New York Story: In Public Art, Artists and Audiences Transcend Geography

Maria Elena Gonzalez, The Persistence of Sorrow (detail), 1996. Wood, rubber, Braille, vaseline, and tile, 14 x 18 x 22 ft.

Some say that New York is not the center of the world. I disagree. As I type these words into my computer this early morning, alone in my study on the Lower East Side, I call up my clan.

When I tell you that the sun rises and shines directly on me, I don’t simply spout the self-absorption of a worker in the New York art world. (Really!) My conviction of centrality is also an aspect of community as it is located and addressed in contemporary public interest art.

In her editorial, “Living the Questions,” for an issue on “Moving Communities” in Performance Journal (fall, 1997, p. 2), Joan T. Hocky speaks of “an ‘I’ that overwhelms and overshadows this amorphous beast we call ‘community'” as a conflict among the internal desires of artists. “[T]he same dualistic tendencies-aspiring to reach outside ourselves and wanting to be the center of the universe-co-exist whether locked in the studio or teaching hip-hop dance on a rooftop.”

In the realm of public art, these dichotomies can become physical, time-bound, interconnected, and complicated. Artists and audiences may encompass and transcend geographical sites. And such works sometimes switch principal players as well as roles; reverse chronology, and trick perceptions of duration.

The essay I am now writing is partly a story about public-interest artist Alan Finkel, who lives a block away from me on Ludlow Street. This morning Finkel is faxing to Japan (appropriately the land of the rising sun-although it is actually eight in the evening there), where he is collaborating on a project that has been in progress for four years. More about this later.

I have been asked to consider public art here, emphasizing collaboration and its contemporary tradition. This is a difficult subject. A history of collaboration that includes its processes and participating assemblies is still largely invisible after more than a quarter-century of sustained activity.

In broad terms, collaboration is both methodology and structure, motivated by and bound to a particular community-whether local, virtual, global, or microscopic.

Collaborative art of the kind that has interested me over these years has been sculptural, performative, and literary, yet within the rubric of the visual arts. What I have called “art in the public interest” is shaped more by its intentions and means than defined by visual products. Likewise, the identity of artists in the public arena, especially those, like Finkel, who do not produce works in signature styles, is unfamiliar; their work contested as either labor or art.

Creating community, more laborious and intractable than in past decades, can also be a lonely enterprise today. It is perhaps the very loneliness of the search for commonality and the body politic that most characterizes contemporary public interest art.

Yet, paradoxically, recognition that collaboration is essential to public art is assumed now more than ever before. In her fall 1997 president’s column in “inprocess: The Quarterly Newsletter of the Public Art Fund”, Susan K. Freedman affirms that collaboration is the very key to successful public projects. “Without the cooperation and support of city agencies, foundations, corporations and most importantly, dedicated individuals, the often complex task of bringing a public project to fruition would be all but impossible.”(p. 1) In its own process, public art must eventually include audiences, institutions, and even the mercurial milieu of nature herself.

I am among those who make up the smaller segment of spectators for art in public. Although I enjoy becoming part of the surprised accidental audience who may come upon works created in cemeteries, on buses, and around open fields, on river barges, at restaurants, or under bridges, I actually go looking for such works.

My interest is in the story of a collaboration, and this focus brings me to want to view a piece and sometimes participate in it from its conception to its realization. Following the efforts of artists for years and even decades at a time, I also come to see how their bodies of art-their lifelong sagas and epics-develop and sustain themselves. Reporting and reflecting on these longer scenarios is at the heart of my own lifetime endeavor and my most essential work.

Maria Elena Gonzalez, The Persistence of Sorrow (detail), 1996. Wood, rubber, Braille, vaseline, and tile, 14 x 18 x 22 ft.

Even sculptures or installations by single artists displayed in museums can arise from layers of collaboration and evoke their constituencies. Such is Maria Elena Gonzalez’s “The Persistence of Sorrow”, shown last year at El Museo del Barrio, New York.

Commissioned by El Museo del Barrio for its intimate installation space, Gonzalez’s “The Persistence of Sorrow” lines the room with a large curved panel covered with neoprene black rubber. This surface is literally dotted with the names of individuals spelled in Braille. One can feel the wall (which is smoothed to the touch with Vaseline) to tangibly remember those who have died of AIDS, or sit on the generous artist-made bench in the center and look around at a congregation of loved ones whose lost presence is remembered and mourned.

Public art goes where the public goes. I met Guillermo Gomez-Pena at 6 p.m. on a still-burning street corner in mid-August. We parked ourselves in front of a Barnes and Noble bookstore, where Gomez-Pena would later read from his new book, “Temple of Confessions”, written in collaboration with Roberto Sifuentes. In the meantime, live models inhabited the book-laden windows, portraying mix-and-match Latino stereotypes for those walking down Sixth Avenue in Chelsea on this summer evening to see. As we watched passersby do double takes, Gomez-Pena told me of his plans to perform next in urban and suburban malls.

Geert van de Camp, Andre Dekker, and Ruud Reutelingsperger, The Observatorium: Collected Reflections (exterior view), 1997. Mixed-media installation. Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Staten Island/Art in General, New York.

Collective work has a “life” that can perpetuate itself by spawning a future generation. Deep in downtown Manhattan, Art in General on Walker Street recently exhibited a constructed environment, “The Observatorium: Collected Reflections” (1997). This work archives activities and art objects at “The Observatorium” (a freestanding outdoor structure by Ruud Reutelingsperger, Andre Dekker, and Geert van de Camp that served as a vernacular dwelling for seclusion and the “observation of the inner”) built at Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island.

Thirty individuals had participated in 24-hour retreats in the artists’ Snug Harbor haven during the summer, leaving the drawings, tapes, answers to questionnaires, and photographs that were later collected at Art in General. What will viewers and readers at Art in General take back to their inner sanctums? How will their metamorphoses emerge?

Geert van de Camp, Andre Dekker, and Ruud Reutelingsperger, The Observatorium: Collected Reflections (interior view), 1997. Mixed-media installation. Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Staten Island/Art in General, New York.

This spring, before the “Observatorium” workshops took place, I had been strolling on the spacious Snug Harbor grounds with Nancy Cohen to see “Only Connect” (1997), her installation in collaboration with Dieu Donné Papermill (a nonprofit papermaking studio in New York City’s SoHo) and the Staten Island Botanical Garden. Cohen had suspended her translucent abaca paper stretched over skeletons of branches, garden implements, and steel in the Botanical Garden’s Greenhouse Conservatory, where the artist’s forms-in conjunction with the great variety of luminous leaves there-served as light-catchers.

The abundant foliage at Snug Harbor is more yellow-green overall at this time of the year. Cohen’s hanging forms “grow” through her choice of materials and an art process that takes its changing context into account. There is no evidence of the intricate ritual involved in Cohen’s coordinating institutional cooperation for this organic spectacle.

The orderly balance of the formal gardens, though, reminds me of the stylized conventions of such negotiations, and contrasts with the chaos of the propagation room, where vines grow wild and tropical flowers bloom for only a day. Cohen writes, “One week tables overflow with seedlings; the next week they have been transplanted and the tables are bare.”

The juxtaposition of harmony with ferment inspired the installation, which is named for a phrase in E.M. Forster’s “Howards End”: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”

Says Cohen, “My desire to put artwork in a greenhouse stems from my interest in natural forms. The process of creating a work of art is similar to the process of creating a garden.”

Nancy Cohen, Only Connect (detail of propagation room), 1996. Abaca paper, branches, garden implements, and steel. Dimensions variable.

The State University of New York’s Purchase College campus provided The Neuberger Museum of Art’s ambitious 1997 Biennial Exhibition of Public Art with a setting that begged for intervention. Selected by a national jury and organized by Judy Collischan, 28 artists offered recently completed sculptural works and on-site projects to Purchase’s doggedly synthetic surroundings between May 11 and October 26. These mostly sculptural pieces by single artists were placed in the university’s many common walking areas or on the campus’s countless rolling hills, attached to roof ceilings, and hung indoors in locales both inside and outside of the museum’s confines. Their disposition allowed the works to step out of their restricted conceptual territory and mingle with crowds of students, teachers, administrators, and visitors to the university.

This is the first such effort at the Neuberger by Collischan, who has distinguished herself as a courageous curator of socially relevant public art. In a sense, this nascent display sums up the stature of the genre and its practitioners. Appropriate to this view, the exhibition recognized all invitees for their prior achievements. Elders Louise Bourgeois and George Rickey were singled out for special honor.

During the installation, I spoke with Maren Hassinger, who was placing pink plastic bags in cherry trees. Her contribution, different from many others in remaining ephemeral and impermanent, was located beside a narrow out-of-the-way campus road. She asked those watching her progress to write a wish for the world. Putting mine into a bag with the others, Hassinger rose on a cherry picker and tied my message to a branch.

Like Hassinger’s, all offerings are considered site-specific to this Biennial. But the contingencies of organizing such a show must include the health, availability, and agendas of its selected artists. Some pieces had to be transported from other places. Vito Acconci’s “Park Up a Building” (1996), for example, traveled from Spain. Bourgeois’s aluminum “In and Out #2” (1995-96) had been displayed on Paris’s Champs-Elysées and in Tokyo, but premiered in the United States at the Neuberger.

The Biennial contains only two artist collaborations. Rick Lowe, D.A. McNulty, and Dean Ruck co-constructed “Knowledge” (1997), a pyramid plastered with books in an outdoor walkway near the museum. Andrew Ginzel’s and Kristen Jones’s “Stop” (1997) greets visitors to the campus at the side of the main road and serves as a kind of introductory alert for the exhibition, which is to be seen all over the SUNY Purchase grounds. Schematic black steel “stop” sign outlines leave empty “negative” geometric spaces, through which one can see the landscape behind as well as Ginzel and Jones’s identically-shaped gold shields shining through.

Suzanne Lacy, a conceptualist and artist/director of grand-scale performance, has put forth the idea that the difference between public art and any other art may mainly be public art’s emphasis on the making. Lacy, favoring performance-in-place as her “object,” develops communities through art in far flung locales in the United States and Europe in situ and from her home base in Oakland, California over extended periods of time.

I have seen the great majority of her live works on site since 1972. During the past 15 years, when I have been a Manhattan resident and full-time writer perpetually on deadline, Lacy has visited New York en route to wherever her work takes her. Often, this is enough to bring me along to where I can’t travel at the moment-to Finland, Minneapolis, or the New York Hilton-via video, pictures, print, and conversation.

For me, dialogue with Lacy and her work through documentation is not a secondhand experience. Involvement by this means yields a different, though wholly primary, encounter, confirming that there is more than one way of kno wing the creative process and production of another. Readers of art magazines most often see the artworks treated in photographs and texts. Yet despite the lack of “original” objects, most members of the national and international art communities received their ongoing art education through publications, and artists are authentically inspired by reproductions, sometimes deliberately using the small scale and production values of such photographs in their own artmaking. Visitors to museums wear earphones and listen to the observations of a disembodied expert voice, thus mediating their transaction with the phenomena before them. Friends meet on La Cienega in Los Angeles or West Broadway in SoHo to exchange perceptions and evaluations of their individual gallery surveys, cross-referencing their views and often taking away a hybrid notion or two.

Turning Point: Under Construction, 1997. Performance by Suzanne Lacy and 30 teenage girls in Vancouver, produced by New Works Society and Barb Clausen. Photo by Daniel Collins.

For more than a year, Lacy worked with a core group of 29 young women between 13 and 19 years of age in Vancouver, British Columbia, in “The Turning Point” project. On June 15, 1997, they performed “Under Construction”, an animated tableau that included 500 girls at the construction site of The Residences on Georgia Street between Bute and Jervis in downtown Vancouver. In the shelter of cement trucks and traffic barriers that define the production’s set, Jan Berman’s soundtrack features the voices of the young women amid the clattering sounds of construction work.

Then the sound stops suddenly, and the building “begins to speak.” While the audience listens from raised walkways, the teenagers talk to one another about sex, parents, drugs, school, racism, trust, and their futures from a stage that will become the interior of the new building. The power of these performances, Lacy insists, comes from the beauty of the people who participate within the visual and social frame, and the wonder of their shared experience.

At 5:30 p.m. on August 19, Finkel and I joined a large outdoor crowd that looked to be at least 1,000 people strong at the Plaza at Lincoln Center. Part of Lincoln Center’s free Summer “Out of Doors Festival,” ” Encounters At The Border”, a performance collaboration about immigration and migration in our neighborhood-Manhattan’s lower East Side-as the journey to “becoming American” was about to begin.

Created by Arthur Strimling of Roots & Branches intergenerational theater and choreographer Risa Jaroslow, this piece features dramatic soliloquies, dialogues, and duets. “Encounters At The Border” is by and about people of different generations as well as ethnic backgrounds. Six are professionals; six, community members who shared their stories at workshops at two Lower East Side Settlement houses.

In the piece 82-year-old Ida tells of leaving her Jewish family in Brooklyn 65 years ago to dance in vaudeville, while she is swept aloft in a graceful pas de deux by her young partner. A mother and son of Puerto Rican, African, and Native American descent also dance together. She is a Yoruba priestess; he, gay, a painter, and a Buddhist. “I am your mother,” Ofelia sings. “I am your son,” replies Tenjin. Their voices are heard over microphones and amid music composed by Jason Kao Hwang, and a visual design by Melinda Hunt.

“My conception for the set,” Hunt told me, “was to construct an image of what immigrants leave behind, which is a landscape full of sensory information that cannot be experienced through one medium.” Grasses, “planted” in and on more than 100 trunks and suitcases, act as tactile and organic “transplants” that can stand in for the multitude of those relocated but no longer here. The grasses’ surprising conjunctions of form counterpose the square or rectangular suitcases and the systematic, symmetrical layout of the plaza.

Melinda Hunt, The Hart Island Project, 1997. Mixed-media installation. Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York.

Since April, in two storefront windows and the gallery at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, midway between Finkel’s loft and mine, Hunt’s “The Hart Island Project” (originally researched several years ago with multimedia artist Margot Lovejoy) has had its first showing. We met Hunt in the gallery on June 10 to talk about the authentic baby coffins we had been passing almost daily on Orchard Street set below documentary photographs by Joel Sternfeld of Hart Island, New York’s potter’s field. The window display includes an image of the first pediatric AIDS grave on Hart Island. Tiny wooden caskets with monogrammed blankets represent children buried there during earlier epidemics.

On a Sunday in October, Finkel and I visited Sheila Levrant de Bretteville in Connecticut to see “Path of Stars”, her public artwork for the Ninth Square section of downtown New Haven. De Bretteville has placed 21 medallions of granite and colored concrete, 24 inches square by 6 inches deep, in the sidewalks at four entry points. The terra-cotta, black, gray, and cream-colored “stars” describe the achievements of individual citizens during three centuries.

We learn. Augusta Lewis Troup, a typesetter, journalist, and activist living in the late 19th century, advocated equal pay to women for equal work and organized the internationally recognized Women’s Typographical Union No. 1. The first Chinese restaurant in the city was a second floor room above the Hofbrau Haus on Crown Street, opened by Lee Chong in 1920. The Far East offered economical meals at midday and dancing every night. Julia Di Lullo, longtime sales manager at Horowitz Brothers, was there for the dedication of stars in 1993, and she reflected that the mission of her job over 20 years mandated her desire to help people. In the days when stores stayed open late on Thursdays, Di Lullo commented, “I don’t really like to work late but if you have to, you have to.” Together, de Bretteville’s handsome markers under foot become a living record of outstanding ordinary townspeople.

I walked along, “reading” this sidewalk piece for the first time shortly after the 1993 ceremony. “Path of Stars” is conceptually united with the inclusive, commonweal-based graphics that de Bretteville plastered on fences and walls in Los Angeles and published in magazines during the 1970s as well as the permanent public works she created there in the ’80s. “Path of Stars” uses the Los Angeles model for the film-famous to speak of the diversity of New Haven then and now. “This project,” she told a local reporter, “is not only about the kinds of people who were working and living here, but also about the range of people who will be here, as well as those who will come to look at the stars.”

The Ninth Square district looks more complete in its renovation in 1997, but it has not been occupied as I, and certainly Sheila, had expected. Many buildings still await commercial and residential tenants. On this brilliant fall afternoon, the streets with “Stars” were not deserted, but few people ambled about. Like the city of New Haven itself, though, “Path of Stars” can unfold-is in fact embedded in de Bretteville’s design to accommodate-an unexpected future.

Let me explain for a minute why I want Alan Finkel to see works of public art with me and to meet with their makers. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville has been my friend and colleague for a quarter-century but has never met Alan. This fact would not ordinarily be important. But to me the two artists are allies in the same humanistic campaign. Therefore, introducing them-members of the community that I carry in my own mind-“connects the dots” of a territory of shared values and work for me. This geography cannot be observed at first sight but must be touched over time, as I continually come to know the unseen elephant called public interest art.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Path of Stars (detail), 1995. Granite and colored concrete, (21 stars) each 24 x 24 x 6 in.

I began traveling to sites of public art with Finkel some months ago when, in preparation to write about collaboration here, I attempted to include his work for the Haizuka Earthworks Projects in Soryo-Cho, Hiroshima, Japan, but found that I knew too little about his art to have a clear picture of his current efforts. It is the nature of community-based public art endeavors to be only partially seeable at any moment and, more than not, to remain incomplete. Even so, the intentions and the production of public interest artists can be found. At the same time, to that end, I began to visit Finkel’s studio weekly to talk and to look at plans, documentation, models, visual sources, and literary inspirations for his artworks.

During our 15-year tenure as neighbors, I have seen a dozen exhibitions that include Finkel’s work. These are invariably proposals and miniature models of things to come. Finkel’s crafting of architectural objects is always satisfying in its care, precision, and sense of conceptual completeness. But the scope of his vision as well as its implementation over the years could not become fully visible by experiencing these phenomena.

Artists such as Finkel (and others I have mentioned here) are not self-described avant-garde leaders of style or public taste. Neither are they Post-modernists-second-generation makers who comment on existing art objects or celebrities. Artists working in the public interest are both local and global citizens.

In the fall 1997 issue of DoubleTake, author David Updike (in “A Place I Have Never Been,” pp. 90-94) asks if it is possible to be at home in the customs and traditions of a country he has never visited. Updike, like Finkel, feels a particular affinity with Japan. “What was it… that moved me about Japanese art?” Updike asks himself. “Its beauty, mainly. Its calm, meditative reverence of nature, the quiet loveliness of paintings like Ogata Korin’s “Bamboo and Flowers”, or “Camellias”; Tawaraya Sotatsu’s “Ducks and Reeds”, or “Birds in a Lotus Pond”. The seasons and the love of nature moved me: a bent and beautiful pine tree; a man rowing a boat across a placid lake; snow falling in the mountains. I loved the ceramics of Ogata Kenzan, the rustic beauty of raku ware-simple tea bowls painted with ‘lotus and kingfisher’ or a single thistle.” (pp. 91-92)

Finkel would, I speculate, find Updike’s description sentimental. But the artist’s love of Japanese culture as an avenue into the life of a place and its people is identical.

Finkel has had a years-long journey of first-hand experience in Japan. He was able to bring me to his Japan-where I have never been-to become a member of his collaboration process and to write this essay as a part of a work in progress for both of us.

Arlene Raven is a writer and editor of numerous books on contemporary art, including Art in the Public Interest. Her article on Alan Finkel will appear in a future issue of Sculpture.