Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Look At Some East Side Public Sculpture

This year, my wife and I decided that we would take Fridays off. More accurately, she (Andrea) felt that she needed a day away from her computer and work. For me, being happily retired, every day could be Friday. But now, on Fridays, we head out and enjoy a small sampling of the infinite activities that New York City graciously provides for us.

Movies, of course, could fill an entire day: one can see two movies/day and never exhaust the offerings in this city.  However, on two recent Fridays, we attended a free, noon event at Rockefeller University.  One was a string quartet recital.  The other was a film by Josh Aronson titled Orchestra of Exiles, a riveting documentary about how Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish violin prodigy, created the Israeli Philharmonic by rescuing major Jewish musicians who were being “blackballed” by the Nazi German state and bringing them to Palestine.  Aronson’s film, by the way, will be broadcast on Sunday, April 14 by PBS.

Both of these events fall under the aegis of Rockefeller’s Tri-I Noon Recital series; its director is our long-time friend, John Gerlach. 

Josh Aronson (seated) and John L. Gerlach, Rockefeller University, February 15, 2013

Here is a photo I took in Rockefeller’s faculty dining room at the lunch following the viewing of Aronson’s film. Aronson (seated) is talking to John Gerlach.

You must be wondering what this has to do with East Side Public Sculpture, so allow me clarify.  On one Friday we walked to Rockefeller University from the Bronx, and on another we walked downtown on York and First Avenues after the recital.  On these walks, we came across the following sculptures, and since I am rarely without a camera, I thought that you would be interested in some of the visual delights that abound in our fair city.

Melvin Edwards, Tomorrow's Wind, 1989-91, Thomas Jefferson Park, 1st Ave. ca. East 112th St.

Walking through Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem, I was surprised to see this nice, monumental abstraction by Mel Edwards.  I knew that Mel also made large sculptures, but I was much more familiar with his smaller pieces, most of which are wall-mounted, interior pieces, meant to be seen at eye-level.  The bulk of these are social statements, even if abstract, and Edwards calls them "Lynch Fragments."  The earliest of these small pieces find their basis in racial violence, later ones (from the 1970s) in the Vietnam War, and, later still, in African culture more generally.

Tomorrow's Wind is simpler in composition than his smaller works and consists of three main elements: a canted (solar) disk, a vertical, rising arc, and an angled, incomplete triangle with three step-like cut-outs.  I would read this, latter, element as our earth-bound reality, which supports the aspirations expressed by the arc and our spiritual nature as embodied in the circular disk; that disk, by the way, is meant to reflect the sun off its polished stainless-steel face.

Nice piece, Mel.  Too bad it was a grey, late January day when I took this photo.

Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990, United Nations Headquarters, 1st Ave. at East 47th St.

Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990, United Nations Headquarters, Detail with artist's signature

Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990, United Nations Headquarters, Detail with Pershing & SS-20 Missile Sections

Off of 1st Avenue, in a section of the United Nations grounds not open to the public, I discovered this truly monumental sculpture, nearly forty feet high by the Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli. Titled Good Defeats Evil, it consists of a very traditional Saint George on horse wielding his (Christian) lance against a dragon who, in death, reveals his Darth Vader-like, high-tech innards. These insides, spewing forth from the dragon's more-recognizable, scaly body, litter the ground below the Saint's horse.

The guts of this dragon, best seen directly above in the third of my photographs, are anything but traditional.  They consist of actual sections of scrapped US Pershing and USSR SS-20 nuclear missiles.   The dragon, and the evil it embodies, is nuclear war. American Pershing II and Russian SS-20 missiles were the main delivery systems for nuclear warheads, but in December of 1987 they were banned by the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) Treaty: the first international agreement to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.  Tsereteli’s sculpture celebrates the INF Treaty, and it was donated to the United Nations by the Soviet Union in 1990.

Good Defeats Evil is an important sculpture in commemoration of an internationally important treaty, yet it is inaccessible to general visitors to the United Nations Headquarters. Also, its appropriation of the Christian metaphor of St. George and the Dragon might be questioned in the context of a gift to the United Nations, whose member countries embrace all religions.  Moreover, many Asian countries perceive the dragon as a benevolent creature, not an embodiment of evil.  Then, again, few countries see St. George as so central a figure as Russia, the donor country, where the saint has appeared on its coat of arms since the 16th century, and where he also appears on Moscow’s coat of arms.

Given the fact that the dragon is two-headed--the one at the rear already lying lifeless as George plunges his spear into the neck of the other whose jaws threaten his rearing horse--we can assume that it represents the two signatory countries, the USA and the USSR.  If so, then who (or what Good) does George represent?  I’ll leave you with this question as we proceed south to our next discovery.

Carl Frederick Reuterswärd, Non Violence, ca. 1985, United Nations Headquarters, 1st Ave. at East 45th St.

Not far south from Good Defeats Evil, are two other sculptures on the UN grounds and these are accessible to the public as they flank the United Nations Visitors Centre between 46th and 45th Streets.

The one, by Swedish artist Carl Frederick Reuterswärd is titled Non Violence, although most people know it as The Knotted Gun. A 45-caliber revolver points west, as if to shoot across mid-town Manhattan, only its barrel is rendered useless by a knot.  The symbolism is obvious.

Reuterswärd made several versions of this sculpture as a response to the murder of his friend, John Lennon, on December 8, 1980. This work was one of the artist’s first three versions and was purchased by the Luxembourg government and given to the UN in 1988.   At the dedication, Secretary General Kofi Annan made the following statement:  "The sculpture, Non Violence, has not only endowed the United Nations with a cherished work of art;  it has enriched the consciousness of humanity with a powerful symbol that encapsulates, in a few simple curves, the greatest prayer of man;  that which asks not for victory, but for peace."

Although New York, the city in which this sculpture sits, ranks among the safest big cities in America, many may see this revolver as an archaic reminder of simpler times when compared to the lethal assault weapons equipped with high-capacity magazines that proliferate and plague our country today.

Other countries, particularly in Europe, enjoy the relative peace that Kofi Annan prayed for.  But America, unfortunately, is still a long way from this goal, as the following graph indicates.

The other public sculpture outside of the UN Visitors Centre is Italian Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Sphere Within A Sphere.  In this case, as well, the artist made several versions.   All of them reveal a highly-polished bronze sphere penetrated by fissures that pull away to reveal a quasi-mechanical interior of toothed elements and another, smaller sphere.  While its polished exterior surface reflects its surroundings, it opens up to expose a much more complicated, darker and mysterious interior.

Arnaldo Pomodoro, Sphere Within A Sphere, United Nations Headquarters, 1st Ave. at East 45th St.

As with so much good art, particularly abstract art, Pomodoro’s Sphere Within A Sphere generates questions.   Is it a planet, a universe, or a cosmos, or is it maybe subatomic in scale?   Do we, on an infinitesimally-small scale, live somewhere within this sphere?   Is the outer sphere giving birth to the inner one, as if the work represents some cosmic gestation?   Does it share influences with the Death Star from George Lucas’ Star Wars of 1977?  Does it have some relationship to the work of another Italian, the architect Paolo Soleri, and his evocative megastructural habitats which he terms Arcologies?  Or is Pomodoro possibly making some reference to one of Euclid’s five regular solids which would become generally known as the Platonic Solids?   Here is a wonderfully intriguing piece that untethers our imaginations.

Totora Reed Boat, Peru/Bolivia, Lake Ttiticaca, United Nations Visitors' Center

With this photograph, I digress, because it is not public sculpture. It is part of an exhibition inside the United Nations Visitors Centre that focuses on South America and the cultivation and uses of quinoa, especially in Peru and Bolivia.  I simply had to share with you this traditional boat made from Totora reeds that grow in abundance around Lake Titicaca, which is where quinoa domestication also seems to have originated.

Reuben Nakian, Descent from the Cross, 1972, St. Vartan Cathedral, 2nd Ave. at East 34th St.

After leaving the United Nations Visitors Centre, we continued south along 1st Avenue and then turned west on 35th Street. Here we encountered the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, which is the seat of the Armenian Archbishop and the head of the Eastern Diocese.  The raised plaza (or atrium?) in front features an abstract sculpture by the American Sculptor, Reuben Nakian. Of Armenian extraction, Nakian studied art at the Robert Henri School and the Art Students League, and was friends with Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.  Although his earlier work retained its figurative basis, even as it revealed tendencies toward abstraction, this later work is completely abstract.  The Descent from the Cross consists of rough, irregular slabs in cast bronze, stacked up as if to reference Golgotha and, when seen from the front, to create a cave-like opening that might suggest the place of Christ’s entombment.  The view I chose here may not be the best for revealing these aspects, but it offers you the best view to see the sculpture in the context of the cathedral.

Nakian has arranged these rough slabs in aggressive, angular slashes, not unlike the abstract expressionist paintings of his friend, Franz Kline.  Also, his adherence to timeless subjects like this parallels the work of abstract expressionists like Robert Motherwell.  For anyone interested in a fuller visual analysis of Nakian’s Descent from the Cross, I suggest this piece by Robert Metzger.

Before moving on to my final example of public sculpture, I would like to suggest that there may be a special connection between the subject of the Descent from the Cross--the penultimate 13th Station of the Cross--and its presence in the context of an Armenian Cathedral in America.  Joseph of Arimathea took Christ down from the Cross and then donated his own tomb to Christ’s body.  Over a millennium later, in 1216, the Armenian Cathedral of St. Hovhannes Mkrtich (John the Baptist) was built in the the Holy See of Gandzasar, and it reputedly contained the relics of Joseph of Arimathea.   

Gandzasar was of great importance in Armenian religious and political life, and it wouldn’t surprise me if further research might lead one to interpret and connect this work of Nakian's to the Turkish oppression of Armenians during the massacres of 1895-96 and the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Leo Villareal, Buckyball, 2012, Madison Square Park, Broadway and 23rd St.

We end up, after dinner, in Madison Square where the latest sculptural installation of the Park Conservancy’s ongoing Madison Square Art program is Leo Villareal’s Buckyball.   A graduate of Yale University and of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Villareal works with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and encoded computer programming to create illuminated displays, such as seen here at the bottom of the Park (with the top of the Empire State Building rising above it in the distance). 

Villareal makes use of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic spheres, one nested in the other--think of this as an open, airy version of the Pomodoro piece that we saw earlier.  The name, “Buckyball,” was first given to these forms in 1985 by their discoverers at Rice University.  The spherical buckyball, and certain other forms such as cylindrical nanotubes (or “buckytubes”) represent molecular forms composed entirely of carbon.  Together, the two forms are known generically as “fullerenes.”

Since their discovery, fullerenes have been found in nature and, according to astronomer Letitzia Stanghellini, "It’s possible that buckyballs from outer space provided seeds for life on Earth.” 

And so, as we digest our dinner, we join other couples and recline on benches--otherwise referred to as “zero-gravity couches”--and contemplate Buckyball and its cosmic implications, or merely enjoy its continually changing light show created by “16 million distinct colors.”  The Pomodoro “Death Star” has become a delightful, gigantic beachball, and New York City has given us another exhilarating day of discovery.


  1. Well, Tyko doesn't quite have it right! While I am happy to have a day without my computer every Friday, the real reason I am taking Fridays off this year is that I want to have a full day every week to play with TYKO! And can you blame me? A full year of wonderful Friday adventures with a lovely man! Andrea

  2. Maybe we'll have to declare Wednesdays as "Fridays," too.