Unnatural Growth

John Haber
in New York City

Summer Sculpture 2007: Joel Shapiro

Each year, as the days grow long and lovely, galleries offer less and less of an excuse to stay inside. What is an art lover without a car to do? Head for the parks, with the excuse that New York once again fills them with summer sculpture. Let me show you around.

Perhaps I never would have fallen in love with art if I did not first love exploring the city. Perhaps, too, the more galleries flock to Chelsea, the more I want an excuse to break out. In the parks, I can look back on it all a comfortable distance. Perhaps that has lost some of its urgency, now that the Manhattan skyline no longer speaks only of 9/11. The art has grown less urgent in tone this year as well. Roxy Paine's Conjoined (James Cohan Gallery, 2007)

As usual, art in Manhattan stretches from Central Park past City Hall, with Roxy Paine in Madison Square Park bringing a welcome touch of unreality. The show on the Brooklyn waterfront calls itself "Still Flying," and I only wish that it referred to the gallery scene in Williamsburg. Finally, Socrates Sculpture Park is starting to look almost professional, even without much in the way of greenery. It also offers a great chance to reflect on a key participant, Joel Shapiro.

And do not forget that each summer the winner of the P.S. 1 young architect's program gets to remake the museum's dreadfully barren, pebbled "garden" entrance. Typically the winning entry takes the shape of a canopy, to respect the courtyard's use as a weekend concert arena and picnic grounds. Inevitably it comes off looking like the postmodern equivalent of Shakespeare's "bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." This year's obstacle course of bright orange and wood might pass for a few collapsed hammocks, an comic artist's rendition of a supernova remnant, the plastic floral arrangement in that dreadful office cubicle down the hall, or maybe yet another summer Con Ed failure. The LA firm of Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues calls it Liquid Sky, after the cult film in which space aliens replace the downtown arts crowd—or maybe the other way around. Who can resist hanging out at P.S. 1 anyway?

Mobile monuments and unyielding trees

To get there, one can always begin on the Met's roof, overlooking Central Park, if only to case out the joint. The sculpture there, by Frank Stella, resembles domed stadiums with the cables and wiring leaking out. They look at once comfortable and funky, but they work best as a postscript to his architecture in the galleries below. Alternatively, one may simply remember Frank Stella for his paintings.

If Stella likes his art big and assertive, sculpture a mile south aspires to a monument. Make that a mockery of a monument, for in Doris C. Freedman plaza, at the park's southeast corner, Damián Ortega sets out an undersized obelisk on a pitifully tiny platform. Of course, in this overblown art scene, even the appearance of art for the masses is an deception. The platform may have four wheels, as if anyone could take it home, but Ortega has bolted it firmly to the ground. Where once Barnett Newman set out his Broken Obelisk, now one must settle for art on training wheels.

I considered pushing on it, to make a public fool of myself. I remembered how a friend once ran up against the Isamu Noguchi on lower Broadway to prove that Red Cube rotates (oops). Should I try for the effect knowingly? Could I stir up some tourists to a performance? Maybe not.

Beginning to prefer ecosystems to art after all? Head south to Madison Square, where Roxy Paine adds three trees and a boulder or two, only in shining steel. All reflect the species of their neighbors, in more ways than one sense of the word reflection. As it happens, outside the Ritz-Carlton by Battery Park, Ugo Rondinone plants an aluminum tree, its bare and battered branches painted a ghostly white. Paine, in contrast, manages a convincing imitation without the least possibility of illusion.

One of Paine's trees extended the 2002 Whitney Biennial to Central Park. Did the trick look too easy? Was it like carrying coals to Newcastle? In Madison Square Park, one sees his real concern for how humanity at once represents and alters nature. At his gallery last year, Paine displayed a ball of mud and a glass display case for layers of earth and vegetation. Now he dares sculpture to keep up with planet Earth.

It seems only right that the work ascended just as trees to either side first showed their buds. On that early spring day, art and nature were sprouting together. That day, too, his partly completed trees stood out thanks to the spareness of their surroundings. They and the park alike seemed a work in progress. Now the art stands out by its leaflessness. One work, representing a tall oak, remains seemingly blighted or destroyed.

. . . And the Battery's down

Paine seems to suggest, then, that art can never imitate nature, unless somehow stunted. Maybe the metal tree looks at nature like the Tin Woodman, wishing for that extra something inside. Yet he also suggests how art elicits metaphors that nature alone cannot. His other trees lean together so that their low, spreading branches touch. They echo Romanticism's contrasting metaphors for the mutual influences of nature and the human imagination.

I still cannot get over the feeling that I have gotten the joke by now. Yet I so much want to see the park around them change again this fall. Maybe I can climb the boulder when no one is looking.

On the static side, City Hall Park scales its expectations back this summer. It settles for a kind of Alexander Calder for beginners, not unlike dumbing down coverage of Paris Hilton. At their best, the half dozen works avoid Calder's poles of the blandly monumental and fun for the entire family, for all the brilliance of Calder mobiles. Modest in scale, several allow fins to thrust out. They could almost aspire to Minimalism's industrial energy. One has a mix of primary colors in place of his endless expanse or red or steel.

Just a block or two north, Federal Plaza has a fence around it for construction. Once, the city chased art out of that very plaza to open it to workers. Now the most popular sculpture in town belongs to Richard Serra at MoMA. And the plaza looks as faceless as it did before he ever hoped to disturb it. It reminds me why I seek both art and the parks in summer, to feel just a little less excluded.

That brings me back to City Hall—and in desperate need of escape. The solution lies right at hand, with the Brooklyn Bridge. Its footpath takes one out of Manhattan, into the sky, and back down in Dumbo, by still more art. The Brooklyn parks between the bridges play host to nearly thirty works, the most I can recall. Strangely enough, one might not notice a thing from above. In fact, I almost failed to find two or three pieces on the ground.

The show's title, "Still Flying," sounds like a boast. In resonates with the glorious view of lower Manhattan. It echoes past summers, when the work often looked implicitly toward Ground Zero. This time, however, the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition has in mind another kind of flight. It intends another kind of persistence, in both art and nature. The curators, Ursula Clark and Tyrome Tripoli, have chosen work for its modesty and traditionalism.

Flight patterns

I have seen fly-by-night art before. Maybe the theme runs only as deep as titles like Swooping, Flying Freely, Flying Street Kids, Observatory, Woman Gazing at the Heavens. Then again, maybe things are looking up. Or are they?

Alex Neroulias's plywood model airplane, for one, sticks low to the ground, and I dare anyone to set it in flight. Stuart Nicholson's Buddha Buoy, an undistinguished plastic jug, bobs contentedly in the water. It literally goes with the flow. More simply still, Judy Thomas ties her blue nylon around rocks, to make the shoreline and its contours her own. The installation shies away from drama—or even from the lawn and southern headland. I really did spot nothing but sunbathers from the bridge crossing.

Perhaps the artists turn consciously away from the political focus of past years. Perhaps they turn toward Brooklyn itself as an urban environment. When Sharon Luebbers calls a sculpted bird Urban Fossil, one knows that art in Brooklyn has a long history. The largest work, Richard Watts's wooden called Ark, guards the northern exit. It connects Brooklyn to a whaling past and to humanity's very survival. With his Wet Feathers of splayed automobile parts, Tripoli himself could almost have rescued a John Chamberlain from the car pound in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Plenty of others look back to Cubism or Surrealism in their metal constructions. One can see the influence of early Modernism in titles like Bernard Klevickas's Red Assembly, Michael Post's Muse, or Martin Springetti's fazeframe. However, Brooke Foy's kite, Rod Norchcut's wind vane, and Tom Holmes's wind harp approach abstraction as well. The show actually loses something with its most literal and dramatic gestures, as in Tammy Bickel metal Dragonfly, Doug Makemson's bird of prey, or Miles Van Rensselaer's wiry pied piper. I mistook Ed Herman's flying kids at first for the iconic falling bodies at the Twin Towers, as in a Paul Chan video. I could never feel them fly again.

Cordy Ryman often paints stripes on recycled wood, as if canvas had fallen away to leave only the stretcher that once gave it shape. In a gallery, his semaphore-like paintings can settle into the corners and change how and where one looks. Here the broad yellow and green Wave walls the park off from its setting. Other work, in contrast, all but tries to disappear. Clark's own Flying Fish of plywood and string hangs almost invisibly from a tree. Art this spare becomes a sign of something more than a representation of it, but I could not decide whether the symbol stood for Christianity or a Goldfish cracker.

Much of the best work finds drama even as it clings closely to earth. Kathy Bruce's frame of twigs embraces a bush—giving it at once a woman's body and a home. The white carpeting of Jens Venemen's Input Output spreads from the base of a tree like its roots. The pattern, suggestive of a circuit board, points simultaneously to another kind of networking. And Gloria Holwerda-Williams Rough Heart of stones, held together by a low wall of twigs, looks like anything but a heart of stone.

Oh, that outer borough

Of course, when it comes to summer sculpture, Fulton-Ferry State Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park have a rival. Maybe I should call it the black sheep in the family. New Yorkers themselves hardly talk about it. Yet it does not just open itself to art in summer. It calls itself a sculpture park all year round, even when it does not house much in the way of sculpture.

It has everything going against it. The parks in Brooklyn nestle beneath the piers of two soaring bridges. Socrates Sculpture Park shares a property line with Costco. Dumbo looks out on the landmarks of lower Manhattan. The park at the foot of Broadway in northern Queens offers views of hospitals, the sad lighthouse at the tip of Roosevelt Island, anonymous housing, and a prison.

Joel Shapiro's Untitled, for David (photo by the artist, PaceWildenstein, 2001–2003)Dumbo has sunbathers who look as if they have not moved since the office closed early on Friday. The Queens waterfront attracts strollers, dogs in need of a run, Astoria residents checking out the schedule of free movies and video art, and others desperate for a patch of green. The mix of public and private funding for city parks hardly helps. Socrates Sculpture Park cannot draw on the wealth of Brooklyn Heights or Dumbo condos to keep it manicured and to supply a state-of-the-child-art playground. Most past years, the sculpture, has suggested the remnants of a dying suburb. This once, though, the art draws on neighborhood strengths that many New Yorkers forget.

Queens may have trouble sounding chic, but Brooklyn cannot claim alternative spaces like P.S. 1 or Sculpture Center. Socrates Sculpture Park gives its location prominently as Long Island City, partly because of the postal zone, but also to reinforce the idea of a vital arts district. The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum sits just up the block. And the curator, Alyson Baker, celebrates the park's twentieth birthday. She builds around a core of recognizable names, such as Joel Shapiro along with other local artists. They end up making the lesser-known work look like it, too, deserves a home in Queens.

Noguchi's table and chair pierced as if by sunlight fits the show as naturally as chess tables fit Washington Square. The park has work area for sculpture year round, including that of Mark di Suvero, a co-founder. Along with Shapiro's stick figure, his three-legged abstraction anchors the show and soars above the rest. Past shows have had park themes, such as sport. This time, too, a few pieces seem to have wandered in from that great urban park in the sky. However, they are actually the exceptions.

Amy Yoes constructs a painted canopy, with seating both inside and outside. It plays with ideas of sculpture and architecture, object and container, and families seem drawn to it for the shade. A small, low polygonal fence made me think of a dog run. Although I could not follow the text circling it in cursive letters, Kurt Lightner may allude to a park as an artificial nature preserve, like those in his paintings. Stephen Dean covers his two Haystacks with harsh paint, to make sure that they, too, punctuate the inherited setting.

From Minimalism to Loony Tunes

Mostly, however, this year's show otherwise forgets about a theme. Perhaps it, like Brooklyn, backs off a few years of more public statements. As in Brooklyn, too, several of the works insist on their modesty. Noguchi, Yoes, Lightner, and Dean do not defy gravity or exaggerate the scale of what they represent. James Johnson's polished aluminum wave fronts would suit the show in Brooklyn just fine. So would Nicole Tschampel's simulated carved marble tree trunks

Anne Deleporte calls her bright blue cylinder a Babel Tube, but it does not tower very high. Rachel Stevens has an even lower cylinder, and within it she represents a man and horse, to bring heroes down to earth. One work, Flux Factory's Albatross, does come with a lot of baggage, as the title suggests. It represents a boat that might have come aground. It also carries plenty of junk to attest to its last occupants, like the ratty constructions of Jesse Bercowetz and Matt Bua. It insists on its own history, too, starting with the artist collective contributing to the process.

Andrea Christens's Empire Power Authority gets at her surroundings better by punning and vanishing. Like Judy Thomas's nylon around the rocks in Dumbo, her translucent cords wrap part of the waterfront barrier, but almost invisibly. Up close, however, they also represent some kind of industrial wiring. They let a poor shoreline rival Con Ed's smokestacks in the distance.

Not every artist looks better outdoors. When Louise Nevelson makes a public monument, it can become all too monumental. However, Shapiro's industrial forms and playful image look wonderful on this scale. As in the gallery, they border on Minimalism, but with a childlike concern for creature comforts. Shapiro has always cobbled together long beams of metal or wood. And they still look naively human—like stick figures that a child might draw.

As abstract sculpture, his wide-open forms derive from David Smith. So do the industrial allusions—and the emphasis on the artist sticking them together. However, Shapiro's simplified shapes bring them closer to the 1970s. Cantilevered constructions recall Richard Serra or Frank Stella. A sense that these things just tumbled together—and are about to tumble apart—picks up the rhetoric of entropy loved by Robert Smithson. Their charm and accessibility push it all past Minimalism as well, very much to the art of today.

Shapiro, like Stella, too, keeps getting more ambitious. He long ago started to prefer bronze casts to found materials. In 2003, the date of his piece now in Queens, his sculpture barely fit even in Pace's luxurious Chelsea space, and human allusions had come close to vanishing. A month earlier at the same gallery, Elizabeth Murray had her strongest paintings in years by building them from units less like French curves and more like Loony Tunes, as in a champion of hers, Carroll Dunham. Had Shapiro lost entirely his sense of vulnerability, in a too hasty retreat to abstraction? Maybe, but one would never know it now in Queens, and summer sculpture looks awfully pretty.

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"Still Flying," the annual show of art "Between the Bridges" in Empire Fulton-Ferry State Park in Dumbo, sponsored by the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, ran through August 25, 2007, sculpture in Socrates Sculpture Park through August 6, Frank Stella on the roof of The Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 28, and Roxy Paine hosted by the Madison Square Parks Conservancy through December 31. Elizabeth Murray appeared at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea through April 19, 2003, Joel Shapiro in the same gallery through May 31, and a related article looks at his inspired smaller and sparer early work. Another related review looks at Roxy Paine indoors and in wood. Reviews continue into the present, with summer 2017.


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