Public Art Trip: New York City | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

SARAH GREEN: This episode
is supported by Prudential. There are so many
museums in New York City. This is a good
problem, of course, but it can be
tremendously overwhelming. If you have a few days in
the city or even a few years, you just cannot see everything. So when we were there on
a recent filming trip, and the weather was
unseasonably warm, we decided to forgo inside art
viewing completely and soak up as much outside art as we could. It’s abundant, it’s
accessible, it’s free, it’s public art, folks, and
New York City has it in spades. First up, Madison
Square Park, which has hosted an outstanding
contemporary art program since
2004, commissioning artists to create ambitious
large scale temporary works like this by Teresita Fernandez,
this piece by Orly Genger, and this work by Jaume Plensa. We resisted the Shake Shack
urge, which was strong, and walked around the park
to admire Martin Puryear’s contribution from
many different angles. It’s a 40-foot tall structure,
abstract but anthropomorphized by the large gold leaf
shackle that adorns its head. It sits proudly in the
middle of the lawn, confident despite its
intimidating environs. It’s titled Big
Bling, and you can see how its jewelry mimics
that of the gold roof of the nearby New
York Life building, making me think about the
trophiness of architecture, as well as the
trophiness of much art. But this piece is
temporary, not forever, made of somewhat rough
but masterfully hewn wood wrapped in metal mesh. It’s porous and exactingly
proportioned, not heavy and hulking. And if you don’t see it here,
it will be in Philadelphia next. Then we took the subway to
City Hall Park, the green space adjacent to, you
guessed it, City Hall, where we were greeted by
these happy Italian bunnies by Claudia Comte, part of
the outdoor exhibition, The Language of Things,
put on by Public Art Fund. Each of these marble
forms is named after an historic Italian
artist– Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, insert and then
remove Ninja Turtle joke. But the seriousness
of the material is undercut by the
exuberant expressiveness of the cartoonish shapes. Unlike cold, hard,
modernist sculptures that sit sadly atop
cement pads, these guys are popping up from the grass
to check things out, make us feel welcome, and encourage
us to consider what we think of as great art and why. We also gave a listen to Chris
Watson’s sound installation, Ring Angels, featuring
the sound of thousands of flocking starlings
moving in close formation. It’s a little pocket of sound
in a part of the city that is already quite loud and
full of migrating people. It created a little moment,
where my attention was called away from the crush
of the human world and toward the equally
complicated and often noisy workings of the natural world. Then we got back on the
train and went uptown to the High Line starting at
West 23rd Street, where we found Nari Ward’s Smart Tree. The piece is the
artist’s re-imagination of a childhood memory in which
he saw a lime tree growing out of an abandoned car in his
father’s front yard in Jamaica, where Ward grew up. In this version, the
car is now a brand new Smart Car given
a skin of tire treads and immobilized
on cement blocks. It’s filled with dirt
and rocks and sprouts a rather neat-looking
arrangement of greenery and a cared-for apple tree. For me, it reads as
an encapsulation, and not an unambiguously
positive one either, of the High Line itself,
a former elevated rail line abandoned, and then
after years of neglect, turned into this hip,
highly cultivated park and thoroughfare. We walked south and came upon
Barbara Kruger’s foreboding pronouncement, which we
rather appropriately couldn’t see from first
approach, and then had to look backward
to view clearly. Continuing on, we faced
another forboding pronouncement from Kathryn Andrews. Beyond this point, you may
encounter nude sunbathers, but you will probably
just encounter delicious popsicles and
lots of people with cameras. But if you keep going,
you will definitely encounter Tony Matelli’s
disquieting Sleepwalker. It’s life-sized, hyperrealistic,
and is constantly abuzz with people
interacting with it. I couldn’t help but
think about what it might be like to
come upon this piece alone with no one
around, maybe at night, and how different
the effect would be. But during regular busy hours,
it still made me uneasy. It still made me ask, what are
we all doing here walking along this narrow, crowded pathway? Are we awake to this
experience or to any? I like the High Line. I really do. It gives you a pedestrian
experience in New York, uninterrupted by cars
and utterly distinct from Central Park. It gives you great
views of the city, of neighborhoods experiencing
tremendous change, development, and skyrocketing
property values caused in part by the success of this
thing that you’re walking on. Like any human-made thing, it
has flaws and repercussions, but you can get your
feet wet, and there’s an odd little theater
for watching traffic. And it has an active
art program that presents new and
usually interesting installations that make
me return to the place again and again and to get to
know the place and the city in different ways. We ended the day in Grand
Army Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park to see
David Shrigley’s giant shopping list. It’s a cheeky counterpoint
to the neighboring William Tecumseh Sherman Memorial. There we have a formal
gilded bronze monument to a Civil War general. Just beyond that, we have a
monument of luxury hotels. But here we have a giant
monument to the every day, engraved in a solid
slab of granite. Like good public art, it
directs your attention to that which
surrounds it and you and makes you look
with different eyes at the people surrounding
you– the scrum of diverse individuals, many
tourists, but just as many going about their
everyday routine. Then we lost our light
and had to call it a day. The next day, we were
already in Queens, so we decided to go to
Socrates Sculpture Park. It’s a stunning perch from
which to look at Manhattan, but it is also a
tremendous exhibition space that gives artists
at many career stages opportunities to make
large scale outdoor work. I wanted to see Meg Webster’s
Concave Room for Bees, which I was a bit dubious of,
as artists’ attempts to harness nature are
too often underwhelming. But I should have
remembered that Webster has been doing this kind of
work since before a bunch of social practice artists
gave it a bad name. She’s been making successful,
thoughtful projects using natural materials
since the 1970s. Anyway, this piece
does the thing it’s supposed to do– attract
bees– and does it marvelously. You can’t hear
it, but this space was buzzing and teeming
with bees and butterflies and abundant life. Bravo, Meg Webster. Show them how it’s done. Socrates Sculpture Park
came to be 30 years ago when a group of artists
and community members led by sculptor, Mark di Suvero,
transformed an old landfill and illegal dump site into an
open studio, outdoor museum, residency program,
and local park. Their Emerging Artist
Fellowship Exhibition was just being installed, which I
really wish I could have seen completed, but was glad
to at least get a peek at. We then took the world’s
longest Uber ride to Brooklyn Bridge Park to check
out Mary Mattingly’s Swale, a floating garden
that made me further reconsider my condemnation of
artists who try to grow things. It’s a giant floating
platform containing a garden of edible plants,
currently docked at Pier 6, but which has moved to
several sites around the city. It provides free produce
to those who stop by, as well as educational resources
about how food forests can be awesome and benefit
everyone, but which have been illegal on New York
City’s public land for almost a century. Not technically on
public land, Swale is an end-around
that will hopefully spur a reconsideration
of the rules while spreading healthy food
and goodwill in the process. At the end of Pier 6 was
Martin Creed’s Understanding, another fine commission
by the Public Art Fund. It stands before a tremendous
backdrop, the city of New York, and its message is at
once simple and expansive. The city is awash
in signs, and those who work here in the public
realm are well aware of it. Creed’s sign is monumental and
unmissable in bright red neon that I wish I’d also
witnessed at night. Understanding, it seems,
is a thing that spins, that snaps in and out of focus. It’s the thing we
desperately seek and a thing that art is
supposed to facilitate. And it looks different
and more distorted the closer you are to it. It’s moving, and you’re moving. It’s impossible to pin
down, and it’s as good a moment as any to
conclude our brief venture into this remarkable,
indecipherable, and ever-changing city. This episode was
supported by Prudential. The time between
when people think they should start
saving for retirement and when they actually do
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survey conducted by Prudential, the average American starts
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