Public Art, Midsummer

August 18th, 2011 § 0 comments

As summer draws toward fall, relatively speaking, I am gearing up for the start of the new art season next month. The enticing prospect of new shows opening throughout the city, many of them dedicated to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, means that all the shows which opened in the latter half of the summer will be, or already have, closed. Though Ai Weiwei himself was thankfully released at the end of June, his photographs of New York City, on view at the Asia Society, closed today, and his Zodiac Heads, at the Pulitzer Fountain in Central Park, have been shipped to L.A. where they will open at LACMA at the end of the month. The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the MET, Savage Beauty, was undoubtedly the blockbuster of the summer (like Tim Burton at MoMA last summer), but Ai Weiwei’s disappearance, detention, and release was the story of the summer—it was a story that brought the whole world to the doorstep of the art world.

The coverage of his detention and disappearance was constant, the outcry was loud and sustained, and his work continued to speak for him during his absence. It was a story that revealed that the overlap between art, politics, free speech, and censorship is impossible to ignore. Ai Weiwei’s 227 photographs of NYC at the Asia Society, are a fascinating look at a group of Chinese artists living and flourishing in the east village during the 1980’s. Like Frank’s The Americans, an outsider can sometimes capture a sense of America that an American cannot. Ai Weiwei’s images remind me of familiar photographs of the beat writers, as the characters in them have that casual look of youth, poverty, and excitement. Snapshot-like, sometimes showing negative strips of multiple images, Weiwei’s photographs retain the careful composition of an artist who knows what it is that he wishes to capture. His Zodiac Heads in Central Park were fantastic, monumental and eye catching, full of character and detail. Perhaps because of his detainment, it seemed like a privilege to be able to see his art, and in spite of his absence they were two of the best shows the city offered this summer.

During the heat wave, in a moment of insanity inspired by a short workday, I took the subway down to City Hall Park to catch of glimpse of a familiar artist adorning the public park: Sol LeWitt. Though it took an entire bottle of water to wander through a very small public park, full of unhappy tourists and steaming homeless people, it was worth the torture. Though his minimalist, utterly geometric sculptures are by now as familiar as Warhol’s electric chair, the context in which we see them matters. Sculpture parks are very different than public parks, as each public park is given its character by what surrounds it, and the neighborhood it serves. City Hall Park, like City Halls in all cities, is that bizarre mix of official and unofficial, governmental employees and visitors. Despite its downtown location at the foot of the Brooklyn bridge, City Hall Park has a pretty little fountain, a few winding pathways, and is a flat spot amidst towering buildings.

It’s the idiosyncrasies of public spaces that gives the artwork shown in them a new character and context. LeWitt’s orderly work, each shape exactly as it should be, and placed with precision to create the most optical effect, so minimal, clean, and white, is quite the contrast to it’s chaotic and unpredictable surroundings. Gazing upon Tower (1990), framed from behind by Gehry’s shimmering high-rise apartment building, I watched an injured pidgin examine its newly broken wings; you certainly don’t get that experience in a gallery. The more I wandered through the park, the better I liked the exhibition, as the sculptures became more and more integrated into their surroundings. Walking into the park from the back, and leaving through the main entrance, I saw the only piece I’d never seen before last. A vibrant sculpture in rainbow-like primary colors, full of curves and swirls, it seemed like the perfect piece to end on.

It’s a ritual to visit the MET’s annual rooftop exhibition each summer. Not only does the museum rooftop offer a spectacular view of Manhattan and Central Park, the art installed there is usually fresh, fun, and engaging. This summer lagged a bit from recent years, with the industrial, metal sculptures of Anthony Caro. These works seem to belong in a sculpture park like Storm King, full of rolling, grassy hills, and not stuck on cement and surrounded by people. Abstract and modernist, Caro’s hulking sculptures seem to sit awkwardly, and their bright paint jobs hardly make them more exciting. They are interesting sculptures that seem to describe the aesthetics of a less representational time, but they didn’t seem right to decorate summer, a rooftop, or a museum bar. Viewers didn’t seem to know what to make of them either, either using the sculptures as benches or turning their gaze outward toward the city. After waiting so long for summer, it seems strange that we all now eagerly await fall.

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