New York

“Projects and Proposals”

City Gallery

Lacking the broad tradition of civic cultural involvement that is common to many European countries, the United States has often been a battleground for public art. The skirmishes frequently occurring between the artists of such work and their tax-paying audiences have prompted discussions in many quarters on the possibilities of an art that might be both publicly accountable (responsive to the demands of its observers and users) and esthetically sophisticated (responsive to the needs of the specialized art community). This exhibition of 22 projects that are either currently under construction at—or proposed for—various sites in New York City’s five boroughs offered an overview of the current state of public art.

All of the exhibited works were developed under the city’s Percent for Art Program, by which a portion of the monies allocated for construction or renovation of public buildings is set aside for esthetic projects. All were selected according to a complex review procedure that included members of the community, art professionals, and representatives of government agencies, as well as the participating architects. The works fall into three general categories: those that intervene functionally in their milieu (such as the collaborative design by artist Scott Burton and the architecture firm of Koenen Associates for the signage, seating, lighting, and arrangement of services and amenities on the Sheepshead Bay fishing piers, in Brooklyn; or the proposal developed by artist Andrea Blum and architects Cavaglieri & Sultan for the renovation of the East 107th Street recreational pier, in East Harlem); those that incorporate elements drawn from the history of their sites (Donna Dennis’ designs for a steel fence and ceramic medallions for Manhattan Public School 234’s new building); and those that are purely decorative, intended as attractive additions to the urban milieu. The sites selected for these projects include sanitation garages and fire stations as well as public schools and libraries, subway and commuter railroad stations, recreational facilities, and other much frequented and heavily used public areas. The city’s objective in sponsoring these art projects is to disseminate art throughout our everyday environment in order to enrich it and activate it esthetically, encouraging viewers/users to become visually engaged with their surroundings.

Scanning these disparate works and pondering the trajectory of public practice over the last decade, one has a sense of advance in some areas of civic design and of stalemate in others. On the positive side, some of these projects demonstrate increased public involvement in the esthetic decision-making process, an attempt to secure artists’ participation in early phases of the building design, and a tendency toward works that participate actively in the spatial and functional prerequisites of their sites. These directions are exemplified by Dennis’ project, which aptly deals with its locale and structure as well as with the visual demands of school-age children, and that of Burton and Koenen Associates, with its stunningly audacious perforated-steel benches and sophisticated spatial arrangements. In these and several other works, formal imagination, cultural insight, and political sympathy for the specifics of local needs yield projects that deal with the problems of art conceived to operate in the public domain. However, most of the works evinced little effort on the part of the designers in dealing with the overwhelming problem of public art (that of forging a legitimate public language) and instead displayed accommodation to existing taste and to “pleasing” style. Looking over these images, one noted certain similarities: lots of color, animal images, narrative, and (less frequently) geometric abstraction. The putative need simply to fill, punctuate, or enliven the voids of city space has engendered a host of indifferent projects. Signal among them are many sponsored by the Arts for Transit program of the Metropolitan Transit Authority—for example, Milton Glaser’s garish porcelain enamel murals for the Astor Place subway station, 1985, or Houston Conwill’s overly fussy triangular bronze reliefs for the 125th Street station, also 1985. Such works do little more than mark space and assertively declare their presence, ignoring the multiplicity and extreme variety of their mobile viewers. It is to the successes and failures of artists’ attempts to acknowledge the very specific qualities of “public art” that this illuminating exhibition testifies.

Kate Linker