Friday, April 5, 2013

Ars Gratia Artis

For a time way back when, as happened to many young people beginning to think about the world around them and the meaning of life, I was attracted to the idea of transcendent beauty and truth. It is so much easier, after all, to believe in the Big Thing out there in order to give shape to a possibly meaningless blob that is the world and your life. Even today, I resort to ideal typing (as opposed to touch typing) on occasion in searching for the perfect Singapore chow fun. However, as I looked at on-going construction activity near the courthouse for the last few years, I was reminded of how fragile the concept of beauty is and how context animates content in art.

Manhattan’s street grid pattern, the right angle intersections of streets and avenues, was introduced just over 200 years ago, in 1811. It was not applied consistently from top to bottom on Manhattan Island, because settlement began another 200 years earlier with the Dutch and, by 1811, streets had already evolved from cow paths and foot paths. People and places were first almost entirely concentrated in lower Manhattan, the area now home to young people who, if not Chinese, seem to own only black clothing. So, lower Manhattan has oddly-angled intersections, bending streets and a topographic randomness that may even frustrate a native New Yorker. The best illustration of this may be the intersection in Greenwich Village of West 4th Street with West 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th Streets; see Google maps if skeptical. 

This is background to understand the roughly trapezoidal space opposite the courthouse at 60 Centre Street, bordered by Lafayette Street on the east and Worth Street on the north, which has been under construction for more than two years. This is federal property, because it is nestled in space abutting 26 Federal Plaza, a/k/a the Jacob J. Javits Federal Building. What intrigues me about 26 Federal Plaza, which should bear the street address 300 Broadway but doesn’t, is that there is no #1 Federal Plaza or 16 Federal Plaza or 33 Federal Plaza anywhere in New York City. What’s up with that? Why 26?  This 42-story building notably houses the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, better known as INS, which daily generates long lines on the sidewalk of folks who aspire to dwell legally in Brooklyn or other American garden spots.

The open space itself is known as Federal Plaza and was the site of a major aesthetic controversy in the early 1980s. As part of the federal government’s Art-in-Architecture program, the General Services Administration (GSA) installed a work of sculptor Richard Serra’s entitled Tilting Arc in 1981. It was a 120-foot long, 12-foot high, 2-inch thick, gently-curved piece of rusting steel, leaning over a bit. It divided the plaza roughly in half, forcing pedestrians to walk around it, instead of cutting across the space. Except for a fountain that may have never spouted, the area was otherwise featureless, without any seating for the many office workers in the vicinity. The negative reaction to the piece was immediate, first expressed by a federal judge, but then lowered to a sustained grumble for a few years. In 1985, however, the GSA’s regional administrator, who disliked the piece, held a hearing on its suitability before a four-person panel, whom he appointed and which he chaired. While 122 people spoke for leaving the piece in place and 58 against, the panel recommended removal 4 to 1. Serra insisted that the piece was site specific and that removing it was to destroy it, a possibly illegal act.

While I admit that my appreciation of art is limited, usually focused on Hirschfeld drawings and calendar illustrations, I was curious about this controversy. At the time, I lived on East 46th Street and worked nearby in midtown. I usually had no business downtown, and, when I went to Chinatown, I approached it from subway stops along Canal Street, a quarter of a mile or so above Federal Plaza. So, I made a trip to see Tilting Arc one afternoon in 1980-something and quickly aligned with the Philistines. The piece was oppressive, casting a big shadow, forcing a detour for many walkers, and a deterrent to any other use of the space. It was 25 years before I went to work across the street, but I’m sure that I would have loathed confronting Tilting Arc on a daily basis. It was finally removed in 1989 and several temporary designs replaced it until 1997, when a series of bright-green, painted benches curling around six large earthen mounds covered with small bushes were installed. The gracefulness of the design could only be appreciated from a high floor of an adjacent building, but the benches were popular especially at lunchtime. However, a total renovation of the space commenced in late 2010, partially to address water seepage into the underground garage beneath. I passed the construction site almost daily for the next few years.

Which takes us back to 1998 and the two-week trip to Spain that I took in the delightful company of America’s Favorite Epidemiologist. Neither of us had been there before, so we planned two weeks in October covering much of the country. We flew into Barcelona, flew next to Seville, took the high-speed train to Cordoba, then back on the high-speed train to Madrid, spending a couple of nights in each city. We rented a car in Madrid (there’s a wonderful story illustrating my stubbornness associated with that car rental which I only tell after drinking a bit too much) and drove 4 hours due north to Bilbao solely to see the relatively-new Guggenheim Museum. It was a wonderful experience. The Frank Gehry-designed building was thrilling. We walked from our hotel in the center of Bilbao and, by great good luck, we approached the museum around a curve on a narrow street so that the building loomed into view as if it were a sailing ship propelled by a gentle breeze.

We spent hours at the museum, inside and outside, trying to take in every available angle. By chance, there was a major exhibit from China including genuine Xian warriors, whom we would visit on their home turf a decade later. The museum has an enormous room devoted to a permanent display of Richard Serra’s work, including a 340-foot long piece of tall rusting steel entitled Snake, not very different from Tilting Arc. I loved it; it was exciting; it was inspiring; dare I say beautiful. Serra hadn’t changed; I hadn’t changed. The setting changed. Serra’s work was always art, but, given his devotion to site-specific works, this time everything fit. Transcendent value emerged from the marriage, as it were, of work and site. Beauty required both.

So why am I telling you all this? The other day, without fanfare, Federal Plaza was re-opened and I walked around and through it on the way back from lunch. A photographer sitting there told me that the formal opening will be on Earth Day, April 22nd. Water will be spritzing from embedded fountainheads, she said, and two-foot high cylinders meant for seating would be lit from inside at night, although they give the appearance of solid marble or granite. As it stands, the new space is fair-feh.  It also seems to be more of an art installation than a people space, because there is very limited seating, as you can see for yourself, and little shade. 

Once the water is flowing, most people (except those young and in love) will back away, and, at night, that whole area is pretty deserted. Thousands of us federal, state and municipal workers will be gone by 5 PM before the lights go on and without having had the benefit of nice outdoor benches to sit on during our lunch hour. Also disappointing is the explanation that my photographer friend gave me for that round, tall shiny-looking structure just inside the Worth Street edge of the space. It is not a kiosk to sell coffee and cookies and stuff, as one might easily imagine, but rather a pumping mechanism for the fountain.  While it looks shiny from back here, it actually is covered in plexiglass which looks real cheap up close.   
The Serra dispute led to passage of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, the first federal copyright legislation to grant protection to an artist’s moral rights. Under limited conditions, an artist may insist on proper attribution, impose restrictions on modification, or sue the owner of the physical work for destruction or mutilation. Tilted Arc remains in storage.

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