— Art in Common


Jenny Holzer

Right near Cheim and Read you can see this early Holzer, which I particularly like for its jammed-up grammar. The text is a sentence fragment, and it leads you down a garden path only to hit you from the direction you’re not looking. “When there’s no safe place…” it begins, and you believe that you are hearing the beginning of a conditional statement; it sounds like a supposition, and you are waiting for a conclusion that begins with the word “then.” But it doesn’t come. Or rather, the “then” does come, but it’s not the “then” you were expecting. Instead you get “…because it’s twice as dangerous then,” a sucker-punch that only continues the supposition and resists a conclusion. It’s only more violent for that, and what’s especially surprising and powerful is Holzer’s use of a period at the end of the non-sentence. (There was no punctuation in the Truisms, and several other Survival plaques do without periods.)

Holzer these days relies largely on other people’s texts: authors such as Elfriede Jelinek and Mahmoud Darwish, or else redacted military information that she has done more than anyone else in the art world to publicize. But this plaque is a good reminder that Holzer isn’t just a great artist; she’s a great writer, too.

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Robert Indiana

Sometimes I ask myself if Robert Indiana isn’t the most underrated figure in the history of Pop. This sculpture must be the best known and most photographed work of art in the entire city of New York, with the one exception of that bronze by Bartholdi from 1886 that lies in the harbor. Wedding photographs get taken there; it has its own Yelp page. It amazes me that I have to point out that Robert Indiana is an important artist, who is (blessedly) getting a long-overdue retrospective at the Whitney in September 2013. It also amazes me that I have to point that Indiana’s Love works, which began in 1966, were – obviously, explicitly – made in opposition to the Vietnam War.

But if those things are not clear, the fault may lie less in our art than in our hearts. The diminishment of love from something all-encompassing, indeed something long synonymous with God, to its current unthreatening consumerist form is one of the worst legacies of the awful twentieth century, and with it has gone the understanding of the political character of love, its place at the center of revolutionary action. Michael Hardt, who with Antonio Negri wrote perhaps the most influential book of the last two decades, has argued that no real positive change can be effected in the world today until we relearn how to love, and I’m inclined to agree. Love is the bond wherein you and the beloved are no longer yourselves, becoming something that only exists in collaboration with another, but that is hard to sell to Americans today, as my own sad romantic endeavors have confirmed. Love requires you to put yourself in jeopardy, and I’d argue that art at its highest moments does too. I wish I knew how to make that clearer. Or perhaps it is clear enough, and the diminishment of art and the diminishment of love have a common cause: the ever-presence of the market, wherein any action that requires the erasure of the individual is a reckless heresy.

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Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar

I came across this work while wandering Fort Tryon Park after a trip to the Cloisters. It’s abandoned in a little field to the southeast of the museum. The concrete is shipped and discolored; the grass is overgrown. I wonder if more than 100 people a year ever see this artwork, and yet I think about it often: the legacy of modernism, the legacy of abstraction, the degree to which New York does or doesn’t fit in the western hemisphere.

Ramírez Villamizar was a Colombian painter and sculptor working at the height of geometric abstraction in Latin America – the subjet of a world-reorienting exhibition I saw at the Reina Sofia in Madrid recently. We forget now that New York used to take Latin American abstraction quite seriously. MoMA, for one, showed much more Latin American art in its first decades than it does today, and Villamizar showed there and at the Guggenheim in the 60s. A believer in the utopian power of abstraction, he has a museum dedicated to him in Pamplona, though to Americans today he might be best known for a work outside the Kennedy Center in Washington. I think I like this one more: dead serious but also unable to endure.

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There’s really no more to say about the relationship between Di Suvero and Occupy. This is what I wrote at the start of the movement, in the Guardian:

What would your therapist say, if you have one – and in New York, you probably do – about how the Occupy Wall Street protesters, their opponents, the media and just about everyone else have ignored the elephant in the plaza?

As many as 2,000 people have attended the twice-daily general assemblies, and thousands upon thousands of passers-by have read the cardboard signs – many eloquent, some bonkers – lining the entrance on Broadway. But nobody has craned his neck upward: the entire protest is going down under a 20-ton steel sculpture that reaches 70ft in the air and, by the way, is painted a bright proletarian red. Even in New York, that should be hard to miss.

The sculpture is ”Joie de Vivre”, by Mark di Suvero, and its simultaneous predominance and invisibility at Occupy Wall Street carries a biting irony. Di Suvero is one of the great artists of the American left, a member of the city’s crane operators’ union, who went into exile to protest the Vietnam war. Its irrelevance to the young folks down at Occupy Wall Street may be of a piece with their chant on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend that “the whole world is watching” – a phrase that a few of them must realise dates all the way back to the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Or the sculpture’s erasure may have a darker meaning: high capital has already absorbed one generation of protesters into its logic, and this one probably won’t fare much better.

And this is what I wrote a year later, on Governors Island, for Frieze:

But if you go to see the ICP show at Governors Island, you’ll do well to sprawl out in the grass and gaze at the skyline of Lower Manhattan, with Zuccotti hidden among the new, unfinished towers. All around the park, scattered around the main lawn and interspersed among the buildings, are a dozen sculptures by Mark di Suvero: an artist who was jailed multiple times during the Vietnam war, and whose Joie de Vivre (1998), a 70-foot-tall construction painted bright red, stood right at the centre of Zuccotti Park. Di Suvero’s work, it’s true, now decorates too many dreary pseudo-public spaces built by developers hunting for tax breaks – but even in one of those, as it did last September, once unimaginable collective action can still take place. And until it does again, we might do well to ask about the political valence of abstract sculpture and indeed of all art – how it lets us experience something beyond the world to hand, and in so doing may teach us more about our political condition than a thousand images.

What do I think now, a year on? That Occupy’s lack of sophistication with regard to art (the mistaken attacks on MoMA and the Whitney, the plodding, incompetent Zuccotti staging of Brecht’s Days of the Commune) are not the movement’s fault; that the inability to think aesthetically about Occupy, and the inability for occupiers themselves to think about aesthetics, is an indictment of an entire half-century of misguided and misplaced approaches to the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Di Suvero, while working on the Peace Tower in 1966, understood what we today do not: that it’s the experience of art that has political force; everything else is propaganda. “I believed that the ability to think abstractly necessarily led one to refuse the reactionary attitudes that were so prevalent then,” he said. Funny how fast that was forgotten.

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Richard Haas

Recently I served on a jury for the first time in my life: a murder trial, believe it or not, that lasted eleven days. 100 Centre Street is an address with a real psychic charge: like 740 Park or 1650 Broadway, it speaks for itself. On the passageway on which detainees proceed between the courthouse and the Tombs – a passageway I’ve heard referred to as “The Bridge of Sighs,” à la vénitienne – there are a pair of murals that depict two religious/historical judges, each of whom had a similar approach to family law. Both judges had to decide which of two women was a certain child’s mother. Solomon proposed to slice the child in half, and when one woman protested he knew she was the true mother. Pao Kung (and heads up, Brecht fans) drew a chalk circle on the ground and commanded the women to pull the child in either direction; the woman who refused was awarded custody.

Not, thankfully, how cases are adjudicated today, but the genius of Haas’s murals is that they invoke the history not only of justice but of New York as well. 100 Center Street lies right by Chinatown and a stone’s throw from the Lower East Side, once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Walking into the courthouse every day, I thought of those murals as an especially civic reminder of not only justice’s nature, but justice’s place.

Not until I began writing this did I realize that I’ve spent the better part of a year looking at Haas’s paintings: he did the murals in the periodical room of the New York Public Library, which I’ve stared at for long hours in the grip of writer’s block.

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Beyond all doubt New York’s single worst work of public art – if “art” is even a valid term to describe the pathetic, abortive, obscenely misscaled, miles-and-miles-off-target disgrace that dominates Union Square and is repellently visible all the way down Lower Park Avenue – this travesty only gets worse with age. There is the stupid, stupid digital clock that constantly breaks down (wrong by an hour or more) and only tells the time correctly from the left to the center, with the milliseconds whipping by in ooh-here-comes-the-millennium cliché or, more likely, in hideous imitation of that “debt clock” downtown. Then there are the other digits, which apparently you are supposed to read from right to center in order to determine the amount of time remaining in the day, since apparently you lack the capability to subtract from 12, but these do not even read correctly; the “hours remaining,” for example, is given by the two final digits read left to right, even though you are supposed to be reading from right to left. To this pointless indulgence is appended the gargantuan red brick wall built in not unattractive concentric circles; one can imagine that a stone has been thrown into a pond, but of course the stone in this work is actually nowhere there that epicenter but languishing down near the bottom with no such ridges resulting. The thing belches steam, or used to (is it now mercifully broken? has the budget dried up?), and there is the hand of George Washington jutting out from the top, which rather negates the stated ambition to investigate the history and nature of time.

Commissioned, you will not be surprised to hear, by an unctuous real estate kingpin who advertised his cookie-cutter tower as “the most desirable and fashionable address in New York City today,” a statement that no doubt came as a shock to the inhabitants of 740 Park. Metronome might have even resulted in a tax break of some variety; the tagline reads “The Related Companies with participation of The Public Art Fund and The Municipal Art Society.” It is work like this that makes people who love art hate public art: no engagement and no clue.

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Michael Heizer

Last year the Los Angeles County Museum of Art soaked up months up press coverage (even from the pathetic CNN) when Michael Heizer installed a 340-ton boulder outside the museum. That sculpture is called Levitated Mass—and it’s the same name he gave to a much smaller work here in Manhattan. Outside of the IBM headquarters on Madison Avenue, a fine gray-green skyscraper designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, there’s something that looks like a simple corporate fountain. In fact, it’s a Heizer hiding in plain sight: a massive stone levitating in a box, with water rushing underneath. It’s true that our Levitated Mass is a bit smaller than Los Angeles’s, but at 11 tons ours isn’t shrinking away.

Carved into the stone are a series of grooves: two sets of 5 and 6 ridges on one side, three sets of 13, 1 and 4 for the letters M-A-D in Madison Avenue. Not the most brilliant articulation of the relationship between the city and nature. But it was the 80s: I’m sure someone at IBM thought it was ingenious.

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This sculpture is actually situated just offshore, on a stone breakwater set up in the Battery Park harbor. It’s based on a photograph from World War II that showed a burning American merchant ship torpedoed by a U-boat. As the tide comes in and out, the figure in the waves bobs above the surface and then sinks below again, always just about to grasp the hand extended to him but never making it.

Marisol, if she’s remembered at all these days, is best known as a Pop artist: a creator of colorful humanoid assemblages that depict people in boxy solidity. (The Met owns her hilarious Last Supper.) Enough of an icon to get profiled in People magazine, for goodness’ sake. Turns out that she wasn’t only still working in 1991; she’s still working today, at 82, right here in Tribeca.

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Elizabeth Catlett

I don’t dislike Elizabeth Catlett’s prints, especially her stark woodcuts of black American life that, in their pugnacity, recall Käthe Kollwitz. But it is hard not to look at this giant sculpture on the Hudson River, fifteen feet tall, and not think of the Ampelmann on Berlin’s walk/don’t walk signs. Memorializing the author of Invisible Man in negative space may have been inevitable; depicting said man midstride was not.

And yet, as I always insist, it’s critical to think about public art in terms beyond the formal, to think of a monument to Ellison as something other than an artwork about him – to acknowledge, at last, that even bad art can be good public art if it plugs into the energies of the city. There’s a line in Invisible Man that may be relevant here: “I feel the need to reaffirm all of it, the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unloveable in it, for it is all part of me.”

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Single Form, 1961–64

I struggle to name a view I love more than the east side of the United Nations, seen from a taxi whipping around the FDR Drive at around 14th Street. Manhattan bulges out at that spot, and when you come around the curve towards Stuy Town you can see that Niemeyer-Corb collaboration, the International Style in its most legitimate if not its clearest form, with the sun glinting off the blue glass onto the East River. Vernacular modernism, the modernism we live with each day rather than worship as some unattainable universal achievement, gets short shrift nowadays, and you could say the same about Barbara Hepworth: once the most important British sculptor besides Moore, but now in need of defense.

Hepworth made many sculptures called Single Form over her career: lopsided rounded oblongs, always standing on the ground, fully abstract but always which a residual humanity. Even at this scale – at 21 feet tall it’s her largest work – the sculpture maintains a charge of the human body. That seems even clearer when you know that Hepworth was a good friend of Dag Hammarsjöld himself, and that when he died she went into deep mourning; in the Tate, there’s a sculpture she made in his memory. Later she completed this more visible tribute. There’s a great photo of U Thant dedicating the sculpture in 1964, when it was unveiled outside the now-under-renovation Secretariat, with Hepworth looking on in admiration. Unlike many other Single Forms, in this one the circle at the center isn’t a depression but a clean hole. The sun bleeds through, soaking an eternal memory with the light of New York.

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