Just down the street from my office stands the Lever House, at 54th St. and Park. Currently, it is displaying a light installation by Keith Sonner (that replaced a gold chain link fence complex) in it’s street-level glass box of a room. On the ground level, the Lever House also has benches, a fountain, and — wait for it– large Hello Kitties sculptures (by Tom Sachs, I think) in it’s courtyard area. These white, papermache-style figures are huge and solid. Sometimes tourists take photos with the Hello Kitty sculptures. On one hand, it’s fun, but on the other, I’m not sure that it works.
When I walk to work in the morning, I pass a big red metal sculpture on the corner of 57th and Madison. Like many pieces of large civic art, I barely notice it. Office buildings in the city include large abstract sculptural works in the same way that they include a public atrium (also known as a tax break).
I question how well these public art displays function, and I think it’s a matter of context. Museum settings at least focus one’s attention. In the case of the Lever House, they own some pretty cool pieces (“Virgin Mother” by Damien Hirst, “Bride Fight” by E.V. Day, “The Hulks” by Jeff Koons) and are making them uniquely accessible to the public with no museum fees. Yet next to the skyscrapers of midtown, these large, awe-inspiring designs are subsumed. The street corner leaves them anonymous, and they become just another obstacle on the street for Manhattanites to speed past. Perhaps it’s a testament to Manhattanites’ drive that they can speed past works of art with a single glance.
Here works of art so easily become like the red sculpture (which happens to be by Alexander Calder) that I pass on my way to work: landscape.