Period photograph of Louise Nevelson Plaza, dedicated in 1977. William R. Devine, The Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A.

The Perils of Public Art: Louise Nevelson Plaza

Even as a retrospective of Louise Nevelson’s work opens at The Jewish Museum in New York, one of her most important public artworks is being redesigned beyond recognition. Nevelson was the first woman to gain fame in the U.S. for her public art. Her commissions from the federal government, corporations, universities, and religious institutions date back to the 1970s. But none, arguably, was more prestigious than Louise Nevelson Plaza in lower Manhattan.

According to her long-time dealer, Arnold Glimcher (director of Pace Gallery), the idea for the commission, which is sited in a traffic triangle across the street from the Federal Reserve building, began with David Rockefeller. After viewing the site from the upper floors of an adjacent office building, Nevelson decided to place seven black welded steel sculptures on columns, ranging from 20 to 40 feet high, so that they would “appear to float like flags” above the plaza. According to recollections of those who were involved in or familiar with the project, Nevelson determined the placement of the sculptures and also chose the benches and the trees, Joyce Schwartz, who worked with Nevelson at Pace, recalls that when the artist selected the saplings at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens she was concerned that they looked too small.

In 1977, at the initial dedication of the site then called Legion Memorial Square (bounded by Maiden Lane, Liberty Street, and William Street), Mayor Beame hailed Nevelson’s sculpture as an antidote to a spate of recent violence in the city. “But this is the New York City we care about,” the mayor stated, “and want to preserve.” A year later, Nevelson’s sculpture ensemble Shadows and Flags was dedicated by then Mayor Koch and David Rockefeller and the site renamed Louise Nevelson Plaza.

Post-9/11, Nevelson Plaza was altered. Since the Federal Reserve Police had no security post downtown to monitor entering trucks, a standard fenced guard booth was erected at the northwest corner of the triangle located across the street. The benches that were placed asymmetrically around the area were re-arranged to form an open corridor completely visible from the booth. The sculpture at the site’s eastern tip was removed because it had been hit by a truck and the sub-surface of the street needed repair; the two sculptures formerly spaced along the south leg of the triangle were grouped together. Only the largest work, the 40-foot sculpture centered on the western border, remained unchanged, a monumental presence even in an environment of skyscrapers. Recently installed signage across the street referred to the traffic island once again as Legion Memorial Square. There was nothing marking this as Louise Nevelson Plaza and, indeed, it no longer was.

Subsequently the site was developed for redesign by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), formed post-9/11 to revitalize the area, in conjunction with the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Design and Construction (DDC), That design is now under the purview of the architectural firm Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, In the current scheme, the main sculptural element will be installed on an elevated platform designed for sitting, creating a separate trapezoidal area at the triangle’s western border. Newly designed cast glass benches will be placed in the remaining triangle on a surface of stabilized gravel inspired by the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. A new security booth will be painted black, integrating it into the general design but also linking it visually with three of Nevelson’s sculptures grouped along the northern leg of the site. The remaining three sculptures will be newly arranged along the southern leg. The plantings will be different and differently dispersed. The new design, scheduled for completion in 2009, looks as if it will work better as a public space than the original, both functionally and aesthetically. But can it still be called Louise Nevelson Plaza?

The official paper trail documenting Nevelson’s role in the design of the plaza bearing her name appears to be lost. There are no records of the work at the Art Commission, which is responsible for approving all capital changes to city property. Based on numerous inquiries, there appears to be nothing at the Department of Parks or the Department of Transportation, which originally submitted Nevelson’s design to the Art Commission in 1977. On March 14, 2005, the commission voted unanimously for the new design submitted by Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, About a year earlier (July 21, 2004) when the commission approved conservation for the Nevelson sculptures, it noted that “Louise Nevelson created this group of sculptures specifically for this plaza, and the integrity of the artist’s vision must be maintained when any work is undertaken in this space.” The artist’s vision is precisely what seems not to have been documented initially and is in question here.

It is one of the hazards of public art that no site can be assumed permanent. Any time a site is radically changed or an artwork re-arranged, the artist’s vision is altered. In principle it is an infringement of the artist’s First Amendment rights, since the work of art constitutes the artist’s speech. However, when the work is abstract and perceived to have no content, protection is not a guarantee, Outcomes are determined by laws of property and contract.

It should be (and now hopefully is) standard practice to document fully an artist’s role in any public art commission, Artists or their representatives should be involved with, or at least consulted about, any major changes to the work post-installation. Any subsequent alterations to the original design should be clearly noted at the site, ideally with images and relevant dates. Without this, a piece of art and urban history is lost. If it could happen to the work of Louise Nevelson…