Thanks to some visionary, public-minded women, New York is being treated to some stunning art in unexpected places this summer. The work is completely contemporary, but the idea has a little history.
Let's start with Creative Time's divinely whimsical contest for the best artist-designed sandcastle, which took place last Friday at Far Rockaway at Beach 86th Street. Some of the more interesting artists of our time agreed to take part, such as Tom Sachs and Snarkitecture; tellingly, more than half of the competitors were collectives.
First place went to Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw, who made a classical fountain in which living people spurted water from their mouths. William Lamson and his companions made a nearly perfect cone, inspired by a Japanese temple; they were in second place. Third place went Jen DeNike, who with her team sculpted the relief of a reclining nude woman whose arm stretched out to a small sandcastle.
A good crowd of hipsters and art-lovers appeared to have journeyed from 'the City,' meaning Manhattan and, I suppose, smart neighborhoods in Brooklyn, to watch the teams struggle against sand's resistance to holding its shape and the weight of water that had to be carried from the ocean or sprayed from an available hose.
The leader and idea-woman of Creative Time is Anne Pasternak, who has been steadily expanding and changing the idea of public art for almost two decades. Her partner in all things artistic these days is her chief curator, Nato Thompson.
Another powerfully imaginative and effective woman is Leslie Koch, the president of the conservancy for Governors Island. With the support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg -- a hero in the world of public art, worthy to compare with Ed Koch, who initiated the Percent for Art program in New York's capital projects -- Governors Island has become a mecca not only for pleasure-seekers but for artists and art-lovers. This year, besides several interesting exhibits in buildings around this former Coast Guard station barely a stone's throw from Lower Manhattan, Storm King Art Center -- the great sculpture-in-the-landscape institution in the Hudson Valley -- has been invited to mount an exhibition of the work of Mark di Suvero. This is the second installation of monumental work by this towering artist, and the pieces spread around the island are as breath-taking in their setting near the bay as they are in the rolling fields of Storm King.
But wait a minute. Di Suvero is no stranger to the waterfront. He is the mastermind behind and creator of a steady presence of public art along the shores of the East River, where his Socrates Sculpture Park has graced Long Island City for years.
And, as for the concept of Art on the Beach -- the idea, and the name, were invented more than 30 years ago by the founder of Creative Time, Anita Contini, now an advisor to Michael Bloomberg on his personal charitable giving. A third inspired woman. In 1978, Anita and some friends, through an act of imagination and connection which she has repeated many times in her career, managed to get permission from the State of New York to place a number of temporary, large-scale artworks on the landfill extending New York's western shore farther into the Hudson River, thereby creating Battery Park City. Then it was a wasteland, built with the stuff removed to make way for the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
But, wait again. Memory takes me back to an earlier woman, the mother of the very idea and practice of public art in New York and a major influence nationally in the establishment of the federal one-percent-for-art program. The great Doris Freedman. It was Doris who urged Mayor Edward I. Koch to establish New York City's percent for art program. (I know, because I was involved in its beginning.) And it is Doris whose name is attached to a spot in Central Park, at the corner of 60th Street and Fifth Avenue -- Doris Freedman Plaza -- where the Public Art Fund, the organization she founded, installs noteworthy works every year. (Mayor Bloomberg also gives an annual Doris Freedman award to individuals who contribute to New York City's cultural life.)
That's four inspired and inspiring women. And there's a fifth: Susan Freedman, Doris' daughter, who heads the Public Art Fund board and helps its staff, led by Nicholas Baume, brighten many spots around New York with temporary installations.
And, guess what? The latest installation of the Public Art Fund is a work by Oscar Tuazon, whose large-scale installation has just gone on view at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a stone's throw from New York harbor. Art on the Beach!