Section 2 - Public Art
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Richard Serra’s '“Tilted Arc” (1982)
John Ahearn & Rigoberto Torres’ “We Are Family” (1982)
The 1982-83 art season was marked by a heated debate about public art sparked by a petition signed by 1300 local office workers asking for the removal of "Tilted Arc," a major commissioned abstract work by Richard Serra that only weeks before had been installed on the plaza of the Javits Federal Building in downtown New York. Paul Tschinkel and I wanted to cover the controversy for ART/new york and approached Serra (Paul's former classmate at Yale) for an interview.
With his art under attack, Serra seized the opportunity to deliver an impassioned critique of prevailing attitudes towards public art, as well as, a spirited defense of the formalist aesthetic. This sequence also included rare footage of "Tilted Arc" just months before it was removed due to public demand. While Serra’s unadorned cast-iron installation did not play well with the federal office workers, footage showing similar Serra sculptures at the Leo Castelli Gallery in Soho favorably captures their stark beauty and monumental power.
The Serra sequence was part of an ART/new york program titled Public Sculpture. A related program, New Public Art followed, which included “We Are Family” a collaborative work by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres in the South Bronx. In 1982 the work received a NYC award as best public sculpture.
John Ahearn first began making painted plaster casts at the South Bronx alternative art space Fashion Moda. His exhibition “South Bronx Hall of Fame” featured local residents and generated wide enthusiasm not only in the neighborhood but also downtown where young artists were searching for ways to connect with real life and people outside the art world. The expressive quality of Ahearn’s painted casts was on display in an exhibition of similar works at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. The success of these life casts as public art is evident in the enthusiastic community response captured in footage shot by Tschinkel at the “We Are Family” dedication ceremonies.
Richard Serra does does not mention John Ahearn or “We Are Family” by name, but there is no doubt that his angry diatribe in our interview was aimed at work akin to Ahearn's. Serra minced no words: “... sculptors casting bronze figures in steel mills and auto workers in steel mills… that kind of humanistic cynicism is a load of crap. All it does is support the larger notion of appealing to a class that says, oh yes, there’s human content there.”
Ironically, Ahearn experienced his own public-art controversy nine years later when another one of his works featuring casts of neighborhood individuals was placed outside a South Bronx police station. In this case a vocal community member loudly questioned the particular types of people he chose to cast for the work. Stung by the criticism and the negative focus it put on his young subjects, Ahearn removed the sculpture only days after its unveiling in 1991.
“We Are Family” has been moved from its original location, and can now be seen at 156 Street and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.
Jane Kramer, “Whose Art Is It?,” New Yorker Magazine December 21 1992, provides exhaustive coverage of the controversy surrounding Ahearn’s Jerome Avenue police station project.
All videos and photographs courtesy of Paul Tschinkel and ART/new york.
Videos may be purchased at artnewyork.org