Steamy EntertainmentJohn Haber
in New York City
2012 Summer Sculpture
In a summer so steamy, perhaps only sculpture could tempt me into New York City parks. And with 2012 summer sculpture, I had plenty of choices. I could feel entertained, welcomed home, or lectured—to name just three. After all, the school term, too, may have already begun.
Light entertainment turns up everywhere, from Governor's Island to Madison Square, and you may find it hard not to bring the kids. As for the welcome, artists return to the Brooklyn waterfront, but not as it was. Could it be a parable of the arts in Brooklyn? The lectures begin in earnest in City Hall Park, with "Common Ground" and some heavy summer reading. Related articles carry the story to the Met's roof and Socrates Sculpture Park—and on a stunning detour up the Hudson River to Storm King Art Center, for "Light and Landscape."
No, there is no rule that outdoor sculpture has to pass for light entertainment—but then there was no rule twenty years ago that sculpture had to blend innocuously into an office plaza. It just seems that way. Again this summer, even Mark di Suvero allows families to treat a towering abstraction as a swing, and they do. Other sculptors on Governor's Island have collaborated on a miniature golf course. And even City Hall Park, with a theme show so heavy that it invokes gravestones and the guillotine, gives pride of place to an inflatable ketchup bottle. Hmmm, squeeze me.
It is not easy to compete with di Suvero's ambition and playfulness, back (and slightly augmented) for a second year with the help of Storm King Art Center. So artists have to settle for making it look like child's play. The miniature golf holes look more makeshift than whimsical, but kids truly are playing. A makeshift sculpture park on the island joins them, with a wood TV screen and benches to suggest "unkempt animals." Romy Scheroder even plans for grade-school art assignments, with loosely piled red chairs like an unruly classroom with no place to sit. Dominating them all, Zaq Landsberg's lays the Statue of Liberty's rust-green crown on the grass, as if to give Planet of the Apes a face to the sky.
Kids do not have wait for the ferry to have fun either. Charles Long treats Madison Square Park as a petting zoo. The stylized animals of Pet Sounds bow to art, not to mention Rolling Stone magazine's number two album of all time (after Sgt. Pepper's, if you must know), but there is no mistaking their bright colors for abstraction. Stroke them, and they emit squeals of satisfaction. Wouldn't it be nice if we were older? Not this year.
Paola Piva built within only a few block of the real Central Park Zoo, but he does not allow touching. In fact, a fence sets off his sculpture from the public, in the interest of safety. Those in the mood for Minimalism can treat its huge box as part of the work, at the park's southeast corner, while others are way too wrapped up in the spectacle. A six-passenger Seneca Piper rises above the box, on thick stilts attached to the end of each wing. It also swings freely and wildly on its axis, sometimes enough for a full back flip. One can imagine the artist, from Milan but based in Alaska, practicing his act.
Despite the title, How I Roll has nothing to explain. The airshow's very safety contributes to its charm. Still, when Time Out New York recommended it, with a closing date a month ahead, it had already vanished. Had it crashed and burned after all? Had it flown away? Probably not, and neither had summer's pleasures.
Rules aside, sculpture's eagerness to please says something about its growing audience, much as the blandness of corporate art spoke to its patrons. A reaching for both, meaning cheap entertainment and big money, colors any number of big Chelsea installations. The backlash against them says something, too, because people are rarely quite as gullible as their image, and art rarely plays entirely by the rules. At least art has broken some audience barriers worth breaking. This summer had the inanity of Tom Sachs's indoors Mission to Mars and the frozen grin of Niki de Saint Phalle on the Park Avenue median strip, but also the subtler balance of Cloud City by Tomás Saraceno on the Met's roof and a busier mix on the High Line. For now, grown-ups can always go to Storm King for a fine display of "Light and Landscape"—and maybe next summer they can ask for more.
Does summer sculpture have to be a parable about artists in Brooklyn? Maybe so, when Brooklyn and the arts have proved vital to each other's survival. Besides, part of art is telling stories, and you know how this one goes. First the artists move in, because they have nowhere else to go, bringing the excitement with them. Then their very success drives them out, leaving only baby carriages and "hipsters"—New York Times speak for its advertisers' target demographic. Finally the gentrifiers welcome them back (thank goodness), but as a touch of class for the parks.
And back they are, in Brooklyn Bridge Park and in East River State Park, the more or less triumphant outcome of the battle for the Williamsburg waterfront. (When it opened, in 2007, it did not even have a name.) Now the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition occupies them both, and the show, "Perpetual Energy," sounds right off like Brooklyn's promise. The thirty or so works do not often live up to that promise, but then they have some tough competition. Take just Williamsburg, with its East River view, new high rises, the Sunday flea market next door, and Smorgasburg—a packed Saturday fair of highly upscale food trucks. By comparison, the park is downright sleepy, and its excess of weathered concrete is very much a work in progress.
No wonder much of the work struggles to blend in or to stand out. Andy Moerlein's saplings could belong to a Parks Department tree nursery, Bill Wood's roofing might shelter a bench that someone in haste forgot to install, and Ranjit Bhatnagar's anemometer of guitar pegs by the river could pass for the real thing. Nicolae Golici's motherboard nestles in a tree trunk, while Ursula Clark's mobile even stands off limits, behind a barrier and some rough vegetation. A few works make a statement, like Donna Dodson's decidedly buxom Seagull Cinderella or Miggy Buck's You, a large fist with index finger pointing nowhere in particular. Most, though, remain safely within abstraction, like Eric Stein's blue echo of Alexander Calder, Elmont Bronzini's double curve, Howard Kalish's Cat's Cradle of what could be bones, Janet Goldner's angled uprights, Bernard Klevickas's spreading metal bush, or Coral Lambert's rough hollows. I found a greater strangeness in Esther Grillo's black S, with the ambiguous welcome of floppy rubber claws or handles—and an arched pyramid of (the artists swear) a thousand plastic bottles, by Barbara Lubliner and Sung Jin Oh.
If north Brooklyn offers a qualified welcome home, Dumbo has changed once and for all. Its many studios, as the developer took his time to buy up the neighborhood and obtain his permits, are not coming back. And its south cove, where BWAC had for years set its sculpture "Between the Bridges," is now just one corner of a park slowly spreading north from Atlantic Avenue—and the nicest corner at that. It has as much paving as lush grass, a tiny beach where one can go barefoot from the rocks, a merry-go-round, no weeds, and no room at all for art. After a year's exile on Governor's Island, sculpture has instead the child-friendly nook by the playground to the north. And here much of it aims for the site specific, though by no means all.
One will recognize from past years the ringleaders and their co-conspirators, like Clark in East River Park or Richard Brachman here, with his cryptic steles. Michael Poast applies some lively spray paint to open beams, while Adam Distenfeld pays elegant tribute to Isamu Noguchi and Rodger Stevens to Picasso. Ana Golichi and Judy Richardson both offer lectures so serious that I quake to remember them, the first on frogs as endangered species and the latter with disks of pale colors for Coins of Strategic Countries. Brian G. Keogh got me thinking, with his necklace of beads over a rusted steel triangle, On the Impossibility of Perpetual Motion. Cynthia Karasek had me laughing at nine smooth timbers, each with black cartoon shoes sticking out at bottom, meeting at the top in blue plastic pants. Think of truckin' to a football huddle.
Still, that leaves real discoveries of a changing site. Several evoke jetsam, like Beth Bailis's wood and Steve Dolbin's miniature hull burst by its own anchor, while Oscar Tuazon hardly touches a couple of the park's trees. Clayton Orehek and Daniel Georges create sundials—one patterned on a benzene ring, the other with its blade a Pan's pipe that spreads as it descends into lines for every hour of the night and day. Tone Johansen weaves a tapestry of white rope, and I have her as proof that one can use it for a picnic in the shade. Maybe she has in mind the parable, while the others have in mind the past, but who can forget either one? Walk from there over the Manhattan Bridge, and the park below looks all the more beautiful and all the more changed.
One could walk right past a stone marker on the grass. It could pass for urban infrastructure, like the marker for a water main, and the inscription by Christian Jankowski both names and refuses to name the site:
It could have found its way from Saint Paul's Chapel, where the churchyard of weathered headstones became a spontaneous gathering place and memorial after 9/11. Across City Hall Park, Ian Hamilton Finlay lays much larger granite shards, this time with a Latin inscription, from an architect of the Reign of Terror: "The Present Order Is the Disorder of the Future." Can sculpture abandon the orderly, the upright, and the monumental to find common ground?
"Common Ground," this summer's sculpture in the park (but lingering through November), does not exactly break new ground. Exhibitions like "Unmonumental" and "Undone" have driven the point home. Besides, sculpture abandoned itself to gravity and time long ago, as with Carl Andre and Robert Smithson, back when "happenings" were making art from community in quite another way. Claes Oldenburg himself participated, and Paul McCarthy's towering Daddies Ketchup picks up both Oldenburg's Batcolumn and his soft sculpture. And yet Minimalism, thanks to Maya Lin, has become all but the official language of memorials. One can hear it in the names inscribed on the National September 11 Memorial only blocks away.
Can "Common Ground" make an old debate fresh? A park is common ground, especially at lunch hour, and this particular park could stand a little disorder. A fence surrounds City Hall—where the mayor, himself a byword for arrogance, has restricted access. Then again, more barriers surround Memorial Benches by Jenny Holzer, to ensure that no one gets a rest. They tip her heavy stone and inscribed "truisms," like "A Strong Sense of Duty," from mockery to monument. They can become a memorial to the artist.
Thomas Schütte in fact contributes a Memorial to an Unknown Artist, meaning not an unknown soldier in the cause of art but an actual neglected artist. He has the beard of a prophet and raises his hands to his ears as he intones, no doubt, a prophet's last warning to those who refuse to listen. Matthew Day Jackson goes one step further, with a memorial to himself. His profile, rotated full circle in stainless steel, could belong to Constantin Brancusi or a high-end chess set. McCarthy, too, is clearly winning his oedipal struggles. Where Oldenburg immerses himself at once in pop culture and fine art, McCarthy gets to disdain both.
For Elmgreen and Dragset, even performance art needs a museum piece. They place a silvery "Minimalist bullhorn" in a glass display case, to be used at designated times. Amalia Pica, an Argentinian, stages an equally weighty oration. Her concrete podium faces the park's fountain, and Now, Speak! offers not an invitation but a command. Justin Matherly fits together rough concrete masses into Lacoön. Here classicism and tragedy rest on ambulatory walkers, as one last monument to impermanence.
Sometimes a present disorder is the order of the future. The French Revolution gave way to Napoleon and, in time, to what Karl Marx called the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Finlay could almost have been quoting a "connoisseur of chaos," Wallace Stevens (in a poem of that name): "A. A violent order is disorder; and / B. A great disorder is an order." As Stevens concluded, "Pages of illustrations." For all the group's wit and (yes) mass, somehow summer ends in a lecture.
Charles Long's "Pet Sounds" stood in Madison Square Park through September 9, 2012, Paola Piva's "How I Roll" in Doris C. Freedman Plaza through July 18, "Perpetual Energy" in Brooklyn Bridge and East River Parks through September 15, and "Common Ground" in City Hall Park through November 30. Related reviews carry the story to Tomás Saraceno on the Met's roof and to Socrates Sculpture Park—and to Storm King Art Center, for "Light and Landscape." Links within this article will help you enjoy past summers.