Jean Parker Phifer’s just-published Public Art New York has the friendly, down-to-earth feel of a travel guide. And it would indeed make the perfect accessory to a walking tour of New York City: it’s colorful, packed with photographs and maps, and organized by neighborhood.
But plentiful aesthetic and social insights from Phifer (and the book’s photographer, Francis Dzikowski) make Public Art far more than just a guidebook. Phifer is an architect who spent five years presiding over what is now the Public Design Commission, where she learned to weigh “the complex interplay between a work of public art and its immediate physical surroundings,” she says in the book’s introduction. She draws on that experience to talk engagingly about how each artwork contributes to its surrounding architecture and public space — like the way the whimsical benches in the Jacob Javits plaza counterbalance the adjacent courthouses’ grimness and entice passersby to use the square.
Public Art is also notable for the breadth of its scope, both geographically (it spans all five boroughs) and conceptually. Phifer extends the definition of “public art” well beyond the traditional monuments and murals: some of the book’s most interesting choices are unofficial (like the patterns carved surreptitiously into one Soho sidewalk), temporary (like the lighting that appears on the George Washington Bridge on special occasions), and commercial (like the neon advertising in Times Square).
Photographer Francis Dzikowski may be a silent presence in the book, but he’s a strong one nonetheless. His photographs are thoughtful works of art in their own right, commenting on their subjects through their compositions. A photograph of the sculpture "Joie de Vivre" (rebuilt on its Ground Zero site soon after 9/11) offers a reminder of the resilience of the quotidian, the sculpture’s exultant form grounded by an unceremonious heap of garbage bags at its feet. Keith Haring’s "Crack is Wack" mural provides the backdrop for a huddled trio of sleeping vagrants, whose presence balances the cartoonish mural with the somber realities it references.
And Dzikowski’s lens is frequently playful, capturing people interacting — sometimes unknowingly — with the artworks. The muscled figures in Noguchi’s "News," above the entrance to Rockefeller Plaza, seem to be considering an oblivious passerby; a bronze panther in Central Park appears about to pounce on a passing biker; and a photograph of the East Coast Memorial is punctuated by a syncopated pattern of pedestrians, their positioning echoing and riffing on the straightforward rhythm of the granite slabs.