Green Piece

New York

Left: Artist Nancy Holt and Elyse Goldberg of James Cohan Gallery. Right: Robert Smithson's Floating Island.

“If they really cared about Robert Smithson, they wouldn’t have put down Astroturf!” In one of a precious few ill-tempered (though, one suspects, tongue-in-cheek) remarks overheard at Saturday’s public launch of Smithson’s Floating Island to Travel Around the Island of Manhattan, this exacting visitor was complaining about the apparent conceptual inconsistency of artificially “greening” Pier 46, the arm of Hudson River Park that served as official viewing spot. But it would have taken a hard heart indeed to allow such miniscule details to seriously impinge on the enjoyment of an exceptionally good-natured event and some uncommonly affecting art.

Sketched out by the late artist in 1970 (the same year Spiral Jetty was completed) and realized only now, with the help of the Whitney Museum of American Art, nonprofit arts organization Minetta Brook, and Smithson’s wife, artist Nancy Holt, Floating Island is a thirty-by-ninety-foot barge landscaped with earth, rocks, and greenery, designed to be towed around Manhattan (all day, for nine days) by a small tugboat. Reflecting Smithson’s admiration for Frederick Law Olmstead’s Central Park (from which Floating Island’s rocks were borrowed, and for which its trees are destined), the work is a result of the artist’s deep fascination with primordial terrain and simultaneous immersion in the modern urban realm (he and Holt were Greenwich Village residents—and downstairs neighbors of Grace Jones—when the idea for the project was conceived).

So, at around five o’clock on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, crowds began to gather and virgin mojitos began to flow in anticipation of a drive-by—or rather, tug-by—view of the newly unveiled Floating Island. Free of charge and open to all, the party was staffed by black-clad museum employees and catered by an entity called Social Miami at the Sagamore Hotel, but otherwise had none of the clubby feel of most New York art-world shindigs. Joining those in the know were dozens of curious cyclists and rollerbladers, tourists and children, passersby and bystanders. The invitation didn’t stipulate “festive” attire, but such was the look and mood until, as an unexpected preamble to the “remarks” scheduled for six o’clock, Minetta Brook director Diane Shamash announced that someone had fainted and asked if there was a doctor present. The crisis addressed, she then introduced the project and began reeling off her thank-you list, only to interrupt herself with an excited cry of “Here it comes!”

Sure enough, there it was, moving upriver at a surprising clip. Against a pale sunset, Floating Island closed in, prompting Whitney director Adam Weinberg to comment, “it looks kind of cute!” He also, in describing both the hardworking tug Rachel Marie and the hardworking individuals who had negotiated years of red tape to bring the project to fruition, evoked Watty Piper’s Little Engine that Could (though Hardie Gramatky’s Little Toot the Tugboat would clearly have been the more apt reference). As captain Bob Henry’s vessel and its unique consignment neared the end of the pier, there was a flurry of camera (and cameraphone) activity, and Holt, recalling the work’s genesis, had some trouble making herself heard above the hubbub. As Floating Island embarked on its lap of honor, her commentary seemed to become a disjointed sequence of Smithsonisms—“layers of time,” “the non-site,” “center and periphery”—but the theoretical baggage of the work fell away in favor of its sheer hallucinatory strangeness. Water taxis ploughed past and a helicopter circled overhead, but the leafy riverbound plot remained unruffled, a tranquil slice of unreal estate so exclusive as to make the celebrity-stuffed Richard Meier-designed apartment buildings across West Street seem a dime a dozen. “Why didn’t they put some animals on it, some raccoons or deer or something?” someone asked, but easy gags seemed fatuous in response to such stately beauty. In fading light and under gathering cloud, boat and barge paused momentarily, and then vanished like a dream.

Michael Wilson