.
Mr. Moneybags isn’t the only sculpture people touch like a sacred relic. The atrium of the very upscale shopping mall at the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle is dominated by two gigantic rotund bronze nudes, “Adam” and “Eve”, by Botero. So many tourists are compelled to touch Adam’s penis that it shines in a golden color, while the rest of the figure is dark bronze.
This magnificent pagan goddess, Cybele, was a powerful presence in Manhattan’s Soho district for over a decade, but she’s gone now. This depiction is a modern variation on the many-breasted Artemis of Ephesus.
These natural spirits can be embodied in a more abstract mode. Alexander Calder applied his unique sense of organic form to the modern medium of riveted steel sculpture. Look how beautifully the angles of the Calder “Saurien” are reflected in the angles of the buildings across the street from it, particularly the faceted glass LVMH building, second from the right in the top photo below. ( The LVMH building was constructed a quarter century after the sculpture was installed.)
About a block away from the Calder, another abstract modernist work portraying an embodiment of life force is Joan Miró’s “Moonbird”. (If you look closely on the left of this picture, it appears that Pam Grier is heading for a meeting with Walt Whitman.)
“Alamo”, better known as the Astor Place Cube, has long been popular despite its dry formalism because it rotates on its base if you give it a good firm push.
I’ll conclude with what I consider one of the ugliest public sculptures in New York, though this picture flatters it a bit. This one has a chunk of boulder, a replica of the hand from the equestrian George Washington statue across the street from it, bricks with gold leaf ringing an aperture that puffs out steam, and, unseen in this picture, a deliberately unreadable enormous digital clock display that is supposed to express “the impossibility of knowing time”. This piece is the ultimate example of the hazards of art that is concept-driven and committee-chosen. The artists’ website on this piece describes the significance of the elements of the piece, but understanding it doesn’t really improve it.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the subject of public art here, even restricting myself to a single city and to work that can be considered sculpture. In case of a future follow-up post, I’d include Greg Wyatt’s “Peace Fountain” near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Eric Fischl’s Arthur Ashe memorial, Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Wall Street Bull, and . . . well, please send me your suggestions!