Tony Rosenthal, Hammarskjöld, 1977
“The longest journey is the journey inward,” wrote Dag Hammarskjöld in Markings, one of those generation-defining books that a subsequent generation has never heard of. When I first discovered this work by Tony Rosenthal hiding at the Fashion Institute of Technology off of Eighth Avenue, I had at first thought that it was in tribute to the great Swedish diplomat, or at least inspired by Markings. But alas, like Madison Square Garden, the name is just an imprint. The work is called Hammarskjöld because it originally stood in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, over on First just north of the UN. My parents met at 1 Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza; I should have known.
Rosenthal is an interesting case. He’s among the most visible artists of American modernist sculpture, with five works on the streets of New York alone. But walk with a historian or critic past, say, the big old bronze disc he designed outside the New York Public Library on 58th Street, and not only will we not know the name of the artist who made it, but we won’t even really take it seriously. Modernism is less a style than an overlay of principles onto social and political relationships, and importance derives, pace Greenberg, from a position within a network rather than any inherent quality. But Rosenthal went to Cranbrook. He studied with Saarinen and Charles Eames. He hung out with Brancusi, for goodness’ sake! And while the formal gestures in his work may lack the subtlety of Nevelson or Smith, to dismiss him as merely a “public artist” is not only snobbish but naive.
I quite like Hammarskjöld, with its articulated cubic structure and the slight cheapness of its manufacture. But what I really love, of course, is its title, invested with the grid of New York but also the light of Sweden, and revealing a spiritual commitment that modernism, despite the propaganda, never really gave up.
Hammarskjöld is at the Fashion Institute of Technology, on 27th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.