The Ephemeral Nature of Public Art: Sealed Today, Concealed Tomorrow? (Knox Martin edition)

In my early years as a cultural journalist, I was an enthusiastic booster of NYC’s “Percent for Art” commissions, whereby 1% of the budget for eligible, city-funded construction projects was allocated for the creation of artworks for city facilities. The 40th anniversary of that program was commemorated on Mar. 14 with the launch of “an interactive map and website showcasing works that were created under the program,” in the words of the press release from NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

According to the Department, “hundreds of site-specific projects in variety of media” have been commissioned over the course of this program.

NYC Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laurie Cumbo & Mayor Eric Adams (left & 2nd from left), celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Percent for Art”
Photo by Matthew Lapiska

As it happens, today marks the the opening of a public-art project in NYC’s City Hall Park—Native American Cannupa Hanska Luger‘s Attrition, commissioned under the auspices of the Public Art Fund (with Bloomberg Philanthropies as “presenting sponsor”). Its installation was funded, in part, by the city.

This 10-foot long steel bison skeleton “bring[s] to light the history of the bison’s survival,” as described in the Public Art Fund’s announcement:

NYC’s publicly funded art was also in the news this week for less bullish reasons: The lead story in last Sunday’s NY Times Real Estate Section gave me traumatic flashbacks to my 2009 post on Knox Martin‘s “Venus”—a 12-story-high mural funded by City Walls, precursor of the Public Art Fund, both of which were founded by the late Doris Freedman. Pegged to Lost New York, an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society (to Sept. 29), the Times article by Anna Kodé focused on public artworks that have been partly hidden or completely obliterated due to real estate development or the wishes “the wealthy and powerful.”

In particular, Kodé highlighted the remaining “sliver of a mural” that “depicts a New York cityscape,” for which the artist, SuZen, a 78-year-old multimedia artist, had received a $10,000 public grant in 1984. It was rendered “nearly invisible” last fall, when “a taller building went up directly adjacent to it.”

But back to Knox’s hard knocks: In protest against the indignity to be suffered by his own mural, the brawny WWII veteran took matters into his own brush, getting himself hoisted up the building’s facade and painting his name in large letters on the part of his mural that would still remain visible after the construction of Jean Nouvel‘s 100 Eleventh Avenue had obscured all but a sliver of the artist’s lively composition.

You can glimpse him painting his name on the blue portion of his mural in the upper left:

Here’s the mural as it originally looked:

And here’s the truncated version, with his name in defiantly BIG LETTERS, while adjacent construction was still in progress:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As for Knox: Like his marooned mural, he was a survivor: He lived to be 99, dying in 2022.

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