arts 10.21.04

Public Sculpture

If you've spent any time on the Upper West Side recently, you can't help but have been rewarded by the invariably beguiling sculptures of Tom Otterness on the Broadway medians from Columbus Circle up to Washington Heights. The exhibition, called Tom Otterness on Broadway, reminded us of an afternoon, a number of years back, in which we sat with Mr. Otterness while he talked about public sculpture. He told us about some of his favorites, and his insights into the works made us see each of them afresh. Today and tomorrow, we'll run excerpts in hopes that his commentary will do the same for you.

"Public sculpture used to make an image of the society," Mr. Otterness said. "Now we have no universal image of ourselves." So it's no surprise that when a new public work goes up, "there is a lot of heated debate."

Mr. Otterness said that it's hard to talk about sculpture without feeling the presence of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (1981). As you may recall, Mr. Serra's work was removed from 26 Federal Plaza after complaints from workers in the area who felt the work was an obstruction. There were hearings and a court case; the work ended up in storage. Mr. Otterness said of Mr. Serra that "he's arguably the most important sculptor of the last 25 years. Of Tilted Arc, he says, "even the ghost of it, the crack in the ground where it used to be, is a major public work."

The statue of Nathan Hale (dedicated 1893) by Frederick MacMonnies is on an inscribed pedestal near Broadway and Murray. The Brits executed Hale as a spy, without a trial, and MacMonnies depicts him with his feet and arms bound. Mr. Otterness remarks on the loosely chained arms, bound from behind, and his posture — romantic and yearning. He says it's not hard to see the eroticism here, with the clothing undone at the neck and upper chest, even homoeroticism. You frequently find striking juxtapositions in Mr. Otterness' work; here, he finds one here with "an erotically bound man in front of City Hall."

Greg Wyatt's Peace Fountain is located in the Peace Garden next to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Mr. Otterness marvels at Mr. Wyatt's being able "to get that personal out there without being too washed over" in the process of doing a commissioned work. Atop a large, swirling base symbolic of DNA sits a giant crab reminding us of life's beginnings in the sea. Several giraffes, an animal which the sculpture has chosen to represent peace, clamber over a sun and moon disc. One is being tenderly caressed by the Archangel Michael's right hand. In his left hand, he holds a large sword with which he has decapitated a devil. "It's so huge and so eccentric…I have a lot of sympathy for this kind of work. The artist bites off more than he can possibly chew — trying to represent a state of mind." In a corner of Gramercy Park is a smaller work by Mr. Wyatt using some of the features of Peace Fountain, called Fantasy Fountain.

Tony Smith's Tau is a black welded steel work at the entrance to Hunter College on the southwest corner of 68th and Lex. It is made up of simple, large planes that are subtly angled. Walk around it, raking your eye from top to bottom — there are constant small adjustments in shape and mass. Mr. Otterness said, "Smith generated his forms from crystals, he built off their geometric structure. He made models and studied at the American Museum of Natural History. He wanted to see ways the surfaces will relate to each other. This gives his work an intellectual underpinning and an organic feel. It had a rationale, not just abstraction made to look well balanced." Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the installation of Tau, the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery, 68th and Lex 212.772.4991, has an exhibit of the late sculptor's work, through December 4th.
Socrates Sculpture Park and the Sculpture Center
Now through March 6, 2005, the 2004 Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition is at the Socrates Sculpture Park, Broadway and Vernon LIC 718.956.1819. Also well worth a visit is the Sculpture Center, 44-19 Purves [Jackson] LIC 718.361.1750, which has an exhibit of Rita McBride works, now through November 29th.

Correction: We wrote in yesterday's Radar section that the Suba Spanish wine and tapas series would be held on four Tuesdays. Because of the election, the second one will be held on Monday, November 1st, not Tuesday.

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