New York

Tony Berlant

The Whitney showed four of Tony Berlant’s architectural sculptures under the title “The Marriage of New York and Athens.” Each involved the toylike simplification of the concept of a Greek temple. In each case, the temple is faced differently, in each it is a different size, and each deals in a different way with the cagelike interior space. The basic form is actually only minimally like that of a classical temple, identifiable by its pedimental ends and its evenly spaced peripheral supports. So there seems even at the start to be a playful (and perhaps mock-functionalist) paring down of the structure to its most elemental components, down to a kind of prefab, yard-sized Parthenon, sold in a discount house. There are no classical orders—in fact there are plain piers, square in plan. Each “temple” has four piers showing on each side—a total of 12—an unclassical arrangement, but apparently the minimum necessary to sustain the impression that the posts surround the structure.

That’s the “Athens” part, and all that appears in The Temple, 1966, sheathed in aluminum, with a solid, prismatic, gabled form filling much of the interior volume. The “New York” part involves a stylized skyscraper motif. The Marriage of New York and Athens, 1966, has skyscrapers inside the temple form. In the biggest piece, The Forest, 1967, which is speckled with a “zolatone” paint that gives it the look of granite, the skyscrapers sprout out through the roof of the temple. And, in the most developed and complicated example, The Last Temple, 1968—quite Pop in its polychrome pastel “zolatone”—a smaller temple is contained within the main one, with a thick crop of skyscrapers choking up through the roofs of both.

It is possible that Berlant’s structures comprise a comment on the high or “classic” phase of New York civilization, from the ’teens to the earlier ’60s. For Berlant’s “classic” skyscraper in analogy with the Parthenon has the characteristic setback disposition of tall office buildings built in New York between the first impact of the zoning laws defining the setback envelope (e.g., Raymond Hood’s American Radiator Building, 1923), and the tax-abated plaza with sheer shaft that sought to encourage the Seagram concept (Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, 1958)—but which has since run aground, along with the Dodgers, double-decker buses, steamships, Fifth Avenue, the Navy Yard, the middle class, Penn Station, the old Met, and so on.

The setback skyscraper was once the image of New York as the world city. It is an irony of architectural history that the sheer slab of the United Nations Secretariat (Harrison and Abramowitz, et al., 1947–50) inspired its subsequent displacement. The New York Berlant nostalgically presents is the craggy, jagged-canyoned, sublime colossus that for two generations represented the epitome of urbanized modernity on the earth, as much as the profile of the Parthenon represents ancient greatness. Berlant’s gleaming metal-sheathed versions have the glamour of Hollywood celebrations of New York and Athens in a good-natured but silly confusion. Although these constructions do not amount to much as sculpture they are in their daffiness as involved with municipal pride, in what is also—by analogy with Athens—the capital of art, as the Athenians were with their Ephebic oath, which paradoxically enough is still sworn by the graduates of City College.

Joseph Masheck