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Adding Humanity to the Environment—Art in Riverside Park


Even if you cannot seem to find the time to get to one of the many art museums in New York City, you can see a great deal of art during your daily activities in and around Lincoln Center.

Elizabeth Allison created her sculpture River Gazers, which is installed near 65th Street in Riverside Park, to “unify this blatantly manmade object with the bucolic environment of the park itself.” The sculpture is part of an Art Students League of New York show called Model to Monument.

(Photo by Courtesy of the Art Students League of New York)

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There are the obvious choices, such as Louise Nevelson’s Nightsphere-Light in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater lobby; Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure in the reflecting pool; Calder’s Le Guichet in front of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; and the numerous works inside the Metropolitan Opera House, Avery Fisher Hall, and the David H. Koch Theater. But there are also many other outdoor public sculptures. One particularly delightful, not-to-be missed group of temporary objects can be observed during a walk or jog right in our own backyard: Riverside Park. 

As part of a five-year project called M2M, which is short for Model to Monument, the Art Students League of New York City and the Parks Department have commissioned and installed eight sculptures between 61st and 69th Streets. The artists who created the M2M works were recommended by Art Students League faculty members and then underwent a rigorous application process. Once the seven winners were chosen, they took a seminar with program leader Greg Wyatt, a sculptor who is artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the creator of the Peace Fountain, a 1985 work on the cathedral grounds. On the M2M Web site, Wyatt noted that at the beginning of the seminar, he brought the students to St. John the Divine “and I use my own career and example of the Peace Fountain as a place to introduce these ideas as theory but also as career practice.” The artists also reviewed concepts of planning, modeling, installing—and sometimes ditch-digging. And since the pieces were created with public viewing in mind, the artists and Wyatt, spent time distinguishing between what is meant by private and public and considering use of site-specific surroundings.

Linking Humans and Nature

Some of the M2M sculptures are more effective than others, and I’ve picked out a few of my favorites to discuss. However, all add something to the humanity of the park environment. Many of them take their impulses from the pilings and remnants of old piers and bridges in the Hudson River, from the grasses and trees around them, and even from the park benches. The variety is quite impressive.

The southernmost piece in the series is at 61st Street. A huge wood sculpture by Japanese artist Akihiro Ito, it’s calledForever, and it depicts two figures looking upwards near the Hudson River. It could be a pair of lovers or friends. The piece exudes warmth and gentle humor because of its semiabstract forms and beautiful, tactile carving. In his artist statement, Ito said that it symbolizes human souls, love, and eternity, and that he sees the medium of wood as linking humans and nature. 

Matte White’s Seiren looms a bit further north, at about 63rd Street. I spent some time with a friend trying to decide whether this was a male or female figure, and then I discovered that in his artist statement, White said he deliberately desexualized it in order to avoid controversy about depicting the nude in public art. Ironically s/he is based on the sirens in The Odyssey who lured Ulysses’s men to their death with their song. This sculpture is nearly 11 feet tall; but instead of singing for death, the sculpture, as the artist envisages her (White refers to her as female), sings—24/7, for all passers-by, on ship or shore—for life. You need to look at this figure from many different angles in order to fully appreciate its dynamism.

In her artist statement, Allston Chapman said of Looking Up, which is just above 64th Street, “When I first saw this site, I thought ‘this is a site that needs art.’ I hope this sculpture will inspire children to appreciate art and create art of their own.” Her piece portrays a little girl standing on a log, accompanied by a small dog on its hind legs, desperately trying to reach her. It reminds me of Dorothy and her dog, Toto, in The Wizard of Oz. Though it looks at first like wood, the piece is, in fact, sculpted of bronze, and it fulfills the artist’s intention of providing whimsy in a natural setting. 

Around 65th Street, you will come across Elizabeth Allison’s River Gazers: two figures seated on a park bench. In her artist statement about the piece, Allison wrote, “Stylistically, the River Gazers will be recognizable as a people but not tightly modeled in the traditional academic sense. A more gestural, expressive style seems appropriate—such a style can relate to the ruins of the broken down piers, helping to unify this blatantly manmade object with the bucolic environment of the park itself. River Gazers will have pale coloration to help them stand out against the dark waters of the Hudson, while working with the light weathered wood of the benches and the warm colors of the surrounding grasses. River Gazers will mingle with the viewers of the park, providing a slightly unexpected twist to the installation.” In fact, the mingling really works—so much so that there have been problems with people climbing on top of the figures. There is room on an adjacent bench, but the artist had never intended for people to climb on the actual sculpture.

In his artist statement, John Balsamo wrote that his sculpture, The New Age, which is near 69th Street— the northernmost one in the group—“reflects my feelings about the transformation of New York City from an industrial city to a sleek and modern metropolis.” Made of aluminum with a steel base, it seems vaguely figural, but perhaps again in consideration of the publicness of the piece, it transcends specific anatomical details.

These sculptures make for a rich and enjoyable addition to the recently renovated and magnificent park itself. If you haven’t been down there, you really owe it to yourself to go.

The M2M sculptures will be in place between 61st and 69th Streets in Riverside Park through mid-2012.


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