Clearing the Air About Public Art


Reporter Carol Vogel wrote last week in the New York Times about an upcoming Antony Gormley public art residency with the Madison Square Park Conservancy. All well and good: Gormley is bringing his nude sculptures in multiples to the environs of the park on 23rd Street. He’s a Turner Prize winner. He’s fresh off a living art project in London’s Trafalgar Square. He’s a finalist in some big secret project for the 2012 Olympic Games. But why, according to Vogel, is his commission any less “improbable” than other recent New York showings from the likes of Roxy Paine, Olafur Eliasson, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude? And what, really, should we expect or demand from the realm of public art?

Art critic Jerry Saltz makes a case for Jeff Koons in this week’s decade-ending [Ed. note: Egads.] edition of New York magazine, specifically Koons’s Puppy sculpture, which graced the courtyard of Rockefeller Plaza back in 2000. The 43-foot tall West Highland terrier functions as a giant topiary, its stainless steel girder supporting 23 tons of soil growing over 70,000 live flowers, and its guest spot in 30 Rock was thanks to New York’s Public Art Fund. Saltz argues that Koons’s work embodies contemporary America in all its glory:

It’s big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted—while also being abrasive, creepily sexualized, fussy, twisted, and, let’s face it, ditzy. And his work retains the essential ingredient that, to my mind, is necessary to all great art: strangeness.

Saltz goes on to set criteria for public art that Koons apparently met, while Richard Serra (of Tilted Arc renown, which “haughtily, icily demanded your respect”) did not. It reached out to viewers, and they responded. Sounds simple enough, but how to balance the sheer joy of a largely unsuspecting public with the judgment of art critics and reporters who set the standard?

Another point is that the cost of maintaining such large-scale works in the long term is next to impossible for a public benefactor. Collector Peter Brant reportedly spends upwards of $75,000 a year to maintain his reissue of Koons Puppy, which now resides at Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. (It’s also traveled to Sydney.) From this reasoning, should we extrapolate a time limit on efficacy of public art, from a standpoint of both cost economy and the law of diminishing returns? Because as marvelous and out-of-the-box as Puppy was for a few months in the year 2000, the cost of maintaining it versus the enjoyment of the public would seem to fit the supply/demand curve to a tee.

Let’s take a gander at some public art displayed in New York City in this decade, plus one model project residing in Chicago:

Jeff Koons, Puppy, resting at the Bilbao Guggenheim after its purchase in 1997, and on tour at Rockefeller Plaza in 2000.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc from 1981. The curving wall of raw steel, 120 feet long and 12 feet hig, intersected Federal Plaza in New York City, making it necessary for passerby to circumvent the piece when walking through; apparently it was enough of a hindrance to spur a 4-1 public hearing verdict demanding the artwork be removed by 1989.

Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls project for New York City (2008), sponsored by the Public Art Fund. Four man-made waterfalls were installed along the East River waterfront, delighting viewers but causing controversy due to environmental and fiscal concerns.

French duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed unfurling orange “gates” along 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park in February 2005.

Roxy Paine’s Conjoined stainless-steel tree sculptures, on view in Madison Square Park in 2007 before later decamping to the rooftop of The Met.

Takashi Murakami’s Reversed Double Helix, a solo exhibition on display in Rockefeller Plaza in October 2003.

Chicago is big on public art as well, carving an enormous exhibition plaza in Millennium Park, right on the waterfront next to The Art Institute. While not always entirely respectful of public art pieces, or highbrow for that matter, Chi-town’s got one artwork to put other public installations to shame.

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, Chicago. Referred to by locals as “The Bean”, it weighs in at over 110 tons, and its dimensions measure 66 feet long by 33 feet high, and its seamless stainless-steel surface is the result of thousands of hours of polishing.

For more, check out New York’s Public Art Fund archive, and let us know what you think makes good public art in the comments.