By Suzanne Brancaccio, Jillann Hertel, Taylor Ruby, and Charles Schultz
February 5, 2021
Back in 2010, on the occasion of the exhibition Statuesque, which was on display in City Hall Park in downtown Manhattan, four students in the MFA Art Writing program—Suzanne Brancaccio, Jillann Hertel, Taylor Ruby, and Charles Schultz—together offered a concentrated meditation on the meaning of public art. While Ruby considered the entirety of Statuesque with a critical lens, Brancaccio examined in-depth the implications of one particular work on display in that show, Sylwia (2010) by Pawel Althamer made in conjunction with the Nowolipie Group, an assembly of artists with disabilities with whom Althamer worked. Elsewhere, Schultz reflected upon Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo (1967), better known as “The Cube,” which has long been a beloved totem (and convenient meeting spot) located in Astor Place in New York’s East Village. Finally, Hertel appraises another iconic work of public art in New York, the infamous Charging Bull (1989) by Arturo Di Modica, located outside of the New York Stock Exchange building, and considered by many to symbolize the capitalist might of the city, and of the United States. New York, with its abundance of short- and long-term public works and projects, has historically been a testing ground for public art. What do citizens cleave to? What do they reject? And what makes a given work controversial, or allows it to stand the test of time? Through these four short essays, the writers offer an inquiry into political value of public artworks.
—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
In 1981, Richard Serra installed Tilted Arc (1981), a gently curving 12-foot high, 120-foot long wall of steel into the open space dividing the two buildings that make up the Federal Plaza in New York City. Commissioned by the United States General Services Administration under the national Arts-in-Architecture program, the piece was met with an abundance of disapproval from the workers in the surrounding offices, and as a result was removed on March 15, 1989, nearly a decade after its installation. More than 20 years later, it is interesting to wonder whether Titled Arc altered the course of future public art projects in New York. It might be worthwhile to look at some other instances where art and politics have collided, as well as the most recent examples of public art in New York, to get a sense of Tilted Arc’s impact.
In 2000, when the Brooklyn Museum hosted the Sensation exhibition, the show caused a stir both publicly and politically. Self-described artist Scott LoBaido chucked manure at the museum’s facade, and 72-year-old Dennis Heiner smeared white paint across Chris Olfili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996). At the same time, then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani deemed the show offensive and withheld the museum’s monthly funding, while also threatening eviction if it was not taken down. Similarly, this past summer curators from Moscow’s Sakharov Museum, Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, faced five-year prison sentences for their exhibition Forbidden Art — 2006. In the end, the two were found guilty on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred, but were given a lesser sentence of fines. In both examples, it is reasonable to assume that these institutions would want to avoid similar incidents, and although it is not a direct form of censorship the threat of potential repercussions will impede their future programming. Has something similar happened to public art in New York in response to the Titled Arc fiasco?
Some recent examples suggest a possible answer. Take, for instance, the Statuesque exhibition currently at City Hall Park. The aim of this collection of sculptures is to contribute to the lineage of the statue in public spaces, and as such the works are human-scale, and will be on display for a short period of time. The same set of characteristics were seen in Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon (2010), where 31 mannequin-like figures were positioned atop buildings for five months. These two projects suggest a brand of public art that accepts the boundaries imposed on work shown in galleries rather than embracing the limitless possibilities of open space. Although in Gormley’s case the placement of the work counters this, the scale of the pieces and having them on view only temporarily are heavy restrictions.
Whether you feel that the removal of Serra’s sculpture was warranted as a democratically arrived decision to eliminate an intrusive eyesore (voted upon by the workers of the buildings, and passed by a slim margin) or you see it as a form of censorship, there is no denying the bureaucratic drudgery that faces any form of public work in a city of New York’s size. Something is bringing down the potential for creativity and ingenuity in public art. Is it a kind of political correctness? Can something be done to rescue the public forum from artistic monotony?
Pawel Althamer and the Nowolipie Group’s Sylwia (2010)
With the current exhibition Statuesque, City Hall Park has been transformed into an outdoor museum, enlivening an otherwise typical New York City bastion of simulated nature. Curator and Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume has invited six international contemporary artists to present their large-scale figurative sculptural work, all commonly defiant of naturalism, on the park’s lawns and walkways.
Most of the works make a point of announcing their presence. Aaron Curry’s aluminum cutouts of Picasso-inspired creatures add an unwanted touch of glaringly fluorescent color to the otherwise neutral park surroundings. Atop a high pedestal facing the fountain, Huma Bhaba’s deformed bronze figure sits regally on a throne, forcing viewers to peer up at its startling, skeletal form, and Thomas Houseago’s enormous bronze Untitled (Red Man) (2008) looms overhead like a confused and socially awkward giant. All of these sculptures aggressively assert themselves, making no attempt to blend into the park’s environment.
An exception is Pawel Althamer and the Nowolipie Group’s Sylwia (2010). That’s not to say it’s discrete: a large, silvery, aluminum figure of a woman lazes in the grass with one leg up, head tossed back in restful complacency. With its blocky chunks of disjointed metal, her naked body would appear almost robotic if not for its oddly organic quality; in particular, details carved out on the torso suggest a bellybutton, rib cage, and two breasts, one of which has been cast from the top of a liter sized soda bottle. Thrown back over her head, her hands lay distorted in a mess of hair that has pooled into the ground and sprouted small, partially formed human bodies that take respite in her tangled halo.
While the Warsaw-based artist is formally trained in sculpture, his career as an artist has also included film, performance, and happenings that often become local community events. His collaborators in this particular piece, the Nowolipie Group, are a group of adult patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and other physical disabilities that he has been instructing in ceramics workshops for several years. Their cooperative effort has resulted in a sculpture with a heavy physicality and a faint realism alongside a mystical, dreamlike quality.
Sylwia performs a common act, embodying the beauty of public parks in a place like New York City: stepping off the hard concrete to take some time to lie down in the grass. She doesn’t demand attention, and she doesn’t cause a scene; she merely resides in her own altered reality, away from the hectic anonymity of the city streets. While all of the artists in the exhibition present successful works that represent a new figurative trend in sculpture, that of Althamer and the Nowolipie group is the only one that speaks directly to its environment, to the New York City ritual of taking peaceful relief in the park and letting the fast-paced anxiety of the streets fade into the background.
Produced by the Public Art Fund, the sculptures of six artists are currently being exhibited at City Hall Park (through Dec. 3, 2010) in the show Statuesque. Ten figurative pieces, highly influenced by primitivist works from the early 20th century, are sited around the grounds of the park. Mostly made between 2007 and 2010, the pieces range from ancient-looking masses, to sleek contemporary statuary.
Setting the tone for the entire exhibition, Rebecca Warren’s haunting bronze figure rests on a pedestal at the park’s Broadway entrance. Large Concretized Monument to the Twentieth Century (2007) is a grotesque and vaguely female throng of tumor-like parts attached to twiggy appendages making up arms and legs. Strained with the weight of its massive bulbous body, the figure, slightly hunched with feet that recall two-ton bricks, appears to be hauling the burden of proletariat woes.
Once past the main gates, Thomas Houseago resumes the figurative representation of a weighty, emotionally encumbered image of man. While Untitled (Red Man) (2008) and Untitled (Sprawling Octopus Man) (2009) demand the viewer’s immediate attention due to sheer size, Untitled (Lumpy Figure) (2009) requires a more discerning look into its poignant posture and lingering eyeless stare. As the title suggests, the body is made of bumpy, tubular parts that twist and wind like spaghetti-textured skin. Head and shoulders are lowered and the figure’s left arm reaches around his neck, massaging away nervous tension. Evoking the businesspeople who walk through City Hall Park daily, this exhausted figure looks as though he too is trudging home after a hard day’s work.
While Matthew Monahan’s Nation Builder (2010) and Huma Bhabha’s The Orientalist (2007) suggest ancient African statuary forms (perhaps even more so within this particular exhibition, as their placement among more contemporary styles casts a rather antiquated tinge), Aaron Curry’s three florescent colored aluminum sculptures casually evoke the amorphous figures of Miró paired with the creature-human hybrids of Picasso’s Guernica (1937).
Pawel Althamer’s reclining nude Sylwia (2010) is the only other female figure represented. Overtly sexual, with her back arched and arms stretched above her head, this sculpture pays homage to Fellini’s sultry muse in La Dolce Vita (1960). Pieced together from all sorts of materials (including plastic bottles and bubble wrap) then cast in aluminum, Sylwia looks more like a carved slab of glittering meat than a human being. The longer the viewer lingers, however, the more the initial sexuality falls away; Sylwia becomes mother to the earth as her hair, tangled in her fingers, turns into a watery landscape for smaller Matisse-like figures. This notion of the anxiety-driven individual eternally grounded in the natural world is what threads all of these pieces together.
Bernard “Tony” Rosenthal’s Alamo (1967)
There is no market for monuments, thankfully, though the thought of auctioning off the Lincoln Memorial is an amusing one. There isn’t much in the way of aesthetic criticism either and museums don’t tend to collect this vein of public art. So how does one evaluate such work? Does the criteria change since the context is the street rather than the gallery? Let’s consider Alamo, at Astor Place.
Ask people in the East Village if they’ve seen Alamo and your typical response will be something like, “The what? A Texan battle in downtown New York? Are you on drugs?” Then ask if they’ve ever spun “The Cube” and lights of recognition will begin to flash. You’ll hear stories that go back to the sixties. It turns out everybody loves “The Cube” and nobody knows Alamo. They are one and the same sculpture.
Created by Bernard “Tony” Rosenthal (1914-2009), Alamo was one of 25 sculptures commissioned by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in 1967 as part of the exhibition Sculpture and the Environment. The exhibition was scheduled to close in six months and the sculptures to be removed, but the art students at Cooper Union were so enamored with Alamo that they petitioned for its permanence, and won.
Fabricated out of Cor-Ten steel, the sculpture is a big black cube (15 feet tall to be exact) that rests—and can be spun—on one of its points. People like to spin the cube, and they do it all the time. Homeless folks use it for shelter. Aesthetically it’s not winning any prizes, unless awards are going out for drab minimalism. Conceptually nobody’s got a clue what Alamo is meant to relate to—how could they without knowledge of the original title or the artist who made it?
So why is this thing so loveable? For one, it does something neither museum nor gallery art can do: function as a landmark. It is simply a big black cube, easily describable in any language and visible from many directions. As such, it’s sunk into the collective conscious of many New Yorkers, the base image from which countless memories of the East Village begin.
Alberto Giacometti once quipped that he’d prefer to be totally forgotten so that his work could be free of him. Considering Giacometti’s current status that will probably never happen, however such fate seems to have fallen on Tony Rosenthal. Not only has “The Cube” been emancipated from its maker, but as well from the name he gave it. It may as well be considered anew, and if it can be said to memorialize anything it should be the activism of the art students who embraced it so wholly as to make it a permanent fixture in the neighborhood. If good public art elicits positive public expression, then “The Cube” should be considered a masterpiece.
Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull (1989)
In guerilla style, following the stock market crash of 1987, Italian-American artist Arturo Di Modica installed a 7,100 pound bronze sculpture titled Charging Bull (1989) in front of the New York Stock Exchange. The police seized the illegal artwork and sent it to an impound lot. However public support resulted in the city relocating it to Bowling Green Park near Wall Street. Since its 1989 installation, it has become one of the most recognizable public sculptures in New York City and possibly the world. The bull stands 11 feet tall and 16 feet long and cost the artist $360,000 to make. Charging Bull is fiercely frozen with flared nostrils and an angry-browed gaze. He leans to his left, his massive hooves planted firmly on the stone and cement median he stands on, his spine arching above his head as his tail whips in the air as though he’s paused briefly to reassess his next violent jolt forward.
Di Modica reportedly intended him to be an ode to capitalism and the sculpture has long been interpreted as symbolic for the might of Wall Street. Time has repeatedly shown us, however, that the stock market and the American dollar are not immune from the crippling effects of our capitalist system in a downward spiral. Of course as (or once) we bounce back from yet another recession, the sculpture continues to represent a sort of strength and resilience.
But an alternate reading could be that the sculpture is symbolic of a bullfight or the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Interestingly, such contexts are the only times we are going to see a real bull acting in an aggressive, predatory manner. From this angle, Charging Bull could actually be poised to stampede in opposition to the system based on his demeanor and whereabouts. He appears to defy his manmade environment with his simple will to persevere in spite of human greed and its consequential havoc. From this perspective Charging Bull is a work of art representative of a natural transcendent will within a confined artificial setting.
Given the usual reading of the sculpture, and what the sculpture actually embodies, Charging Bull is in fact an incredible contradiction. While it may now be impossible to ignore his appropriation as a steamrolling representative of capitalism, an irony lies within the bull himself, as an actual bull could not be less concerned with capital and only assumes the position of the “charge” due to human provocation.