I Cover the Waterfront

John Haber
in New York City

Summer Sculpture 2009: Noguchi ReINstalled

The Queens waterfront offers quite a combination—a short history of modern sculpture, a great artist's private studio, superb museum architecture, and a ticket to the city's industrial past. After a long renovation, the Isamu Noguchi Museum again gives access to both floors and its entire collection. Yet few people seem to know it exists, and I am sure not complaining. It is that rare spot in New York to exhale deeply. I would return for the black garden sculpture that doubles as a fountain alone.

By comparison, the boisterous space just across the street feels almost too American, and I do not mean the Costco. Socrates Sculpture Park has chosen the theme of "State Fair" for its summer sculpture out of doors. Little of the work is site specific, but the theme alone relates it to its surroundings. When it comes to a state fair in Astoria, one could expect nostalgia or irony. Between Astoria's Greek community, Hispanics, gentrifiers, and Costco shoppers, "State Fair" gets to choose between any number of "states"—including exhaustion and catatonia. Even the irony, though, leans more toward gentle humor or civic boosterism. Roxy Paine's Maelstrom (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009)

One who remembers Dumbo's promise as an arts district, overflowing with studios, will think that the biggest news this summer had nothing to do with sculpture. The neighborhood's real-estate developer sold its clock tower at the foot of Main Street as a record-setting luxury triplex. As ever, though, the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition sponsors art between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. With "Abundance," Ursula Clark and Tyrome Tripoli also include some of the same artists as last year, including themselves.

My affection for summer and early fall sculpture extends all over New York. I love the excuse to walk city streets and bridges in sunlight. I love to remind myself of how much of the city one misses, between cold winters and a narrow focus on commercial galleries. That includes Roxy Paine on the roof of the Met and Jessica Stockholder in Madison Square. It includes Governors Island, with its first show in four years—but I leave that to a separate article. And of course it includes maybe the best view in New York City, from Brooklyn, before ending in Queens.


Not all sculpture by Roxy Paine is site specific. It just becomes that way over time. Not that his limbs of stainless steel can evolve or even lose their shine. They do, however, become more a part of their geography over time. Of course, New Yorkers can adapt to anything, but Paine wants sculpture to adapt to nature.

It might not work if he planted a bare tree in a forest. In a public park, though, Paine brings hints of an artificial nature to human landscaping. He first infiltrated Central Park in 2002, when the Whitney Biennial was extending its own conception of site-specific art. It helped that biennials open when bare branches still make sense, but it helped, too, that one had to hunt out the work. As spring advanced, the sun reflecting off bright steel belonged more to the season than ever. Perhaps it helped that Robert Moses once tried to improve the park on the cheap by planting plane trees, an invasive species that now dares sheet metal to look half as uniform.

In Madison Square Park two years ago, his trees outlasted summer leaves. Metaphorically they begged to belong, too, by leaning toward one another. One could see Paine reaching even beyond summer and fall, to the cycles of nature. When he used his gallery for an artificial terrarium, its exposed layers of earth looked like a high-school science project, what a Brooklyn gallery has called "Natural Histories." They alluded to fragile earth, but also to geologic time. Again, they played simultaneously with art as a model of nature and art as the long view—a kind of reach for eternity.

Paine returns for a summer and early fall to America's most famous work of landscape architecture, and this time he really has made art to fit. What it does not have to fit is Central Park. As rooftop sculpture at the Met, Maelstrom merely overlooks the park, as green and welcoming as ever. However, its twisted shape might have blown in from afar in some kind of majestic storm. At one-hundred forty feet, it extends the full length of the rooftop café, and it reaches up to twenty-nine feet high. Paine makes it impossible to know where any one trunk and its branches begin and end.

Maelstrom makes an impact—and represents one. Among other things, it alludes to the twenty-mile devastation in Siberia in 2008. (Some blamed a tiny black hole, but strange things happen when the warp drive overloads.) Most impressively, though, it works in human terms, hokey as that may sound. It gathers to a height as one comes off the elevator, before tapering off into a clearing to the south. It even permits an orderly line for food and drink.

Dead trees as art, as with Michelle Lopez this spring, have become an overworked and overblown gesture. As one circulates among Paine's branches, though, their image of destruction becomes more intimate and alive. As far as I could see, its ten thousand pieces all connect, as if they had grown together. It belongs to a series of "Dendroids," an allusion to natural growth. Am I wrong in hearing an echo, too, of androids? Even on the roof, Paine's artificial life has crashed very nicely to earth.

Synthetic Cubism

Jessica Stockholder leaves me a fan waiting for the big number. In Madison Square Park, she even supplies the stage, plus free seating (not unlike her heirs, Gelitin). The action, unfortunately, takes place elsewhere.

Stockholder made her name with household debris. When it climbed two stories at P.S. 1 in 2006, I wanted it to climb over me. When it spilled off the wall in Chelsea that same year, I could imagine household appliances morphing into housewives and back again. Which had swallowed the other? Either way, the bright colors could almost relieve the weight of household drudgery and a woman's confinement in traditional roles. For once, feminism and appropriation were having almost too much fun.

Back in the gallery, Stockholder has much the same colorful assemblies. Her compositions again take on human weight on the floor, while starting from the two dimensions of the wall. They look very much like Synthetic Cubism bust its bounds—and I do mean synthetic. As in The Graduate, I have one word for you, plastic. And yet George Segal long ago created a weary portrait of the Cubist in three dimensions, while Stockholder has settled for the cheerful version. She searches the vocabulary of Modernism for a more down-home vision.

She has also taken it outdoors. For Madison Square Park, she adopts the same bright colors and misaligned geometries. She puts the viewer in the middle of the work, on her largest scale to date. A sort of thrust stage thrusts the wrong way—away from the audience and deep into the oval lawn. Bleachers rise across it, and idlers enjoy a better view of the park. They may not notice the garden behind them, a mix of real plants and red-plastic mushrooms.

Flooded Chambers Maid again alludes to a woman's household work. The title also describes the work's shape, which has spilled entirely off the wall and flooded the lawn. In flattening out, however, the piece threatens to wash every which way and none. To make things worse, actual wet weather long kept the grass fenced off. Here Stockholder relies more on geometric patterns, but also less on the collision of composition, dysfunction, and associations with real materials. She begs to engage visitors, but they just grab a seat and look the other way.

Between her garden, Roxy Paine's steel tendrils on the Met's roof, a swirling wall in the Lever building by Tara Donovan, and nylon tentacles by Ernesto Neto recently at the Armory, this summer's sculpture seems obsessed with organic growth—but of the cute variety. James Surls adds still more plant life, this time to the Park Avenue median strip. His metal sculpture in midtown arranges its stalks and flowers in fan-like circles. Where the other artists shy away from literalism, Surls cannot get enough of it. Where they disrupt formalism, he cannot insist enough on fine art. Where they refuse to be tamed, he had better find a petting zoo that accepts plants fast, before his tameness is forgotten.

Along for the ride

Other nature themes appear on the waterfront in Dumbo, in deference to a Brooklyn waterfront park drenched in summer rains. In "Abundance," Ursula Clark supplies a house of twigs, like a bird's offering to a small mammal, while Kevin Kelly's birch-like forms rise from a bed of anemones. Some even reclaim the park for environmental causes, such as Cathrin Hoskinson's weather vane of glass hands or Summer Yates's Mirror Mobile, akin to artistic solar panels. Sarah Haviland's chairs and wheels could also be sheltering, functional, or none of the above. At first, I mistook the most human of all for simple boulders. Step up close, and Miggy Buck has helped big white toes cross the grass.

Tyrome Tripoli more closely reflects the show's subdued, traditional flavor this time out. His rising tangle of amber metal suggests modernist public sculpture on a smaller scale. Any number of other works as well fit with what a friend, back when Minimalism ruled, called "sculpture sculpture." They run from Bernard Klevickas's aluminum lattice and William Brayton's construction of spheres and disks to Nova Mihai Popa's sphere tightly nested in a spiral. Jarrett Hawkins updates the industrial look a bit in bright blue, and kids update it even more on behalf of Maximilian Pelzmann. They climb all over his white Wind Wave like monkey bars, and for a moment a doll lay napping in its curves.

As for sculpture in Queens, the labyrinth of a former industrial space allows Isamu Noguchi varied degrees of exposure to the elements and to natural light. Not to repeat my 2001 review of his gloriously personal museum, but the ground floor holds work of the 1960s through the artist's death in 1988. Mostly in granite and basalt, they have all Noguchi's play on rough against polished surfaces, mass against base, raw texture against colored stone. The upper floor has geometric metal planes from the 1980s, studies in plaster and marble, and older work. It spans figuration rooted in Surrealism and anxiety after Hiroshima, along with mostly rejected designs for public spaces—another sort of tribute to human stupidity. The garden again shows Noguchi's union of art, design, and cultural traditions.

Mark Dion, who curates in Socrates Sculpture Park along with Alyson Baker and Marichris Ty, has had his own preoccupation with "rescue archaeology." All eleven artists in "State Fair" are digging up the past, and none worries about digging too deeply. The best known, Stephen Shore, hardly sets foot in the park. Instead, the photographer bases the entry billboard on his trip to Texas. Jason Simon's video of a fair in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, plays only online. Its noise, crowds, flashing lights, punching bags, and explosions make New York look like Middle America.

On a sunny June weekend, sharing the park with a market day, one could easily give into the spirit of a county fair. Kids were building impromptu sculpture out of sticks. Dana Sherwood packs terrariums into a makeshift wagon, as if America's past were a science experiment, and Bernard Williams's black barn combines Pennsylvania Dutch imagery with signs for Route 66. Margarita Cabrera has her cross-cultural agenda, too, with a clay tractor covered birds and butterflies out of Mexican folk art. The multiculturalism extends to Europe as well. Jennifer Cecere means her doilies high in the trees to evoke the Rose window at Chartres, while Jeanine Oleson patterns her gold fence and garden after the Unicorn Tapestries.

Those hoping for irony might prefer Emily Feinstein's ruins of a roller-coaster ride, but kids were clambering up onto the cars all the same. They might also prefer William Stone's deconstruction of arm wrestling. The players must sit on opposite sides of a partition while grasping the device, as if they were wrestling with its cast aluminum hands rather than each other. Charles Gute's billboard, of "Deep Fried in Oil" and "On a Stick," makes carnival food a less appetizing exercise in semiotics. Risa Pujo sets out the props for a Big Apple Showdown Spectacular—including doors to hold open on an imaginary crowded subway, a timed course for those busy with text messaging, and a restaurant "no reservations rally." What it lacks in beauty or intellectual clout, it makes up in anticipating the ride home.

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Roxy Paine ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 25, 2009, Jessica Stockholder at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through June 20 and in Madison Square Park through August 15,"Abundance" in Empire Fulton-Ferry State Park in Dumbo through September 7, "Noguchi ReINstalled" through October 24, and "State Fair" at Socrates Sculpture Park through August 2. The Isamu Noguchi Museum fully reopened to the public on June 17. A related review looks at Roxy Paine indoors and in wood. Reviews continue into the present, with summer 2017.


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