Articles

Art in Public Places, 1973 | From the Vaults


(gentle music) – [Russell Connor] It
seems funny to say it, but long before there was an “art world” there was art in the world. For an artist in New York
or any towering modern city it’s very difficult to catch
the interest of the public, unless he designs
billboards, gas stations, or giant hot dog stands. I happen to be one of that happy band of pop culture lovers who thinks Nathan’s sign is more
delicious than its products. And I like signs that spin and sparkle and blow smoke rings into the night. But what if you just
wanna make a work of art like Chuck Ginnever here using the machines, the tools
that made the city itself? He wants to make a visual statement that will confront his neighbor as he comes and goes from work. Maybe give a lift to his spirit, perhaps challenge him or stir him to new non-verbal ways
of looking at experience. Who wants such things? Who will pay for them? Maybe because the competition
is so stiff and so ingenious, and the energy is so supercharged, the streets and parks of Manhattan are really a great place to
explore what happens to art, and what happens to us when art steps out from behind the velvet rope, outside the pristine shelter of museums, galleries, private collections, and stands each day in the public eye. (percussion music) There was a sort of baby boom
in the pedestal population between the Civil War and World War I. On much of it, pigeons
have raised criticism to its loftiest heights. But there were men of genius at work like Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The pure spirit of Victory
leading General Sherman may look a little quaint these days but there’s nothing quaint
about Saint-Gaudens’s superb mastery of his craft. It must have had a stirring
effect when it was unveiled on Memorial Day in 1903. Like many American sculptors of her time, Emma Stebbins studied in Rome. But 19th-century Americans weren’t ready for lusty mythological nudes
frolicking in their fountains. Her “Healing Angel of
the Waters” has presided over Central Park’s Bethesda
Fountain for 100 years now, surrounded by chaste statues
representing temperance, purity, health, and peace,
and by some of the park’s most lusty and frolicsome visitors. The park’s designers and
curators have tried to resist for years an invasion
of memorial sculpture, feeling that the park
itself was a work of art. They couldn’t resist the Khedive of Egypt when he offered them this obelisk in 1877. It was built by King Thutmose the Third in 1600 B.C. as an homage to the sun god, and just incidentally,
as a memorial to himself. (children chattering) There’s no question which work in the park gets the popularity prize. “The Tea Party of Alice in
Wonderland” by José de Creeft who has done some other
work on which I think he would prefer to rest
his artistic reputation. As sculpture, it’s the
best scramble in the park, by a nose. (music box music) The aristocratic Alexander
Hamilton would probably have been pained to find
himself in such oppressively democratic surroundings. But he might have unbent a
bit when some citizen climbed to place a flower in his hand. Though neither work quite
rises to the distinction of its subject, it’s somehow very pleasant to find Columbus just across
a path from Shakespeare. It sets one searching in vain for a pun of proper global magnitude. Ah well, “Piece out our
imperfections with your thoughts.” The Shakespeare was
sculpted by one of the major American artists of the 19th century, John Quincy Adams Ward. His work is seen really
to better advantage in what I think is a very moving
and familiar war memorial. The melancholy statue of
a single Union soldier of the Seventh Regiment
leaning on his rifle. (slow fife and drum march) Ward’s best work in the
park is a vigorous study of an Indian hunter with his dog. There could be a very
glib and sentimental irony in contrasting the ennobling
treatment of the Indian by American artists while at the same time the Indians’ own culture was
being ruthlessly crushed. But I do think artists
sensed long before most of us that we too were losing something, something very deep, very wise,
and totally irretrievable. Ward’s famous statue of
George Washington seems to be gesturing caution to
the New York Stock Exchange across the way. On the pediment of which
Ward designed the work on a theme meant to inspire
the leaders of commerce within: Integrity protecting the works of man. Alongside Ward and Saint-Gaudens
stood another giant of 19th and early 20th century sculpture, Daniel Chester French, best
known for his monumental statue of Lincoln in Washington. Like many artists, he
felt portrait commissions did not give full vent to his imagination. It ran free in his
statues representing the four continents in front
of the Customs House in New York City. Aside from a grandiose majesty
and beautiful execution, French’s view of the four
stages of development of the four continents
give fascinating insights into how young America
saw the rest of the world. Asia, the mother of religion, sits in a contemplative trance. The youth before her
represents unquestioned obedience to the gods. (music) Africa was slumbering in
1907, according to French. A lion at her left, the
great sphinx on the right. (flute and drum music) Europe in Grecian gown,
a book under her arm symbolizing her contribution
to arts and letters. And the gloomy hooded figure of history studies a scroll and a skull. American, its recent past behind her, faces the future holding
the torch of liberty. (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”) Everyone knows the real
lady with the torch. She’s nearby, and trying to
discuss her as a work of art would be like evaluating George
Washington as a surveyor. She does stand for an ideal
with massive eloquence. And ideals became
increasingly more difficult for artists to make clear
in the century to follow. A park provides an attractive setting with space for a work to breathe. And some modern works need a lot of space. Chuck Ginnever’s work
in corten steel leaves the sky to the architects and seizes a stretch of green earth. The technology of Cold
Canyons is dramatically tilted in a suspenseful, oddly delicate balance. One American master has been doing a witty balancing act for years. If his mobiles don’t
reach out to tickle you, his stabiles invite you in with the grace of a genial host. Alexander Calder’s “Le
Guichet” at Lincoln Center seems lost without venturesome visitors. His companion at Lincoln
Center, Henry Moore, called his work the leg part
and a head and arms part. The reflecting pool makes
an awesome little island of Moore’s familiar earth human forms. More human than ever
amidst the rigid formality of the buildings. New York possesses at least one frail echo of the resounding genius
of 20th-century art. The architect I. M. Pei
asked Picasso to select one of his works to be
enlarged for this site. “The Portrait of Sylvette”
displays the master’s playful variation on an old cubist theme but even the texture
of sandblasted concrete can’t really make Sylvette
into a heavyweight. The changes in the Picasso
depend on the multiple views ordained by the artist. In the moving world of
kinetic art, the wind, the machine or the hand of a spectator, as in this work by Yaacov
Agam at the Juilliard School can rearrange the design
to make it always new. Agam has said, “Art is not decoration. Sculpture is not ornament. The true sense of real is change.” If the wind changes when you’re walking by the Burlington Fountain,
you’ll get a true sense of reality all over your clothes. Compared to the exuberance
and sculptural richness of some fountains in
Europe, most of the domestic variety seem to be either
plaintive little bubbles or municipal demonstrations
of water power. The Burlington Dandelion
Fountains are a happy exception. The water becomes the sculpture, and the sculpture dissolves
in the afternoon mist. Louise Nevelson gave this
work to the City of New York as a gesture of thanks for its recognition of her distinguished career. A career identified largely
by constructions like these, with their interior, domestic mystery, at once sensuous and disciplined. The technical paradox
enlarges the mystery. The curved forms grew
naturally out of her work with elaborately formed
wood, usually painted white, black, or gold. In “Night Presences” she
uses a steel which rusts to the rich brown of wood. There have been modern
sculptures on temporary display in Central Park before. Here on the grounds of
the Metropolitan Museum, an important work by Jean Arp. A rolling, joyous wave of stainless steel celebrating a modern master’s
love for the simplest, most elemental forms of nature. This work by William Crovello, at the corner of a Midtown plaza, raises some general questions
about art in public places. There are some advanced artists who’d say this is a piece conceived in a studio without any consideration
for its suitability for this site, enlarged in a factory
beyond its natural scale, planted here on a traditional pedestal to ensure that people give
it the proper distance and reverence due to a work of art. Well, those are fair questions, and maybe architects and
artists should be pushing toward an art that grows
with a more organic relationship to its surroundings. For now, I will just enjoy the hungry grip this strange blue magnet takes on the air in the bold interruption
of the daily pedestrian stream by one man’s
vigorous love for form. Did I hear you ask, what
does Leonardo da Vinci have in common with
Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus? Dr. Spilhaus is a scientist, an oceanographer who
designed this sunken plaza in front of the McGraw-Hill building, including that startling steel triangle which looks remarkably like
a modern piece of sculpture. It’s actually tracing continually the relation of the sun to the earth. Its sides point to the
four seasonal positions of the sun at solar noon in New York City. I don’t know much about
science, but I know what I like. And I like this just fine.

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