The Monuments of First Avenue

Posted on February 1, 2015


Screen Shot view of Wallenberg Monument. 2015-01-25 at 3.00.26 PM

Screen shot. Google Maps Street View of Wallenberg Monument. 2015-01-25 at 3.00.26 PM

On a recent morning commute, I noticed a bouquet of roses laid at the foot of a monument that I had often caught glimpses of, but never paid much attention to. Comprising five dark stone pillars, a blue orb balanced on one and a bronze suitcase at the foot of another, all sitting atop a circle of paving stones inlaid into the median at the intersection of First Avenue at 47th St., the work was humanized by the roses in a way it hadn’t been before.

That day I looked the monument up online to read a little about its history. Called Hope, it is the work of the sculptor Gustav Kraitz, commissioned by the Swedish government to honor the statesman Raoul Wallenberg, and installed in its place, adjacent to the United Nations, in 1998. In his capacity as special envoy to Hungary in 1944, Wallenberg had saved tens of thousands of lives by housing Budapest’s persecuted Jews in buildings that he had designated as Swedish territory. In light of Wallenberg’s story I began to parse the meaning of the blue globe (safe haven?) and unattended suitcase (Wallenberg disappeared into the Russian prison system in 1945, never to be seen again), objects that had earlier seemed to me rather tired Surrealist clichés on the nature of life and work in modern society.

Taken as a sculpture, Kraitz’s monument to Wallenberg is somewhat bland. Each element—columns, sphere and suitcase—exists in such a peculiar relationship to the others that they have little meaning save for in particular reference to Wallenberg’s life. They are narrative devices, not sculptural ones, resulting in a work that is intelligible to those familiar with Wallenberg’s story, but unintelligible to those who are not.

That many tons of dark stone, a shining blue orb and bronze suitcase did not pique my interest in the way that a simple bouquet did speaks to one work’s sculptural failures, but also, I think, to a larger lesson about the relationship we have with public art. Aside from those who visit such works for personal reasons, as the bouquet leaver had done, public monuments are destinations, one supposes, for just a handful of groups; guided tours, say, or the city parks employees who must with some regularity clean and maintain them. Thus, for the vast majority of their lives in situ, such works are experienced only in passing by the thousands of daily commuters and lunch-hour office workers who are their intended beneficiaries.

Screen shot view of M15 Select Bus, First Avenue and 14th St. 2015-01-25 at 5.10.19 PM

Screen shot. Google Maps Street View of M15 Select Bus, First Avenue and 14th St. 2015-01-25 at 5.10.19 PM

My commute begins with a ten-minute walk from my apartment at the top of Gates Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens, to the Myrtle-Wycoff L Train station in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Once underground, nine stops separate Bushwick from Manhattan, where I exit on First Avenue and await the M15 Select Bus, which takes me to the Upper East Side. To disappear underground in Bushwick and resurface in Manhattan is to make a transition essential to most commutes, leaving a residential world and emerging, more or less rapidly, among the institutions of the city.

The M15 Select Bus was introduced in 2010, the second of eight Select Bus routes that make express stops along the city’s most heavily-traveled commuting corridors. These buses stop every ten blocks or so, much less frequently than local buses and, when operating well, give riders the pleasure of traveling as fast as a train with the convenience of remaining above ground.

Whether sitting or standing, in front or back, with views out the left or right sides of the bus, each morning brings a different experience of the commute, which is conditioned further by the seasons, the weather, one’s fellow commuters, and the larger cultural life of the city. When the United Nations is in session, a large swath of the avenue is on lockdown, and the bus is able to make its way uptown without detour only by means of the First Avenue Tunnel, which it enters south of the U.N. and exits a block or two north. The Ebola scare brought a fleet of news vans to Bellevue for a week, at which time the commute offered insight into the network pecking order, as rival crews jockeyed for position in front of the hospital’s glass-fronted atrium.

As seen from the bus, First Avenue is a row of institutions. Starting with Mount Sinai/Beth Israel on 16th Street, hospitals virtually line the avenue until the upper 30s. A brief reprieve from the wall of buildings can be found at East 38th Street, where a three block stretch of undeveloped land offers an open sweep of the East River and Long Island City before the avenue is pulled into the rich pageantry of the U. N. complex, which dominates the landscape for the remainder of the 40s.

The artworks that line First Avenue are to be found as frequently as the institutional grounds they help decorate, and the residential buildings whose construction terms likely mandated their purchase. Of the first category, a Hans Arp-like amalgam of bronze, brass and marble, each material a rounded anthropomorphism that twists and interlocks with the others in a sort of perpetual wrestling match, can be seen on the south grounds of Bellevue Hospital at 26th street. Of the second are the innumerable low, steel, modernist works, minimal conglomerations of cubes or spears or flat planes of aggressive non-figuration, that sit somewhat forlornly in the landscaped courtyards that separate large 1970s and 1980s era apartment buildings from the public sidewalks and streets.

The greatest concentration of true public works to be found along this route, however, are those surrounding the U.N. Remarkable for their sheer number and scale, one quickly perceives an emotional weight to them uncommon to most public works around the city. The gifts of member nations, they speak to an implicit faith in the power of art to help articulate universal ideals of peace and justice.

Screen shot. Google Maps Street View of Peace From One, Ralph Bunche Park. 2015-02-01 at 10.12.16 AM

Screen shot. Google Maps Street View of Peace From One, Ralph Bunche Park. 2015-02-01 at 10.12.16 AM

The first of these to come into view from the M15 is Peace Form One (1980)—Daniel LaRue Johnson’s monument to the American statesman Ralph Bunche—a stainless steel wedge-shaped monolith that rises fifty feet from a dark bronze platform on the west side of the avenue. As seen from the bus, this work is striking for its harmony with its setting; the wedge stands in the middle of a small park that appears carved from the high ground at the end of East 43rd St., some twenty or so vertical feet above street level. A smooth bluestone retaining wall provides a clean background against which the bright steel sculpture is seen. As a memorial, the wedge gives function and meaning to the little park. But it also breaks free from the confines of the park at its apex, a lovely and pitch-perfect matter of scale.

Across the street within the grounds of the United Nations itself is Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form (1961-4), a monument to the Swedish statesman Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the U.N. A large bronze, shaped like a polished river stone turned vertical on its slimmest edge, with a perfect circle cut from its upper left sector, this sculpture, too, gains power from its relationship to its surroundings. Situated in the middle of the plaza in front of Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier’s imposing Secretariat Building, it is, at 21 feet tall, both testimony to and aspiration for great individual achievement within the structure of the world’s largest peacekeeping organization. The sculpture seems to acknowledge the massive size of the building, the armed security checkpoints, member nations’ flags flying one after another in perfect harmony, while addressing the work of that institution as a matter of what must be achieved on a human scale.

Screen shot view of Good Defeats Evil, United Nations Plaza. 2015-01-25 at 2.59.47 PM

Screen shot. Google Maps Street View of Good Defeats Evil, United Nations Plaza. 2015-01-25 at 2.59.47 PM

Three other large works appear as the bus heads north past the main gates and approaches the U.N.’s distinctive domed General Assembly building—Good Defeats Evil, Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli’s oversized depiction of St. George slaying a dragon that is made from American and Soviet missiles, donated by the Soviet Union in 1990; a bronze elephant donated by Kenya, Namibia and Nepal in 1998 that is shunted off into a little-used corner of the grounds and largely hidden behind a hedge; and Kraitz’s monument to Wallenberg. None of these appeal much on aesthetic grounds. Tsereteli’s piece ruins an otherwise good use of the St. George legend as a metaphor for the threat of nuclear war by incorporating real missiles into the dragon’s sides. It is too descriptive and far too large to be anything but an illustration. The elephant, cast from a real specimen, is awkward and out of place; its incongruity with its surroundings is worsened by the apparent effort to hide it behind shrubbery.

Certainly both Hepworth’s Single Form and Johnson’s Peace Form One deserve the kind of scrutiny generally afforded a work of art, but something has kept me from approaching these works as I would those in a gallery or museum. Hammarskjöld owned an earlier, smaller sandalwood version of Single Form, and it was partially for this reason that Hepworth chose a related motif with which to honor him. Yet much as I would like to examine the smaller sculpture, wherever it may be, my experience of Hepworth’s monumental Single Form from the bus feels like enough. So too does my experience of Peace Form One.

What is the distinction between these public works, which I am happy to view in passing but not quite willing to engage with otherwise, and other, non-public pieces by the same artists that I am increasingly eager to seek out in the relative privacy of homes, galleries or museums?

One factor is the experience of seeing an artwork outside, where its creator (or those who have chosen its site), has ceded some control of the experience of the work to more and greater variables than those that affect works placed indoors. Such works cannot be lit optimally, for instance, because the light is always changing. Subject to the oft-unrelated actions of the city that swirl around them, they are modified, always, by factors beyond their creators’ control. This is true both for Single Form and Peace Form One, despite the fact that both were designed specifically for their particular settings. It is objectively less true of a work like the smaller sandalwood Single Form, which may have changed hands and homes dozens of times, but has always, in all likelihood, been placed in such a manner as to control the circumstances in which it is seen.

These vastly different levels of control over how artworks are experienced points to a fundamental difference between public and non-public art. Perhaps what ultimately distinguishes public art from all other types is that rather than our encountering it on its terms, as we do with works in galleries and museums, public works must encounter us on ours. Good public artworks are rare. As Arthur Danto pointed out in his critique of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, which spawned such controversy after its installation in Federal Plaza, a good artwork can also be a bad public work if it does not meet the needs of the community it is meant to serve.

I cannot guess the bouquet leaver’s artistic leanings, but I imagine that with the Wallenberg monument, they are subordinate to her emotional response to the work as testimony to a profoundly moving history. As a monument, it fulfills its function in a way that it does not as an artwork. Both Single Form and Peace Form One, by contrast, fulfill both roles, operating as powerful memorials because they operate as powerful artworks. It is more of this type of work, executed by serious artists to engage serious matters, from which the city could benefit. Yet despite our different reactions to the very same work, the bouquet leaver might accept my requirement of public works to engage the public as identical to her own. In defense of the work, she might say that she has never been compelled to leave flowers at an art museum.

Screen shot view of United Nations with Single Form. 2015-02-01 at 9.59.43 AM

Screen shot. Google Maps Street View of United Nations with Single Form. 2015-02-01 at 9.59.43 AM

Posted in: Essays