New York

“New Perspectives”

The park, with its gardens, lawns, and arboretums, is the museum of nature, a monumental enclosure of value. Pleasure and education are conjoined in leisurely strolls past botanical specimens in picturesque arrangements while, in the truly successful park, various views unfold. At their best these views are both short, within the park itself, and also stretch to a wider horizon beyond the park boundaries, allowing for a sublime (one hopes) comparison of differences. New York’s Central Park is a masterpiece of this sort, with its carefully planned naturalness framed by the more obvious artifice of city buildings. The park at Wave Hill, in the Bronx, is nowhere near as grand; really quite small, it has only one view, which dominates the property. And this is such an impressive view, of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades beyond, that the park is transcended by it—Wave Hill itself is subsumed by what we can see from it. Clearly, it has always been this way; the park’s own landscaping is unexceptional, and none of the houses that have occupied the site has been distinguished.

But if the park is like a museum, it is a complete one, with no easy accommodation for special exhibitions. Sculpture in a park nearly always seems an absurdity, a gratuitous imposition of clutter on something perfectly satisfying in itself. The only intrusion of this sort that works is the kind that sets off the theatricality of the entire setting—the distant gazebo or folly and the marble at the end of a drive are the classic examples. Artists would do well to consider this when they are asked to make work for a park site, for if they just proceed as though making something for show in the relatively neutral space of a gallery they look stupid, and their work looks like litter.

Most of the work included in this year’s selection shares the characteristics of the latter—these are insipid little party turns which might well have been left at home. The successful pieces all proved to be superbly self-conscious and above all witty. John Torreano’s lawn scattered with big clunky diamonds glittering dully in the sun mocked the sober pretensions of Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, with their precious arrangements of discrete parts. And Justen Ladda repossessed an abandoned swimming pool, a remnant of the park’s earlier days; leaving it mostly untouched, he painted a huge housefly in one corner which, from the right spot, with one eye closed, appeared to stand forward in three dimensions. The essentially photographic nature of this trick allowed one to follow the argument (advanced in the catalogue essay) that Ladda’s repossession of disused urban sites has something to do with Robert Smithson’s: in both cases there is a sense in which the work only becomes visible in the photograph that records it. The big difference being, of course, that whereas Smithson approached his work with a deadpan sense of humor, Ladda’s appropriation of scare tactics is frankly hilarious.

Despite the merits of these pieces, neither had any necessary relation to the site, and in fact both were to some extent hidden from the park’s major characteristic, its overwhelming view. Not so Jedd Garet’s piece, which faced up squarely to the problem that the panorama presents. As a painter Garet is obviously obsessed with a theatrical picturesque, and he simply translated this from the enclosed, shallow space of painting to the equally enclosed but deep space of the orchestrated view. Using his garishly moderne versions of the clichéd accoutrements of Romantic Classicism—the temple front, the severed head, the brooding solitary, the eternal flame—he built a contemporary folly which telescoped at least two centuries of European landscape in an amusing reprise of the thesis that the late Modernism represented by Minimalism is but an extenuated version of the ideas expressed in Neoclassical architecture and theory.

Thomas Lawson