Pondering Sculpture Under the Trees
By KEN JOHNSON
Published: August 26, 2010
For five days in August a big sculpture touched down on an island in Times Square — a 26-foot-tall representation of a sailor bending over a woman in white and planting a passionate kiss on her mouth — a 3-D rendering of the famous Times Square embrace captured in V.J.-Day photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt and Victor Jorgensen.
It would be hard to say how many of the scores of people milling around, admiring and photographing the painted, cast-bronze sculpture, “Unconditional Surrender” by Seward Johnson, knew what it represented. (There were explanatory signs.) But there’s no doubt it was popular.
It was to my eye a thing of great ugliness, not only because of its flat-footed, crudely simplified realism, grotesque scale and stunningly insensitive title, but because of its appeal to a cheap form of patriotic nostalgia. Which invites us to wonder, what should public sculpture do? Should it aim to elevate taste and educate? Or just provide an entertaining diversion for snapshot-happy tourists? Three outdoor sculpture exhibitions around Manhattan this summer, along with one large permanent sculpture, afford an opportunity to contemplate these questions.
For a more complex approach to figurative sculpture, you might venture downtown to City Hall Park, where works by six artists are distributed about the grounds in a exhibition called “Statuesque.” Produced by the Public Art Fund, now under the leadership of Nicholas Baume, a former chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the show presents 10 contemporary sculptures, mostly with a primitivist bent, that revolve around forms of traditional and ancient statuary.
The works in “Statuesque” are designed to appeal to an audience sophisticated in the vagaries of Postmodern style. The artists, who will be familiar to followers of the high-end international art circuit, hark back in various ways to European luminaries like Picasso, Miró and Giacometti, but do so with a knowing insouciance.
A bronze figure by Rebecca Warren on a pedestal outside a park entrance sets the tone. A vaguely female humanoid made of bulbous parts, it recalls Picasso’s Surrealist paintings of women constructed from biomorphic parts. Yet in its bumptious, cartoonish energy, it gives the randy old master a slyly subversive, feminist spin.
Inside the park the other artists’ sculptures also evoke versions of elemental humanism inflected by Modernist types of abstraction. Thomas Houseago’s hulking figure of a man with an exterior of lumpy, tubular parts is like the soul of a defeated warrior, or an exhausted N.F.L. lineman trudging back to the locker room.
A scary seated figure by Huma Bhabha called “The Orientalist” — an Ed Kienholz-like assemblage of an old chair, chicken wire, plastic foam and other junk cast in bronze — exudes a regal spirit while calling to mind the dead mother in “Psycho.” Matthew Monahan’s “Nation Builder,” a gnarly sculpture of a man elevated on a pedestal of two smooth Cubist boxes has a similarly mythic aura.
Pawel Althamer’s cast aluminum female nude has legs and a torso made originally of chunks of roughly carved wood, nipples formed by the mouths of plastic bottles and other parts of unidentifiable origin. She looks like an unfinished marionette. But as she reclines in the grass, with doll-size nymphs lounging around pools created by her flowing hair, she embodies the age-old association of nature and the feminine.
And Aaron Curry’s abstracted images of a bird, a bull and a horned man, made of brightly painted plates of steel shaped and assembled like Alexander Calder works, are cheerfully totemic.
What all these sculptures have in common is the conceptual leap they require to be fully grasped: between the Modernist fantasy of the human grounded in the natural and the eternal, and a more recent, anxiety-inducing sense that we cobble together our ideas about the human from available clichés, stereotypes and other sorts of generic cultural flotsam and jetsam.
Without that philosophical dimension all the works in “Statuesque” remain more or less clever but not terrifically imaginative pastiches of imagery gleaned from museums and art history textbooks. It all leaves you to wonder how exciting works of such academic erudition can be for the average viewer wandering through City Hall Park.
Further uptown at Union Square Park, meanwhile, the filmmaker, actress, writer and artist Miranda July offers more lighthearted works in a show titled “Eleven Heavy Things,” which made its debut in the 2009 Venice Biennale. Some are round-cornered white pedestals (fiberglass on steel) with inscriptions, on which visitors may stand to have their pictures taken. The wording on one, which looks as if it were drawn in clay by a finger, says: “This is my little girl. She is brave and clever and funny. She will have none of the problems I have. Her heart will never be broken. She will never be humiliated. Self-doubt will not devour her dreams.”
The beauty of Ms. July’s deceptively slight, poetically touching social sculpture is that the pictures people take will circulate among friends and relatives, reach an audience that someone like the magisterial Joseph Beuys could only dream of.
Less high-impact and likely to be less popular is a “A Bell for Every Minute,” a sound sculpture by Stephen Vitiello installed on the High Line in a cavernous tunnel near 14th Street. As the signs explain, every minute overhead speakers broadcast the sound of a bell Mr. Vitiello has recorded in a different part of the city. Some are famous, like that of the New York Stock Exchange and the United Nations Peace Bell. There are also the everyday sounds of bicycle bells, diner bells and church bells.
Between the tolls you hear faint sounds of other bells, as if they were ringing far away. They blend with the real-world sounds of traffic on the street below, building construction, sirens and, nearby, ringing cellphones, creating a subtly expansive feeling of spaciousness. For a meditative visitor sitting on one of the folding chairs scattered about, it all becomes a Cage-ian symphony: a harmonious blend of sonic textures, timbres and rhythms. And insofar as each bell evokes a different sort of place (all are identified on an aluminum panel), it is a Whitmanesque hymn to the democratic diversity of metropolitan life.
Still, it’s not the sort of thing many people are very likely to sit through for the whole hour, and one part of the public is especially unlikely to be captivated for long by Mr. Vitiello’s work: small children. So if you have little ones in tow but still want to see some sculpture, you can stop by a new park on West 42nd Street where, between high rise residential buildings, there’s a small playground with a big Tom Otterness sculpture for climbing and sliding on.
Made in Mr. Otterness’s signature cartoon style, it is in the form of a reclining giant man with a hollow spherical head, a conical cap and Mickey Mouse-like hands and feet at the ends of his tubular extremities. Twin slides shoot down from his upraised knees, and ladders lead up through his body into his head, where juvenile adventurers can peer out through his circular eyes. It looks as if he has fallen and can’t get up and, like Gulliver, he has Lilliputian figures climbing all over him. Unlike more familiar types of playground equipment, this one is made of bronze, and has a lovely, warm sheen.
On a sunny afternoon last week a half-dozen or so children were clearly enjoying the functional dimension of Mr. Otterness’s sculpture. What they thought of its aesthetic I couldn’t say. For adults his work is a matter almost purely of taste. There are discerning people who dislike its ingratiating cuteness. I find it irresistible, and I think this is an outstanding piece of playground hardware. If there were one twice as big for grownups, I’d be all over it.
STANDING LIKE STATUES
STATUESQUE City Hall Park, Lower Manhattan; publicartfund.org.
ELEVEN HEAVY THINGS Union Square Park; mirandajuly.com/art.
OTTERNESS PLAYGROUND Silver Towers, West 42nd Street between 11th and 12th Avenues, Manhattan; tomostudio.com.
ALSO A list of art exhibitions throughout the city park system is at nycgovparks.org/art.