Socrates Sculpture Park: A Blend of Art and Community

Robert Barnstone, Prone, 2000. Site- specific work at Socrates Sculpture Park, shown in the exhibition “The Space Around the Architect.”

It may no longer be that sculpture is the poor relation in the arts, even now that Minimalism is mostly over. For a long time, painting was considered the highest art, but with the attack on illusionism, generations old by now, sculpture has become understood as an art with a greater, more unforced natural realism—in the sense that a three-dimensional object is real and does not need to overcome or disguise the treachery of illusionistic depth (in the way a painting is forced to do). Since the mid-1970s, the high point of Minimalism, sculpture has widened the discussion of what might be considered as art, and with the open exchange of beliefs and opinions, it has become a medium of change and challenge. As a consequence of this ever-expanding field, more and more sculpture parks have opened, each with its own specialization. A few, however, remain at the head of the movement, including Storm King Art Center in upstate New York and the urban setting of Socrates Sculpture Park. The ambiance in the two sites couldn’t be more different: Storm King’s spectacular acreage contains works widely spaced from each other, among woodlands and meadows, while the pieces in Socrates Sculpture Park, a far smaller site, are more closely spaced and look out onto a city skyline.

Sculptor Mark di Suvero founded Socrates Sculpture Park in 1986. Since that time, the park has slowly but surely made a name for itself. Di Suvero had his work cut out for him—the 4.5-acre site, located on the East River in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, had for years been an illegal dumping ground. Abandoned cars and garbage filled the lot, but di Suvero, whose studio is just north of the park, assembled artists and local residents who collaborated in transforming a wrecked spit of ground into a destination where both young and established artists could work large outdoors. Di Suvero was clear about the park’s purpose—young people were to have their own space to build and show their sculptures, working all the while with the community.

Beth Campbell, the novelty, 2000. Site-specific work at Socrates Sculpture Park, shown in the exhibition “The Space Around the Architect.”

As time went on, Socrates Sculpture Park became more of an institution. Indeed, the park now has an established international reputation as a place for outdoor sculpture; in 2000, di Suvero won a Governor’s Arts Award (given to New York state artists and art patrons) for his work on the park, as well as the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award for his own work. Di Suvero has found that one of the most beautiful aspects of the site is the way that sculptors help one another in the service of art. At the same time, Socrates Sculpture Park has always been dedicated to community involvement, a priority that remains true to this day. More than 35,000 visitors come to the grounds each year, and the park is used by local residents to take in the skyline, fish, walk their dogs, and, of course, to enjoy the art. Other visitors include busloads of children, tourists, and high school and college students who are on internships and apprenticeships; in keeping with its tradition of local involvement, the park also employs people who live close by.

Named for the Greek philosopher and in a nod to the large Greek population located in the area, the park is part of a quickly burgeoning art scene. Many young artists are attracted by the neighborhood’s relatively cheap rent; the Isamu Noguchi Museum is located two blocks away; and the contemporary venue P.S.1 is two miles away. A couple of years ago, the park was in peril: developers were attempting to purchase the land, and the site needed to be protected. One of the first decisions the board made was to hire a full-time director (previously, the position had been part-time). Last May, Alyson Baker was chosen as executive director. Baker, who has considerable gallery and museum experience, emphasized the community aspect of the park during my visit. She says, “One of the great things about this park is that it does have a close relationship with people. That’s not always the case when you are doing exhibitions of contemporary art. But Socrates Sculpture Park is a very gratifying place to be when you see the people interacting with the art. The artists are making the work here, on site, and the community has the opportunity to meet them and see them work. I think that gains respect for the sculptures exhibited in the park.”

Susan Griswold, Observation Point, 2000. Site-specific work at Socrates Sculpture Park, shown in the exhibition “The Space Around the Architect.”

According to Baker, the park has always focused on emerging artists. Currently, two shows, in the spring and the fall, are scheduled each year; Baker hopes to mount four in the future. There are three ways to become professionally involved with the park. The first program, the park’s greatest priority, is the emerging artist fellowship program, which supports successful applicants with grants of $3,500. The second program, which is open to artists from all over the world, is the outdoor studio program, whose funding depends on the fundraising for that particular year. And the third program enables artists to propose already constructed works for installation.  

Applicants apply in December, and the selection process attempts to fill each of the categories. Accepted artists are then incorporated into one of the shows, which are curated with a theme; the exhibition currently on view, “The Space around the Architect,” addresses sculpture in an architectural mode. Because the shows overlap, it is sometimes difficult to tell which work belongs to which show—for example, today in the park there is work remaining from a number of earlier exhibitions. Baker hopes to allow for more programming and separate spaces for different things to happen.

The park has the tools to help artists who want to work large; in a fenced-in area, there are cranes, gantries, and welding equipment, which make the construction of very big sculptures easier. There are also two part-time studio technicians to help the artists with their work. As Baker points out, the boundaries defining sculpture have opened up and changed considerably, and there is raw roughness to a lot of the work currently on show. Many of the artists who contribute work to the park are emerging artists; but then such established sculptors as Vito Acconci, di Suvero himself, Mel Edwards, and Bill Tucker participated in the inaugural exhibition in September 1986; and in later shows, Eduardo Chillida, Alison Saar, Nancy Rubins, and Tony Smith took part. Today, many of the international biennials include outdoor spaces for artists, and as Baker comments, these spaces require a different outlook from that of traditional sculpture: “Even the more traditional biennials such as the Venice Biennale incorporate an outdoor element. They encourage the artists to work in a very different scale and in a very different way. Artists are thinking more and more about public space, and Socrates Sculpture Park offers an opportunity for artists to work outdoors and on a scale they have never worked before.”  

Robert Caldwell, Clover Landing, 2000.

“The Space around the Architect” is a strong show of work by eight young sculptors: Robert Barnstone, Robert Caldwell, Beth Campbell, Francesco Finizio, Peter Gould, Susan Griswold, Michael Krondl, and Stretch. Because the work must stand up to the seasons, many of the artists in this exhibition used industrial materials—concrete and steel. The exhibition demonstrates current sculpture’s ongoing interest in the relation between sculpture and architecture. In recent years, it seems that architecture has moved in the direction of sculpture—one thinks of Frank Gehry’s remarkable museum in Bilbao—and that sculpture, in its often environmental presentation, has moved toward architecture. The site-specific nature of the park requires a different sense of proportion and also a recognition of what lies beyond: the river, a great view of Manhattan’s skyline, and the sky. Under these circumstances, many of the sculptors inevitably chose to work large. At the same time, they explored how a large work not only owns the space it occurs in, it also influences the space around it.

Robert Barnstone’s Prone (2000) consists of a wooden wall sitting on a platform that elevates the work up against the sky. The East River is its immediate backdrop. Something like a door and a window face the viewer, and it becomes clear that Prone is both an environmental sculpture and a piece of propped-up architecture. Its outsize presence looms large, competing with the skyline beyond the river. In a sense, then, this work is in dialogue with the city itself, highlighting not only its own size but the gargantuan spread of the city’s buildings. Prone is a good example of what happens when a work approximating an architectural structure gets successfully caught in a space between forms and purposes. The sculpture falls between categories, a hedge that places it as a postmodern work. Its inferences pose questions rather than answer them.

my mcDonalds (2000), a work by Peter Gould, consists of a bed of flowers curving around several blue tables and benches. Gould took as his point of origin the McDonalds near his house in Brooklyn, and the work reflects the particular outdoor eating area in place there—in half the size of the actual site. Gould’s environment rejects the ideal in favor of a specific, if utterly banal, arrangement of forms. There is a kind of humor to what he has done; Gould correctly assumes that we will instantly relate to the ubiquity of the fast-food restaurant and look at his composition with amusement and the recognition born of actual experience. Gould himself says: “I was looking to something that was very interactive, to work something up that people wouldn’t normally see in a sculpture garden. I wanted to have a function for it—for people to see it as a nice place to eat, while others would see it as an ironic take on fast-food culture.” In regard to the park itself, he comments, “Socrates Sculpture Park is a pretty exceptional place to make artwork—the community support comes from people who are not art-based. They come to see the next new sculpture, but they also use the site as a park.”

Francesco Finizio, Speedwalk No. 2, 2000.

Campbell’s the novelty (2000), duplicates her hometown’s center in Dwight, Illinois. Constructed of cement, about three feet in height, the sculpture shows a confluence of streets, with the typical structures one associates with Midwestern towns. The buildings are painted simply but with concern for accuracy; the feeling of the work, in its ingenuousness, is nearly that of a folk art sculpture. the novelty is situated close to the water’s edge, and the viewer cannot help but compare it to the tall residential buildings across the river. Its small scale suggests a humorous but visually interesting view of the world beyond New York and its inhabitants, many of whom continue to believe that no other city or town can match its opportunity and sophistication. the novelty, then, is a subtle, comic reminder that life does exist beyond New York.  

Campbell’s dream of a hometown brings with it nostalgia and distance in equal amounts; it carries on despite its confrontation with the scale of New York City. Campbell says of the piece and the process of making it, “Some of the work I do tends toward the autobiographical. I learned of the opportunity for emerging artists at Socrates Sculpture Park after I moved to New York. I knew that I had to write a proposal, and when I did it and it was accepted, I began to understand how the idea becomes something else, something realized. The park’s site on the river, with its Manhattan skyline, provided me with the opportunity to build something that took in the view. To do a facsimile of my hometown, backed by New York buildings, was wonderful. My town would be not only biographical but also a contrast to the heavy, sometimes towering sculptures around me.”

Susan Griswold’s Observation Point (2000) consists of a steel tower supporting two smallish wooden houses with an observation post attached to one of them. The work might be birdhouses enabling the creatures to take advantage of the scenery; this is a sculpture that quite realistically represents architecture. The structures, perched on their metal tower, feel almost as though they were models of homes. Michael Krondl’s Tiepolo Project No. 4 (2000) consists of a stainless steel panel with cloud forms inscribed onto it. It reflects the sun and acts as an earthbound version of the open sky. At the same time, of course, it also refers to the cloud imagery of Tiepolo, albeit in a highly industrialized fashion. Krondl has found a way of connecting with both his immediate environs and the history of art. In this way, he borrows rather than appropriates.  

Stretch, Quest, 2000. All site-specific works at Socrates Sculpture Park, shown in the exhibition “The Space Around the Architect.”

In Clover Landing (2000), Robert Caldwell has constructed a four-leaf clover raised up by four thin poles. The steel work has openings in each of the leaves, and the sunlight passing through them casts shadows demarcating their rounded edges, as well as the openings in the leaves themselves. The gestalt of the sculpture relates to some sort of sci-fi landing pad for a hovercraft and also nods to Minimalist form. Francesco Finizio’s Speedwalk No. 2 (2000) comprises a cement pavement laid on the ground, along with regularly occurring markers that record winning speeds of the 100-yard dash through history. Each marker gives the year and the name of the person who broke the record. And in Stretch’s Quest, an outsize work influenced by di Suvero, the artist has created a large metal form composed of horseshoe-like shapes—four each on the lower and top halves—supported by a circular pedestal raised two or three feet off the ground. Around the structure’s middle are two circles connected by polished steel rods. It is at once a playful and a serious statement, and its size fits in well with what surrounds it.

Socrates Sculpture Park is far more than the sum of its parts. As a community center, it works democratically for the propagation of sculpture among people who have not had much experience with art. As a center for emerging artists, it shows and helps young sculptors who are just beginning to be recognized. And as a functioning site for the construction of large pieces, it offers a laboratory for those interested in the mechanics of joining together big pieces of steel, as well as other materials. Di Suvero has more plans to enhance the life of both the park and the community, including such spectacular projects as installing an underwater aquarium and establishing a college close by. In this way, the park will continue to demonstrate how a site can maintain both a presence in community life and a reputation as a highly recognized institution for sculpture. The park reflects the idealistic attitudes that were present when the site was set up 15 years ago. Di Suvero, well known for both his art and his activism, sees Socrates Sculpture Park as a site combining sculpture and community in a powerful assertion of the importance of each in life. As he has said, “It takes imagination and will to create art and community.”

Jonathan Goodman is a writer and editor specializing in modern and contemporary art and is currently teaching at Pratt Institute.