Whatever your feelings about public art, there’s a lot of it in New York City. A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York reflects on the origins and future of the city’s public sculptures, murals, and more ephemeral works, fifty years after artists and curators brought art out of the galleries and into the streets.
Of course, New York has always had civic statues and monuments, but the public art movement really took off in the 1960s with Sculpture in Environment, a 1967 Parks Department exhibition that brought work by 24 artists to parks and buildings in Manhattan. The installations were the city’s attempt to beautify itself in the face of disinvestment and decay, as well as a response to changing urban conditions that coincided with Kennedy-era positioning of American art and culture as a worldwide export. A timeline in the forecourt of Art in the Open gives a concise and colorful overview of public art from the 60s to today, with “Go See It!” stickers affixed to work that’s endured, like Isamu Noguchi‘s Red Cube in front of 140 Broadway.
A walk in the gallery is a greatest hits parade, organized by theme. A red Keith Haring mural, Crack is Wack, greets visitors who enter Art in Public, the opening category that engages the role of art in shaping shared spaces. Art in Place features site-specific works like The Gates, the 23 miles of orange banners Christo and Jeanne-Claude threaded through Central Park; A Subtlety, Kara Walker’s arresting installation inside the Domino Sugar Factory; and a throwback, Wheatfield—A Confrontation, Agnes Denes’s amber waves of grain in front of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center. The third and final grouping, Art in Action, is devoted to performance and interactive installations. Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, a community center for migrants in Corona, Queens, and Rudy Shepherd’s Drawing Cart, a table in front of a Harlem laundromat where the artist drew with neighbors, are thoughtful exceptions to the blockbusters.
Humorous letter, right, from a visitor to Freedom of Expression National Monument and Art on the Beach (1984), a public art piece by performer-activist John Malpede, artist Erika Rothenberg, and architect Laurie Hawkinson. (Audrey Wachs/AN)
Exhibition curators collaborated with the city’s major public art organizations to realize Art in the Open. There’s art from MTA Arts & Design, the transit arts program that brings straphangers mosaic murals and Poetry in Motion, video stills and ephemera from Creative Time, the nonprofit behind A Subtlety, as well as many other works featured. The Public Art Fund, the group behind Ai Wei Wei’s current citywide installation, shared its archives with MCNY for the show. Full-scale photographs of the art in situ contextualize the work, most of which (if decommissioned) is scaled to the sky, too massive to fit inside the gallery—a tension the show highlights. There’s a lot to take in, and for New Yorkers, the show will jog memories of art that shapes the city, love it or hate it.
Art in the Open: Fifty Years of Public Art in New York, is on view tomorrow, November 10 through May 13, 2018.