Public Art and Its Discontents. Julie Mehretu at Goldman Sachs
How paradoxical is the role of public art in Manhattan. I admire the Roy Lichtenstein mural at 787 Seventh Avenue, which marvelously summarizes his pop motifs. In a fast moving cab late at night the big Frank Stella in the lobby at 599 Lexington Avenue looks just perfect. And I remember fondly Richard Serra’s now dismantled St. Johns Rotary, which redeemed an otherwise wasted space at the entrance to the Holland tunnel. But on the whole, for an art filled city, New York does not successfully display much contemporary public art. Partly the problem is that most art made today, even the largest pieces, is not well suited for public settings.
The history of modernist public commissions is not encouraging. In the 1930s, Matisse’s dream commission, the sit-specific painting for Albert Barnes’s Foundation, was not a success. And because Diego Rivera included a portrait of Lenin in his Rockefeller Center fresco, John D. Rockefeller destroyed that picture. Tony Smith’s Tau at Hunter College (at Lexington and 68th Street) is in an impossible site, dominating the spectators but set on a busy intersection which makes it impossible to step back and see it properly. Barbara Kruger’s recent installation on the ground floor of Lever House demonstrates that nowadays our grand art-supporting capitalists are happy to exhibit leftists. But that does not make it a successful work of art.
Inspired by Calvin Tomkins’ characteristically lucid essay in the March 29 New Yorker, I went to the Goldman Sachs building at 200 West Street to see Julie Mehretu’s “Mural.” Her exhibition at the Guggenheim, “Grey Area” (May 14-October 6) provides a fascinating vision of Berlin. And so what could she make, I wondered, of this commission? The building itself has no signage. No doubt security must be a real concern. You can see into the mural only with difficulty through the heavy windows. And when you enter the building, the friendly guards allow no photographs. Since they will not permit you to go through the turnstile, you can only view “Mural” at an oblique angle. The employees can go to work without passing by her painting. (You, however, can see it on youtube.) Were “Mural” exhibited in a Chelsea gallery, it would be judged as art. No doubt it can be interpreted as an abstract image of how businesses like Goldman Sachs connect our world. My concern here, however, is not at all with Mehretu’s work of art itself, but with its status as a public work of art.
On their website, Goldman Sachs quote what they identify as “a Chinese proverb”: “Women hold up half the sky.” Leftists of my generation will associate that phrase with Mao Zedong who also, we should remember, said that the revolution is not a dinner party. Here, then, we get to the awkward politics. When Mehretu accepted the project, several years ago, she could not have anticipated the present furor, which has made her patron so widely hated. Everyone associated with the art world knows that our galleries, museums and, yes, our academic institutions (I speak as a tenured professor) are sometimes financed in ways that make us uncomfortable. When Mehretu is quoted as saying about Goldman Sachs, “I don’t see it as an evil institution, but as part of the larger system that we all participate in. We’re all a part of it,” she correctly describes everyone’s situation. But there is more to this story.
A generation ago, the unhappy sage of Tilted Arc revealed the vast gap between the art world and the larger public. Serra, who is a great artist, was not in that work a great public artist. How could he be when the public hated his sculpture? Once, wandering late at night, I came across it and unreflectively thought: what a monstrosity. Not at that moment an art critic, I had become just a member of his public. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial is in my opinion, and many people would I think agree, the most successful recent public work of art. When Jerry Saltz condescendingly (and misleadingly) calls it “essentially a Serra with names on it,” he inadvertently identifies one real problem. In a democratic culture, a public artist must please or, at least, woo the public. Most of the art world defended Tilted Arc, an understandable act of loyalty to Serra, which showed a curious obliviousness to the legitimate desires of ordinary citizens to have public art that they enjoy.
Although the lobby of Goldman Sachs is not, of course, a public space, anyone can look in. In a curious way, the site of “Mural,” which is visible (but not clearly) from the street, but inaccessible close up, stands for the status of Goldman Sachs itself, an extremely powerful, very private corporation whose policies dramatically affect our economic lives. The trouble is not that it’s been commissioned by a business whose ethics are questionable. And it would be absurd to criticize Mehretu for accepting a well-paid commission. But it is essential for an artist to control the reception of her work, and this she failed to do. The whole project feels, I fear, like a set-up at her expense. By inviting a young, high profile biracial lesbian, as she is prominently identified on the web, to do an expensive permanent work for their lobby, Goldman Sachs sought to buy good publicity. But since “Mural” doesn’t function effectively as a public work of art, they failed. And that failure reflects also, I think, on Mehretu. A guerrilla artist like Banksy would have done a better job at showing how capitalism functions. But Goldman Sachs is unlikely to invite him in. Maybe they should look to Jeff Koons the next time they offer such a commission.