New York

Lee Boroson

Plotting public space consists of figuring out how to get people from here to there; any pause along the way tends to be carefully orchestrated. As a specialist in large-scale, site-specific sculpture, Lee Boroson draws on the city planner’s concepts of flow, pattern, confluence, and vantage point to both contradict and reveal the built environment. With their pliant contours and wafting bulk, his signature inflated nylon works are meant to stimulate awareness of spatial relations, to articulate felt yet unseen qualities of air and unused portions of social space—but also simply to provide moments of fun.

Suspended from the ceiling of the Whitney Museum’s four-story atrium at the Philip Morris corporate headquarters, Underpass, 1999, was a lattice of puffy, quilted panels of glossy blue and white cloth, a nuanced and intelligent experiment in mental architecture. From below, the bright, buoyant shape seemed cheerfully incongruous in its monolithic setting. Gradually, more specific ideas asserted themselves. Though never figurative, Boroson’s sculptures often retain an identifiable element of reference—in this case, the cloverleaf design of modern highway exchanges. Two long straightaways criss-crossed the upper air, with a curving “ramp” billowing into the corners created by the intersection—a literal “high way.” Situated at the “crossroads of the world,” across the street from Grand Central Station, the piece played on the idea of the grid, master system of both urban planning and artmaking. But the weightless, hovering object shifted attention from the grid’s rigid coordinate axes to its open interstices, its slack spots. This brought to mind other references, from rivers and glaciers to jet streams and clouds. Responsive to light and shadow as well as to air currents, the blue-white pouches seemed to breathe.

These evocations of ephemeral or natural entities echoed architectural elements and the human bodies on the scene. Pedestrians enter the asymmetrical sculpture court on its north side and exit to the east, where a bilevel segment of Park Avenue inclines to street level. The straightaway sections of Underpass ran parallel to the awkward trajectory of foot traffic beneath it and hung in a slope mimicking that of the Park Avenue overpass. More subtly, the piece was connected to fans in the building’s heating and ventilation system, which kept it inflated. Functionally integrated into the engineering structure of its host, the work became a lung.

Underpass brought a welcome hint of natural rhythm to a relentlessly urban milieu. But its quasi-organic exuberance also commented on the atrium’s status as a “garden spot” for workers’ leisure, drawing attention to the slivers of sky barely visible between the neighborhood’s corporate towers and the sad potted ficus trees dotting the tobacco giant’s concrete floor. It is fitting that Boroson has been studying the design of formal gardens. (The interstate grid with its nodal cloverleafs is, after all, a type of landscaping.) A treatise of sorts on transit and environment, Underpass was also an inverse “folly”—an architectural fancy like a gazebo in a garden. In the chaotic stream of midtown business, where serene acreage seems distant, Boroson provided passersby with momentary respite and an unexpected, uplifting view.

Frances Richard