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 office workers asking for the removal of "Tilted Arc," a major sculpture 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 Paul approached Serra, a 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 includes what turned out to be rare footage of "Tilted Arc" just months before it was removed. It also includes footage of an ambitious exhibition of similar Serra sculptures at the Leo Castelli Gallery in Soho that had been scheduled to mark the unveiling of “Tilted Arc.” While Serra’s work might be controversial as public art, in a gallery setting the stark beauty and intimidating power of his monumental sculpture stands clear.
ART/new york’s program on public sculpture was so successful that we quickly followed it with a second tape that focused on new modes of public art by younger artists. We were fortunate to be able to videotape the dedication ceremonies for “We Are Family” a collaborative work by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres in the South Bronx that would later win a 1982 award as best NYC public sculpture.
John Ahearn first began making painted plaster portrait 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 beauty and expressive subtlety of Ahearn’s painted casts can be seen in footage Tschinkel shot at the Tony Shafrazzi Gallery. The success of these life casts as public art is evident in the community response at the dedication ceremonies. “We Are Family” can still be seen at 156 Street and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.
The enthusiastic response to "We are Family" stood in sharp contrast to the negative reception that greeted Richard Serra's contemporary "Tilted Arc." Ironically, Ahearn experienced his own public art controversy nine years later, when a vocal community member loudly questioned the types of neighborhood people he chose to cast for a public sculpture to be placed outside a South Bronx police station. Stung by the criticism, Ahearn removed the sculpture only days after its unveiling in 1991.
The Serra sequence was part of the tape "Public Sculpture" that also included segments on Louise Nevelson's public works, and a vertiginous platform sculpture by Owen Morrell suspended atop the McGraw Hill Building.
The John Ahearn sequence is from the program “New Public Art” which also features a tile installation by Joyce Kozloff at a Philadelphia train station and an outdoor mural by Keith Haring.
All videos and photographs courtesy of Paul Tschinkel and ART/new york.
Videos may be purchased at artnewyork.org