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Monday, February 23, 2009

Empire State Plaza Art Collection

There are certain things we are all inclined to take for granted, and in the winter months, the Empire State Plaza Art Collection is one of those things. Fortunately, I had a reminder recently when some job-searching business brought me into the bowels of the Plaza, and my travels through there were made less soulless by the presence of some great art (such as a tasty study in color and geometry by William T. Williams similar to the one pictured above).

It's easy to remember this collection in the warmer months, when events on the Plaza bring thousands of folks there, and the huge sculptures placed among the even huger buildings draw our interest, along with that of the local media, who can always be counted on to run photos of kids playing on the big yellow one by George Sugarman.

But it's also easy to forget that underneath the Plaza are fabulous riches in the form of smaller sculptures and abstract paintings by many of the most prestigious names in American art. Among my favorites there are Isamu Noguchi's three Studies for the Sun, Gene Davis's colorfully striped Sky Wagon, and a painting by Adolph Gottlieb called Orange Glow.

But on the day of my visit, I stopped to contemplate a painting I'm not actually that fond of, and in reading the label for it I found it more intriguing than at first glance. Alfred Jensen's Kronos (detail at right) is awkwardly daubed with blobs of paint straight out of the tube in a complex system of parallel lines and rectangles, and I have always thought it was sort of crude, almost naive. But Jensen was working with ancient mathematical and astronomical ideas - not exactly a naive artist, even if those are "primitive" sources - and his piece takes on a rather mysterious monumentality when you think about the challenge he posed himself in making it.

If nothing else, it took my mind off my own troubles for a while, and that's as good a use for art as any, if you ask me. Looking around the Concourse, I saw the usual foot traffic of a business day, including some who were clearly walking for exercise (they made laps) and perhaps a few visitors or even tourists. As usual, nobody but me was paying much attention to the art.

I know a lot of workers object to the abstract nature of most of the Plaza Collection, and some may even have applauded the crazy person who slashed and defaced some of these paintings quite some years ago (at huge expense to the state for restoration); but I still believe that these are (mostly) wonderful works of art, and I hope it is possible that they win people over day by day as they are exposed to them.

As for those of us who actually love abstract art, let's not forget to visit the Concourse once in a while for a potent dose of it in a collection that is not just there for free viewing at all hours but that, as citizens of the state of New York, we also happen to own.


JimRichardWilson said...

Thank you for reminding us all of this treasure. Those who visit me who care about abstract art and/or art of the New York School often ask to see the collection. I roam through a few times a year.

Post 9/11 security has made seeing some of the collection more difficult, but whatever one gets a chance to see is always worthwhile. It is a reminder of a time when art was understood as central to the nature of us - especially as New Yorkers.

Anonymous said...

While reading this, I was reminded of the time when I was writing a paper for an undergrad course in contemporary art/art history at SUNYA. My topic was sculpture, and I used the Claes Oldenburg "Mickey", on the plaza, as one of my examples. I recall walking around, even getting on the ground, to get different perspectives on the Oldenburg, all the time taking notes, while passersby didn't blink, as happens on the concourse as well. We are so fortunate to have this world class art here, and we shouldn't forget it. Kudos to Nelson Rockefeller. Here is a link for some history and other interesting details about the inception of the collection, allegedly the most important of any state: