Public art, especially public sculpture, all too often breeds many misperceptions and unnecessary controversy.  While the placement of public artwork is frequently in an effort to bolster the pride of the community around this work of art, the original intentions are unfortunately, at times, misunderstood.  In “Public Art and Public Perception,” Harriet F. Senie eloquently describes the problems we face with public art in our communities.  Senie explains that in a museum or gallery, the audience has voluntarily decided to view and interact with the work, while in a public space it is more or less forced upon them.  She says: “An involuntary audience in a public place has as its primary frame of reference the context of daily life.  Without an art context, usually provided as a matter of course to an already informed audience in a museum, a general audience must rely on literal comparison…or generic category…” (240).  These literal comparisons and general categories often result in exclusion on the part of the public from the necessary information to process the object, allowing misinterpretations of the artwork and its reason for inclusion in the communal space to arise, which subsequently breeds controversy.

This issue of public perception is one which we have spent a good deal of the semester discussing, and is an issue which I have grappled with in the past.  Living in a city like New York, where public art is nearly everywhere you turn, it isn’t difficult to understand that at least some of what has been placed on public view would spark controversy – because there is so much of it, the odds are much higher that something will find distaste among the community.  Proper signage is the most obvious, and perhaps, simplest solution to the problem of common controversy, as educating the masses can promote a collected acceptance of something unfamiliar.

In a Library Science course last fall, a few classmates and I conceptualized a mobile application that would aggregate all of the information on public works of art and use geolocating technology to allow users to get more information about the public works of art they were viewing at the time they were viewing them.  We modeled the idea on our own desires to know more about what art is exhibited around town, and the only online sources we could find that really did that was the Public Art Fund, which really only provides information for projects which it brought to the city, or specific park websites, which ultimately requires more research, allowing for the potential for users to lose interest before finding what they were originally looking for.  We wanted one site that provided information on all of the work being exhibited in public in New York City so that it was the easiest possible way for the public to gain information, in an effort to squash any possible misinterpretations or controversy.  It is still kind of a pipe dream of mine to realize this app, but my resources are limited and it is likely that someone else will create, or has already created, something similar.

That project is really what made me want to take Sculpture and the Public Imagination, and ultimately I feel that this course helped me gain valuable insight into the issues surrounding public works of art.  And not only public art, but public perception of private art, as well.  One thing that really stuck with me with regard to sculpture was something we learned on the first day of class: the haptic response.  The haptic response is the innate desire to touch objects to know more about them, a primal response to the physicality of an object.  This desire for the tactile, the tangible, is something I have thought about constantly in the context of this course.  I found that this primal response was always in the back of my mind – at Dia Beacon all I wanted to do was run my fingers along the sides of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses; at Governor’s Island I just had to stand on the face of the Statue of Liberty; on our walk through Lower Manhattan I desperately wanted to climb into the hole in Noguchi’s Red Cube, and could see the hand prints of those who had actually tried.  And there is a very distinct difference in where I will allow myself to physically interact with artwork – if it is in a private institution, touching is absolutely prohibited, but when a work of art is put into the public sphere (even though museums are for the public) the work is subjected to far more interaction on the part of the viewer.  When something foreign enters our physical space, we want to interact with it, and while works in a museum occupy the same physical space as those in public in terms of distance, it is the institution of the museum that impresses upon us the social custom of not interacting with the object.  And I don’t really have an opinion either way as to whether it is ultimately beneficial or disadvantageous for the public to physically interact with public works, but it is interesting to consider the lack of socially imposed constraints on doing so when a work is in public.

As my last post in the context of this course, I have really enjoyed reflecting on these issues, and many others, in the past 14 weeks.  I hope that I will continue to put my musings on local art into print, but knowing myself, it will probably be very sporadic.  Who knows, maybe if I eventually turn that mobile app into reality, I’ll have more interesting things to write about.

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Site specific public art brings with it a certain amount of controversy.  In “Public Art and Public Perception,” Harriet F. Senie explains several reasons for controversy to arise with public art, namely lack of information, public misunderstanding, money, and misperception of power or danger.  All too often, the placement of public sculpture is without any context or relevant historical information about the piece exhibited, furthering unnecessary and misguided public perception based on their own fabricated understanding of a foreign object in their familiar space.  One memorable work that Senie describes is Titled Arc by Richard Serra, an artist who always claims his sculptures are site-specific.  Titled Arc was placed in Federal Plaza in 1981 and sparked so much controversy that it was eventually removed, and thus removed from its original site specific context.  The public likened it to the Berlin Wall, while government officials vouched for its potential dangers in the case of an explosion near the sculpture.

Richard Serra, Titled Arc, 1981

Site specificity also caused major controversy with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.  The issues surrounding memorial sculptures are often far more sensitive than those that come up with a public work of art.  I mentioned in my previous post in reference to the 9/11 Memorial that far more information is divulged with the creation of a national memorial because it is far more likely that more lives will be affected than with a work of public art.  And, there is the very important and sensitive issue that with a memorial death and, unfortunately, politics are involved.  Charles L. Griswold explains in “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington Mall” that memorials, and especially war memorials, become a symbol of that time or those lives that it is erected to commemorate.  He also explains that it is not helpful to consider memorials only in aesthetic terms, as we have to first take into account the meaning it has for those who visit them (73).  There were many opponents to Lin’s design for the memorial, those who hated its dark color and thought it to be a scar in the earth, but these factors, as well as its position on The Mall, facing both the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, were very important to Lin as site specific qualities which strengthened the symbolic nature of the memorial.  To have the memorial point towards two great influences on our country’s commitment to freedom, it was putting the loss of life in the Vietnam War as an important, though dark, milestone in our collective history.

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982

Finally, site specificity is dealt with by Robert Morris in his “Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture.”  While earthworks and landscape art are obviously site specific, they are also temporal.  Earthworks are created to become part of the landscape and erode and change as the landscape changes, making their existence one that is consistently altered by time.  It is for this reason that photographs of these works often become a valued part of the original artwork.  Land art is inextricable linked to the land, and Morris explains that that which is more public (created in more heavily populated areas) “presents a sharper critical edge” (256).  Morris makes a good point that it is usually the earthworks in more remote areas that get the most praise – their ethereal and pastoral qualities allow spectators to view them from afar, or very infrequently, making their existence a rarity and thus a treasure.  Public art that is more public, on the other hand, runs into trouble because of its proximity to a community, and many are reluctant to easily accept change in a familiar environment.  The only way to really remedy these issues is to make an effort to educate the public about the installation of works before they are installed in a certain area.  And once they are installed, that educational component cannot just disappear – there needs to be accessible information about works in any community to those who are part of that community.  Without proper communication, we are bound to repeat our errors in generalization and judgment regarding the unfamiliar.

For Thanksgiving weekend, I went with my family out to the east end of Long Island to visit my grandmother and aunt’s family.  The Hamptons are so much quieter in the Fall, so the day after Thanksgiving we decided to go check out the newly re-opened Parrish Art Museum.   Having been out to my aunt’s house numerous times in the last couple of years, I have been able to watch the slow development of the new Parrish building on Montauk Highway.  From the road, it resembles an extremely long barn, a simple and unassuming building aside from its absurd length.

The exhibition on display was a selection of recent acquisitions, as well as pieces from their permanent collection; an interesting mix of American landscape paintings, contemporary sculptures, installations, and new mixed-media works.  The interior space was nicely laid out, with a long corridor stretching the length of the building and gallery rooms along either side.  There were many fabulous artworks that made an impression on me, though I am unfortunately not very good at documenting everything that strikes me at all of my museum visits.  There were some gallery rooms that allowed pictures (or didn’t have guards at the time I was there) so I was able to snap a few, and lucky for that because the Parrish website is certainly lacking in images and documentation of their collection.  There was a Louise Nevelson wood sculpture that I wish I had documented somehow because now I am unable to find it.

Eric Fischl, Scarsdale, 1986

Aside from the Nevelson sculpture, there were two works that really stood out to me.  The first was a 1986 painting by Eric Fischl called Scarsdale.  I enjoy Fischl’s commitment to realist portraiture to the point of irony, voyeurism, and grotesqueness, or even hilarity at times.  Scarsdale is comprised of three overlapping canvases and depicts a down-trodden bride, holding the leash of her dachshund and smoking a cigarette while gazing into the eyes of an inquisitive cat.  The scene is strangely depressing and funny at the same time – a very personal snapshot of a moment of regret or longing.

Second, I was captivated by a temporary installation by the contemporary artist Hope Sandrow.  As the Inaugural Platform Project artist at the museum, Sandrow created works which integrated cultural objects and art as a way to pay tribute to the history of the area.  In Untitled Observations, 2012, Sandrow has created a cabinet of curiosity using symbols that represent the formation and history of the Parrish Art Museum.  Objects span all genres, from old black and white photographs taken at the time of the museum’s founding to local sea shells and found feathers.  The inclusion of so many disparate objects was a conscious choice on the part of the artist to display tokens of the past, present, and future of the museum – items with historical value, local treasures, and good-luck talismans – all exhibitied in a 19th century case once owned by the founder of the museum, Samuel L. Parrish.  It’s certainly not surprising that I was immediately drawn to this work, as I have been more or less consumed with cabinets of curiosity for the past few months.  My own writing about a modern, surrealist interpretation of a cabinet or curiosity has furthered along a certain fascination with this type of display, so seeing a contemporary manifestation was very exciting.  So exciting that I think I pissed off a few people because I hogged the viewing space for a little too long.

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Hope Sandrow, Untitled Observations, 2012

Our walk through Lower Manhattan was on a very cold morning, which had its benefits and drawbacks, the most memorable of which was my frozen toes.  The major benefit of walking through Lower Manhattan on a very cold day, however, is the lack of the usual hoards of tourists.  Starting at Louise Nevelson Plaza, I was pleasantly surprised by the aesthetic juxtaposition of Nevelson’s dark, grand sculptures with the gray, predictable buildings surrounding them.  And in an area of the city which is so stereotypically male-dominated – Wall Street – it was refreshing to see a woman’s artwork as the center of attention for a heavily-trafficked area of the city.

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In The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson, Harriet Senie points out that public sculptures were generally commissioned with the intention of bolstering civic pride and creating a positive public image (51).  Senie also describes Louise Nevelson Plaza’s somewhat rocky history, but as it stands today, it is a fitting emblem of the positive public image of New York City, aside from the addition of the police guard booth after September 11.  Nevelson’s sculptures and the placement of the plaza are the perfect addition to a busy intersection.  They help create a calming atmosphere for passers-by to enjoy a short break from the usual hustle and bustle of their day.

As with too many public works in the city, however, Louise Nevelson Plaza lacks adequate signage for the work positioned there.  While the atmosphere of the plaza provides a nice step away from the fast-paced New York life, as an emblem of the public image of New York, it should provide visitors with information on the surrounding works.  This also applies to Mark di Suvero’s Joie de Vivre in Zuccoti Park.  While Occupiers were stationed in Zuccoti Park, they refered to the sculpture as “the weird red thing,” a name which could have been more easily avoided if there were any signage to inform anyone of it’s history.  There were some members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, though, that knew the history of di Suvero’s sculpture and petitioned him to help them remove the barricades around the work during their occupation.  You can read the letter, citing the importance of the piece as a gift to the people of New York, here.  With this collective mentality in the time surrounding the OWS movement, it is nice to see that a work of public art was able to be appreciated for its placement in the park, and further adding to the history and context of the area.

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Additionally, we saw the 9/11 Memorial, my second time seeing it this year.  After having to jump through a few hoops to get in (long lines, metal detectors), we were able to explore this newly opened monument to those that lost their lives on September 11, 2001.  While I think that it is a very tasteful and fitting memorial, I do resent the fact that it has essentially been exploited for consumerist gain, allowing visitors to purchase commemorative pins and coins and photographs as momentos for having seen the site of such a terrible tragedy.  That said, there was plenty of signage and information about the site and the memorial sculptures/fountains, which probably lends itself to the fact that it is first and foremost a memorial, not a work of public art.  I have to say that this memorial is definitely one of the best I’ve seen, it allows viewers the ability to be contemplative on their own terms, with ample space to watch the running water fall into the imprint of the original towers, and wide open grounds with many benches to sit and take it all in.

Dia Beacon has been on my list of places to visit since I moved to NYC. That, and Storm King, which I am ashamed to say I missed yet again this year.  But that is beside the point – I did make it to Dia, and it was fantastic.  And what a lovely fall train ride!

My trip to Dia was with classmates, but I also invited along my roommate Emily and my friend Kaitlin, as neither of them had been to Dia and had wanted to go as well.  As much as I enjoy talking about art with like-minded art historians such as myself, sometimes it is nice to be able to enjoy a museum with friends who admire art but haven’t devoted countless hours studying and analyzing it and can appreciate the work (or not) with a kind of purity that is not obstructed by the knowledge of art historical context.  In these cases, I sometimes feel a certain anxiety-filled pressure that they are going to totally hate the visit and be completely bored with the work on display, but this time was an exception, as I, too, came into the experience with very few expectations and found that I was able to enjoy the work on the same level as my companions.

There were three artists whose work on display really stood out to me.  To begin, I now have a new-found appreciation for Sol LeWitt.  After watching my coworker at Artifex Press spend hours painfully typing out the paragraphs that make up the titles of LeWitt’s works, I was fed up with his work without ever having experienced any of it.  But seeing the work in person was eye-opening.  It is amazing how something so seemingly simple as a grid of colored lines can be so intricate, complicated, and beautiful.  Emily, Kaitlin, and I spent the majority of our time in the museum walking from room to room of LeWitt’s installation, alternating between pressing our noses practically up to the wall and standing in the middle of the room, admiring the way the lines blend together from afar.  There was a no pictures policy at Dia, but I had to sneak a few (no flash, of course!).

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Second, I very much enjoyed the works by Robert Smithson.  And that is probably pretty predictable, as his work is maybe a little more “mainstream” than some of the others shown at Dia.  To be clear, when I say “mainstream,” I don’t mean necessarily tied to popular culture, but I think of “mainstream” in art as a kind of designation for those artists which seem to get more attention than others – the ones we learn about in grade school – Michelangelo, Monet, Jackson Pollock, Chuck Close, etc.  Regardless, Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) was both aesthetically pleasing and very different from the other artists exhibited around him.  Using glass as his medium, Smithson constructed an area on the floor which resembled a map of the fabled Atlantis.  This unconventional material lends to the delicacy of the work, as easily shattered as they myth of Atlantis.  Smithson is known for his land art, incorporating parts of a given landscape into vast site-specific sculptural works, a characteristic of his work that is mirrored by his affinity for using natural elements at Dia.

Robert Smithson, Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis), 1969

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised by the Richard Serra works at Dia.  While I have always had a respect for the grand scale of the sculptures by Serra, it wasn’t until I really got to explore his works at Dia that I really understood how he is trying to make his audience interact with his works.  Serra’s Torqued Ellipses is a series of gigantic steel ovals, each one a unique spatial experience.  Walking into each ellipse was a new experience; one was completely hollowed out, feeling open and airy, another was a spherical maze to the center, whose walls closed in on you as you tread further into the work.  The dark copper-colored steel and the chilly air in the exhibition space gave an impression of cold isolation at first, but as I wandered about each work, I began to feel a connection with every other person in the room, each of us in awe of the scale of the works and the ability of them to intrude into our personal space, forcing us to step out of our comfort zones and embrace the unknown as we navigated the walls of the ellipses.

Richard Serra, Torqued Ellipses, 1998

It’s hard to believe that my final semester of courses at Pratt is almost at its end.  I’ve loved New York and I’ve hated it.  I’ve loved Pratt, and, yes, I’ve hated it.  But sometimes you have to take the good with the bad.  If New York has taught me anything, it’s that you have to tolerate a lot of shit for those few fabulous moments, but damn, those good memories taste oh so sweet!

The same goes for art in this city.  New York has so much phenomenal art to offer to those who seek it out, and it also has some terrible, god-awful, how-the-hell-is-that-art?! art.  Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing a lot of the later lately, but I do credit that to the fact that I have just had the opportunity to see a lot more art in the recent months.  Both courses I am taking this semester have gotten me to explore the art in my city far more than the past two years of courses at Pratt combined.  On the one hand, I’m grateful for having these be my last two classes and being able to go out with a bang, but it would have been nice to have had them earlier on, as a kind of encouragement to keep the exploration up.

Despite the fact that I’ve seen a whole lot of terrible art lately, I won’t dwell on the bad and will instead talk about something I saw a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed.  Forgetting some of the annoying display issues with P.S.1’s “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles: 1960-1980,” this exhibition was one of the one’s that stands out from the past few months, and that is largely due to the inclusion of several works by Betye Saar.  Before this show, I had only heard of Saar in passing and had never actually seen any of her work.  But once I turned the corner and was exposed to a wall of her sculptural assemblages, I was immediately intrigued.  The show exhibited five of her assemblages, all making reference to voodoo, black heritage, and African stereotypes.  Her works uses found objects arranged in boxes or old windows, much like the work of Joseph Cornell.  This resemblance is only aesthetic, however, as Saar used her art to demonstrate a history of black culture to ignite social change, while Cornell’s works were primarily surrealistic and without a major cultural agenda.  (It can be argued that if Cornell had declared himself to be part of the surrealist group, his works could have a strong political agenda for freedom of the mind and freedom from social constraints, but he never formally aligned himself with the group or their ideals.)

Black Girl’s Window, 1969

Nine Mojo Secrets, 1971

Unfortunately for me, the wall labels were so poorly organized that I wrote down the title of one work of Saar’s that I really loved so that I could look into it later, but happened to write down the wrong title and have been searching for the work with no luck for the past couple of weeks.  I know that “Black Girl’s Window” was included, and am unable to find factual proof that “Nine Mojo Secrets” was included, but I do enjoy both of these works separately.  “Nine Mojo Secrets,” especially, with its integration of found objects, sculptural elements, and original drawing uses the theme of mysticism to draw attention to outdated African stereotypes while at the same time praising her cultural heritage.  The central image depicts a group of young African men participating in an initiation ritual, a very important part of African culture, but also a image which may have sparked controversy and furthered unwanted stereotypes in California in the 1960s and ’70s.

I should probably just go back and find out what the work I meant to write down was.  This is the perfect example of why wall text needs to be AS CLEAR AS POSSIBLE.

Clement Greenberg was at the forefront of the migration of art from the figurative to the non-representational in the middle of the 20th century.  He basically put Jackson Pollock on the map.  Without Greenberg, we may still be looking at works by Pollock and Donald Judd and scratching our heads (though I think it is safe to say that some of us still do).  In “The New Sculpture” from 1949, Greenberg laid out his argument for the death of figurative representation in art and the growing importance for the acceptance of non-representation: art for art’s sake.  Greenberg explained that once painting embraces the flatness of the canvas, there will be no where else to go, thus it will be in a continual decline; sculpture, however, has the ability to move beyond the flatness of a canvas and can create its own shapes and objects without relying on imitating nature.  He argued that this new sculpture had no associations with the past, no “censorship by tradition.”

In the essays “Thoughts on Sculpture,” the sculptor David Smith eloquently explained the point of view of the artist.  He argued that only artists can really understand art because they are the ones engaging with the artistic mediums to create works which they, and by default us, deem to be art.  That said, he also explained that no two people see the same sculpture.  While the artist may have one intention, the eye of the public may see, or impose upon the work, many completely different intentions.  Take his work “Australia,” for example:

David Smith with “Australia”

When I first looked at this work, before knowing its title, I immediately saw a figure.  The circular shape sitting atop an abstracted, but voluminous form with extending limbs recalls a strange and fantastical figure, whether or not that was the intention of Smith (which it most-likely was not).  The human brain automatically makes associations regardless of our awareness of those associations, and no two people will bring the exact same associations to that work because no two people have the same past experiences.  Once I learned the title of the piece, I immediately made another association – aboriginal Australian artwork:

An ancient Australian aboriginal figure painting

It’s virtually impossible to break the brain free of association because we bring our own personal history to each experience we have and project those memories onto each new encounter.  This resonates with current research I am doing for my thesis about Andre Breton.  As a surrealist, Breton preached the importance of freeing oneself from associations in order to unleash the true creativity within.  That said, he also treasured figurative Oceanic sculptures, each, though highly abstracted,  an imitation of nature.  Philosophically, Breton can be compared to Greenberg and Smith in his quest for the pure experience in creativity, though he differs in the way that he relied very heavily on the figurative at the same time that Greenberg and Smith were valuing the non-figurative.

Oceanic sculptures now in the Louvre

Greenberg’s desire to steer art towards a fully non-representational state was indicative of the mid-20th century and the ultimate goal for modernity at the time, but even the flatness of the canvas or a completely new sculpted shape will provide the opportunity for a viewer to project their past experiences onto it and gather their own meaning from it.  This “censorship by tradition” that he speaks of will never go away, even with “non-representational” sculpture, because no one can truly look at a work of art with such purity that they will be incapable of allowing their associations to engage with the work.

Note: This post kind of took on a mind of its own and may not make sense to anyone but me.  I will come back to it.