Eyebot

From the Ridiculous to the Benign:
A Greatest-Hits Tour
of New York City's Outdoor Art

by Jennifer Dalton

Ranging from large and ugly to just plain large, corporate- and public-sponsored art has earned an indisputable place in the American urban landscape. Cultural commentators tend to read the phenomenon as either a manifestation of the merging of the corporate and art worlds, or a testament to the ultimate idealism of civic planning. Its public reception ranges from Maya Lin's beloved Vietnam Memorial to Richard Serra's hated (and removed by litigation) "Tilted Arc."

Businesses with buildings of a certain size are required by law in many cities to spend a percentage of their building costs on art for public display. This requirement that corporations "give something back" to their communities is based on the presumption that the citizenry will be improved by proximity to art. Unfortunately, the art often seems to be giving the public no more than its middle finger.

The American public is not stupid, and it is especially good at realizing when it's being treated with contempt. Dan Quayle's phrase "cultural elite" spoke to the perception of the populace that their opinions and values were not respected by those presuming to act on their behalf. This perception occasionally leads to action, as the eventual removal of Serra's jilted arc and the widespread defacement of public art attest.

Of course, not all art that costs over $100,000, appeals to CEOs, and is immune to the elements is necessarily bad. The artists who receive these commissions are often respected both in and out of the art world. The commissioned work, however, does not always reflect their talents. Judging from the difference between some artists' smaller works and their public commissions, artists such as Jim Dine, Isamu Noguchi, and Jean Dubuffet seem to have two tiers of artwork production: one for galleries and museums, and one for the street.

A leisurely walk in midtown or downtown Manhattan can yield views of excess metal in a variety of incarnations. The fruits of our endeavor are available here for your viewing enjoyment.

New York City outdoor art can be divided into the following loose categories:

USEFUL ART:

Subway Map
Unattributed
Greene Street, between Prince and Spring, Soho

In truth, only an abstraction, and certainly not likely to get you un-lost. But it gets points for looking great.

Vesey Street Overpass
North side of World Trade Center,
Vesey Street between W. Broadway and Barclay, Financial District

On the topside of this fantastic bridge sits the "World Trade Center Stabile" by Alexander Calder. But it's not half as impressive as the effect of the reflections of the tops of cars and buses as they drive under the bridge itself.

"Digital" Clock
East side of the Citicorp Building,
Water Street at Fulton Street, Financial District

This awesome tribute to the 1970s actually displays the time by lighting separate numbers. The photo was taken at 4:17, but occasional random numbers, such as 19 in this case, appear at intervals, perhaps to make the whole thing seem more exciting. AGGRO ART:

Isamu Noguchi
"The Red Cube"
Marine Midland Building Plaza
Broadway between Cedar and Liberty Streets, Financial District

"A study in contrasts," sez my Berlitz Cityscope tour book. Contrasts, my butt. Though Noguchi's work is often sublime, this piece seems more likely to be about the similarity between it and the Marine Midland Bank's logo immediately to the right of it.

Jim Dine "Looking Towards The Avenue" 6th Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets

Where are the Christian Fundamentalists when you need 'em? This oppressive corporate display of butt-crack is a shining example of the work of an artist whose ability to make interesting art on a smaller scale betrays his corporate commissions as unbridled cynicism.

(No Title - Blue U)
6th Avenue at 51st Street

Apparently no one wants to take credit for this example of just why corporate art gets such a bad name.

KINDER, GENTLER ART:

Louise Nevelson Plaza
Intersection of Maiden Lane, William Street and Liberty Street

Well, by now we've seen a lot worse. It looks like a nice place to have lunch, and at least it has the humility to share its space with plants and benches.

Tom Otterness
Playground at Hudson River Park
Chambers Street at the Hudson River, Financial District

Otterness is someone who actually toys with the issues of public and corporate art commissions. In keeping with its Wall Street-adjacent location, this children's playground's recurring theme is money. Among thousands of oversized bronze pennies, many of the anatomically-correct animal sculptures portray clashes between poor folk and big, mean, bureaucratic "fat cats." Otterness has made a career out of biting the hands that feed him.

(Unattributed - Big Shiny Triangle)
McGraw Hill Co. Building
6th Avenue between 49th and 50th Street

Despite its abstract geometric appearance, a plaque at the base of this sculpture separates it from the meaningless visual tradition it appears to sustain. Though not exactly useful, it does have a function. According to the plaque, each of the sides of the triangle point to the sun's position at each solstice and equinox. (If you're wondering why there are only three sides, at Fall and Spring equinox the sun is in the same place relative to the earth.)

IBM Plaza Atrium
Madison Avenue at East 56th Street

As an artsy corporate lunching place, this atrium can't be beat. Besides providing a lunch spot for the midtown office crowd, it's also the perfect place to take a break between catching an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and checking out a viewing at Christie's. The glass-enclosed space is adorned with sculptures by Lichtenstein, Nevelson, Oldenburg (with Coosje van Bruggen), Chamberlain, Calder, di Suvero, Dubuffet, and Dine. Take note of the posted rules, which prohibit sitting on the ground and sleeping, among many other things.

BLEND IN:

George Segal
"The Commuters"
Port Authority Bus Terminal, Main Floor,
South Wing, 8th Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets

Note Segal's fashion prescience: despite its 1980 execution date, he foresaw the eventual return of bell bottoms, hip huggers, and high-heeled open-toe sandals. This sculpture was ingeniously crafted to look contemporary and then retro in 15-year cycles for eternity. Also crucial to the impact of the piece are the contents of the passengers' bags. One contains bricks and the other oozes mud from the top. This emphasizes the purgatorial theme suggested by the sign which always reads "NEXT DEPARTURE 3:00." If anyone out there in Los Angeles has seen the prominently exhibited private yard sculpture on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, of such life-size and realistically-painted figures as a homeless man laying on a park bench covering his face with a newspaper and two tourist lookie-lous peeking over the fence with binoculars, this Segal piece will feel familiar. However, in fairness, Segal's artistic goals are not as transparent, nor as insulting, as those of the unnamed Los Angeles artist and his or her patron.

D-I-Y:

Anonymous
Avenue B between 5th and 6th Streets;
3rd Street between Ave. B and C,
East Village

Not to be outdone, the public speaks back with the tools at its disposal (namely garbage).

CONSUMPTION-ENCOURAGEMENT:

Hae Won Chon
"Identity of Women"
In window of JCB International Credit Card, Ltd.
51st Street and Rockefeller Plaza, between 5th and 6th Avenues,
Midtown

Only public by virtue of its high-profile window location, this insulting piece is presumably intended to lure customers into the ambiguous establishment. It didn't appear to be working.

Ivana Trump
Trump Tower
5th Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets,
Midtown

Modern corporate plazas occupy a strange transition area between the phenomena of the public urban street culture Baudelaire exalted and the private mall culture which Mike Davis decried as its sorry replacement in City of Quartz. Trump Tower epitomizes this transition, blurring the distinction between sightseeing and shopping beyond existence. Also noted was the surprising lack of pennies in the fountain, leading one to believe that either the public doesn't see this as an appropriate place for wish-making, or that the fountains are perhaps cleaned out daily and deposited in a certain someone's bank account.

JENNIFER DALTON is an old media artist.

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