MADISON SQUARE PARK | MAY 16, 2016 – JANUARY 8, 2017
In the early 1990s the central oval of Madison Square Park was an uninhabitable dust bowl, and newspapers published animal behavior studies that compared the park’s squirrels to those of Union Square and Washington Square Parks, finding Madison Square’s emaciated and psychologically scarred from evading unleashed dogs. In 2016 it is a different story, and it is now the finest restored park in the city, resuscitated by local merchants and residents, hamburgers, and contemporary art. Memorable Mad. Sq. Art projects have abounded, but none impact the environment and relate better to the formal qualities of the park than Martin Puryear’s monumental and terrific Big Bling (2016), which commands the now lush and verdant oval for the next three seasons, and is deeply resonant of life in today’s New York.
Installation view: Martin Puryear, Big Bling, 2016, Madison Square Park, New York. Pressure-treated laminated timbers, plywood, fiberglass, gold leaf. 40 × 10 × 38 feet. Collection of the artist, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. © Martin Puryear. Photo: Yasunori Matsui
It has been a moment of grand gestures in contemporary art in New York—from Richard Serra’s latest vessel-sized Corten steel labyrinth, NJ-1 (2015), at Gagosian, to Anish Kapoor’s thirty-foot long arch of mammary earth, She Wolf (2016), at Barbara Gladstone just west in Chelsea. Puryear is familiar with such scale, having made Bearing Witness (1997), his powerful bronze evocation of individualized democracy outside the Ronald Reagan Building in his hometown of Washington D.C., and the twinned and totemic stainless steel North Cove Pylons (1995) here in Battery Park City. But the former’s metallic hide is in stark contrast to the masonry of the National Mall, and the latter are framed by the murky and brackish Hudson. Big Bling, by contrast, feels fully and naturally immersed in its gridded urban environs, responding to, enhancing, and expanding the experience of this emerald patch of urban park, as well as the surrounding architecture, including one of the city’s first skyscrapers, Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building of 1902, and the distinctive clock faces of the Metropolitan Life Tower of 1909.
A small iron version of the sculpture was included in Puryear’s recent Matthew Marks Gallery and Morgan Library and Museum exhibitions: its arched form and plummeting pillar-like front resembling ancient Egyptian bronze sculptures of seated upright cats linked to the protector goddess Bastet. There is one in Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum with gold earrings and the resemblance to Big Bling is uncanny. Puryear’s small version is titled Shackled (2014), and alludes to the history of slavery. Certainly the ebony-toned iron of the maquette bears a solemnity appropriate to that grim association, as in Lorenzo Pace’s similarly themed dark granite monument, Triumph of the Human Spirit (2000), downtown on Foley Square. But Big Bling of Madison Square is composed of laminated wood, fiberglass, and chain link fencing—its materials and transparency complicating this singular reference.
The new title is alluded to in the gilded shackle at the top, a bit of hardware that is affixed to the swelling head of the form and, like the larger shape below, in a state of rest. Slack on its pin, the shackle is not under tension, but merely suggests the equipment used to lower the structure into place—I like to imagine via wires that stretched from nearby skyscrapers, as if Big Bling navigated to the park through the city canyons like Spider-Man, via tensile webs.
As ever with the meticulous Puryear, the process is in large measure the piece. For Big Bling he collaborated with Unalam fabricators in Sidney, New York, who provided the pressure-treated curved laminated timbers (as seen in a recent Art 21 short film on the project). The company usually supplies materials for churches, bridges, and other structures, and not works of fine art. But Puryear is as much a technician as artist, who revels in interfacing with materials and the construction challenges that ensue; he has noted with delight that the engineers at the Unalam factory worked the same way as he does in his own studio.
On a recent visit, the late-afternoon sun glinted off the shackle and burned through the squared latticework of the structure, casting elongated rectangular panels of light onto the resodded lawn. It recalls both the glass-and-steel skyscrapers that have defined the New York skyline since the 1940s, and the rectangularity of that form’s most monumental example—the Twin Towers. Puryear was on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation jury that selected Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s design for the 9/11 Memorial back in 2003. Considering Puryear’s evocative description of Big Bling as a “visual poem of praise to Manhattan,” it is appropriate to see it as his own contribution to the memorialization of that day fifteen years ago. The resulting and sadly persisting culture of fear seems subtly imbedded in the surfaces of Big Bling—chain link fencing serving as both skin and protection, its small mesh dissuading anyone who might attempt to climb the sculpture’s haunches. Ultimately, though, Big Bling reverberates with the persistence and impressiveness of what one of New York’s finest early photographers, Alfred Stieglitz—who made the nearby Flatiron Building his first great motif—called “The City of Ambitions.” That makes it doubly indomitable.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail.