Public Art Reaches New Heights

Eric Russ

As the de facto capital of the contemporary art world, it is perhaps no surprise that New York has become such a hotbed for high-quality public art.  From the increasingly cultural Governors Island to the newly expanded High Line, great art venues abound throughout the city. 


Over the last several years, Governors Island has  established itself as one of the finest art spaces in New York.  When, in 2002, the federal government turned the island over to the city, an effort began to transform the space into something for the public benefit.  Each summer the island opens and reveals the latest in its effort to convert the former Coast Guard facility into one of the most unusual attractions in the city.  “Governors Island gives New Yorkers a place to see incredible sculptures and art exhibits while also enjoying car-free biking and acres of green space entirely for free,” said Leslie Koch, president of The Trust for Governors Island.


As if to cement its position as a premiere art space in New York City, the Trust has mounted its largest exhibition to date.  Mark di Suvero at Governors Island: Presented by the Storm King Art Center may open the doors for future large-scale outdoor sculpture exhibitions on the island.  With 150 acres of land, Governors Island has the luxury of space, a commodity that is increasingly scarce in New York.  Di Suvero’s sculptures are tucked away into all corners of the island and find themselves separated, at times by great distances.  Whether traveling by bike or on foot, visitors encounter di Suvero’s work throughout the island.  For those who are not familiar with the work of Mark di Suvero, the exhibition will provide a terrific introduction to an iconic artist in one of the most beautiful settings that New York has to offer.


The other great space to emerge in the last few years, and one that has quickly become one of the most popular destinations in New York for locals and tourists alike, is the High Line.  The project is, without a doubt, one of the most innovative reclamations of disused space the city has ever seen.  The elevated pathway has also become home to some of the more interesting and visible public art in the city -- a fitting role in that the High Line charts its path through the Chelsea gallery district. 


On June 8, 2011, the High Line cut the ribbon on phase two, expanding the park all the way up to 30th street.  With this comes more space in which Friends of the High Line can present public art.  What is interesting about the artworks exhibited on the High Line is their relationship with the park itself.  For example, Julianne Swartz, in Digital Empathy, has created a sound piece that speaks soothing, positive messages to visitors as they drink from the many water fountains on the High Line.  Or, in the case of Still Life With Landscape (Model for a Habitat), New York-based artist Sarah Sze offers a sanctuary to birds, butterflies and insects with a piece that pedestrians on the High Line pass through.  The piece speaks to the very harmony that the park itself attempts to create, between the architecture of the city and natural green spaces. 


Still on view also is the colorful The River That Flows Both Ways by Spencer Finch whose stained glass piece has graced the Chelsea Market Passage since 2009.  Finch documented a 700-minute journey down the Hudson River in which he captured the color of the river every minute.  These colors have been applied to a grid, the effect of which is a delightful display of green and blue windows that represent the variety of appearances of the Hudson.  The work, like the river itself, appears differently depending on the amount of light at that moment.


To New York’s credit, the number of spaces that are being used to show public art are increasing every year.  With its most ambitious exhibition to date, City Hall Park has transformed itself into a legitimate art space.  Sol LeWitt is one of the most influential artists of his generation, helping to create the Minimalist and Conceptual movements.  In celebration of the artist’s relationship with the city, Public Art Fund has assembled an in-depth survey of LeWitt’s Structures series.  What makes this exhibition so unusual is its departure from typical public art presentations.  With an insightful audio guide and a strong effort to curate a thorough retrospective, Sol LeWitt: Structures 1965-2006 may point toward a new way of conceiving public art programs.  The 27-piece exhibition will be on display through December 2, 2011.


There is perhaps no artist who is better associated with the city than Andy Warhol.  From the late 1960s until his death in 1987, Warhol-mania dominated the New York scene.  The first public art work to be exhibited in the new pedestrian plaza at the northwest corner of Union Square, Rob Pruitt’s larger-than-life Andy Monument commemorates not only the location of one the artist’s famed factories, but also the site of Max’s Kansas City, a popular hangout for Warhol and other New York culturati.  The chrome Warhol will preside over his old stomping grounds at Union Square through October 2.


New York City has long been a hotspot for the visual arts.  Supporting and exhibiting good public art is an appropriate and deserved celebration of this city’s cultural importance.  This past summer has seen the emergence of not only new public spaces for art, but also more ambitious projects than have been attempted in the past. 

Author Bio:

Eric Russ attended New York University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in ‘The Sense of Self,’ an interdisciplinary investigation of human identity.  He holds a Master’s Degree in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art and is currently writing about the art world. 


1. Sol LeWitt: Structures, 1965-2006 at City Hall Park

​2. Image on main page: Mark di Suvero at Governors Island; photo by Shawn Hoke, Flickr

not popular
Andrew Russeth, Flickr
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider