Skip to main content

Downtown Beauty: Louise Nevelson and Jean Dubuffet

Not too many regular folk I know have business to do at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, but it's worth taking a trip downtown to Maiden Lane and Liberty Street (converging just past William St.) to visit, or at least revisit, the triangular park just to the east of the bank - Louise Nevelson Plaza. At times over the past few years, Nevelson's lyrical steel structures, titled Shadows and Flags (1977), have been somewhat obscured by the plaza's own renovation.

Louise Nevelson Plaza
Louise Nevelson Plaza, as seen from Chase Manhattan Plaza.
William Street (west side of plaza), Maiden Lane (north) and Liberty Street (south)

Around the corner and up the stairs at Chase Manhattan Plaza, Jean Dubuffet's fantastical Groupe de Quatres Arbres (1972) still surprises, and, in fact, the Chase plaza's elevation provides a perfect vantage point to look at the Nevelson pieces from on high. Handsome artwork by a woman and a pretty work by a man are frequently worth checking out, especially in tandem.

Jean Dubuffet Groupe de Quatres Arbres
at the top of the stairs from William Street, Jean Dubuffet's Groupe de Quatres Arbres.


Dubuffet's Group of Four Trees (the English translation) came first, in 1972, a gift by bank chairman David Rockefeller for the plaza in front of the new Chase Manhattan Bank. The building already included the recessed curved Sunken Garden designed by Isamu Noguchi. Originally, architect Gordon Bunshaft had approached Alberto Giacometti to design a sculptural grouping for the plaza, but the artist grew ill and died in 1966, with the work unrealized. Chase's art committee decided on the selection of Dubuffet's whimsical curvy artwork, a black and white sculpture that contrasts with the straight modernist lines of the building, ten years after the building's construction. The grouping of four trees looks light enough to sail away with a strong wind. In fact, it's heavy, made of fiberglass resin affixed over a sturdy aluminum frame. The sculpture belongs to a series Dubuffet created called "L'Hourloupe," his invented name for a grotesque wonderland, the word a play on notions of roaring and hooting.

Jean Dubuffet Groupe de Quatres Arbres
Chase Manhattan Plaza, Dubuffet's Groupe de Quatres Arbres


Considered one of the earliest champions of "outsider" art, or more precisely Art Brut, a phrase he coined, French painter and sculptor Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet (1901 – 1985) moved away from a classical training in art toward an emotionally informed art practice. In addition to being a celebrated painter (MoMA held his first retrospective in 1962), he amassed an important collection of outsider art. When Rockefeller contacted him for the Chase commission, he was in his late 60s and well-known in New York art circles. Pace Gallery began showing his work in 1968. With the commission, Dubuffet moved to a new studio on the outskirts of Paris at Périgny-sur-Yerres, one that soon expanded to accommodate increasing demand. The unveiling of Groupe de Quatres Arbres in 1972 was followed by an exhibition at MoMA and other exhibitions in London and Paris.


Louise Nevelson Plaza
View of tallest sculpture in Louise Nevelson Plaza.
The building on the left is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York City.


Prior to Shadows and Flags, Russian-born Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) had already donated a major work to the city, a strong rectangular abstracted work titled Night Presence IV. The work commands a hilly part of the Park Avenue median at 92nd Street. While many interpretations of her abstract assemblage (a word coined by Dubuffet) should be considered, Nevelson often commented that the skyline of New York provided an inspiration for her sculptures. She was an important force in the city's artistic culture but also an internationalist in spirit. She had married and moved to New York in 1920, and in 1929 she left for Europe to study painting.


Louise Nevelson Plaza
street level view of Louise Nevelson Plaza.
Newer trees no longer obscure the views of the smaller sculptures on the east side.


When Nevelson returned from abroad she befriended Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and she worked  with Rivera as an assistant. She then took up sculpture and taught classes in a WPA program. She had her first one-person show in 1941. By the mid-1950s, she was well-recognized, not just for her dark assemblages but for her colorful artistic persona. She was a celebrity. It's obviously unusual for one artist to command a whole plaza in New York, but the dedication of Louise Nevelson Plaza in 1978, a site that the artist was involved with in every detail, signified her importance to the city. According to the catalog that accompanied a 2007 Nevelson retrospective at the Jewish Museum, at the initial dedication of the plaza, Mayor Abraham Beame praised Nevelson's work as a fitting "antidote to a spate of recent violence in the city."* By the way, Nevelson and Dubuffet knew one another.


Louise Nevelson, Mayor Ed Koch and David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan Plaza opening, 1978 Sept. 14 / unidentified photographer. Louise Nevelson papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Source: 
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In 2008, Nevelson's sculptures were temporarily removed from the plaza. Debris from 9/11 had coated the works, and they needed to be restored. The city completed the renovation of the plaza in the fall of 2010.

______
Sources, and for further reading:

• Jean Parker Phifer, Public Art New York (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009)

Dubuffet Foundation website.

Louise Nevelson Foundation website.

• Louise Nevelson's "Sculptures Return to Renovated Plaza That Bears Her Name" by Julie Shapiro. DNAinfo.com Sept 5, 2010. Read more here.

NYC Parks page on Louise Nevelson's Night Presence IV.

• In June 2008, the Signature Theatre Company staged the New York premiere of Edward Albee's Occupant, a play based on Louise Nevelson. Read Ben Brantley's review in The New York Times from June 6, 2008. Mercedes Ruehl starred as the artist.

* Actually, two dedications took place - the first in 1977 by Mayor Beame when the site was called Legion Memorial Square, and the second in 1978 with Mayor Ed Koch and David Rockefeller when the site was renamed Louise Nevelson Plaza. See more in the catalog, ‪The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend‬ by Louise Nevelson, Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Arthur Coleman Danto, Jewish Museum (New York, N.Y., 2007), p. 54.

• Many priceless artworks were destroyed in the attack on the World Trade Center, as the WTC included a large public art program. Lost are works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, among many others. Also lost was Nevelson's wood relief, Sky Gate, New York from 1978, a work explicitly inspired by the New York skyline. The work was on the mezzanine of 1 World Trade Center. Read this article from the Library of Congress for more - "Lives and Treasures Taken: 9/11 Attacks Destroy Cultural and Historical Artifacts." (November 2002).

Directions: The nearest subway stop is the Wall Street station of the 2 and 3. Consult the recent WOTBA walk, Breakfast at Standard and Poor's, for nearby attractions and other suggested stops. Also consult the post, Connect the Dots: A Self-Guided Walk to Public Art in Lower Manhattan.


View Louise Nevelson and Jean Dubuffet in a larger map

Images of Louise Nevelson Plaza and Chase Manhattan Plaza by Walking Off the Big Apple from September 8, 2011.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

Museums in New York Open on Tuesdays

American Folk Art Museum , 45 W. 53rd St. Asia Society and Museum , 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) Guggenheim Museum , 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th St.) Pictured left International Center of Photography , 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street The Metropolitan Museum of Art , 1000 Fifth Avenue NEW: Beginning May 1, 2013 MoMA will be open seven days a week. 11 W. 53rd St. The Morgan Library & Museum , 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street Museum of the City of New York , 1220 Fifth Avenue New York University, Grey Art Gallery , 100 Washington Square East Mondays and Tuesdays are the hardest days to remember which museums are open. See the list for NY museums open on Mondays here .

A Walk From Lincoln Center to Zabar's

If you happen to be attending a noon or matinee performance in Lincoln Center or otherwise happen to be hanging around there for whatever reason and find you've got some time, I recommend a stroll up Broadway to Zabar's, the famous Upper West Side food emporium. This stretch of Broadway takes in the sights of several new housing sky-rises, several theaters, and some flamboyant former apartment hotels of the early 20th century. Flâneurs will love the Belle Epoque ambiance of these overly-ornamented buildings, and the distance from W. 66th or so to W. 80th is not so taxing, especially if you're dressed in shoes for the opera. View Larger Map Several noteworthy structures along the way - The Dorilton, 171 W 71st St., from 1900-02, at the northeast corner of Broadway, is considered a Beaux Arts masterpiece. The 72nd St subway station dates from 1904 and is a funny little thing. Verdi Square, at the convergence of Broadway, Amsterdam, an W. 73rd, is a nice small park fea

The Marx Brothers in New York: Interlude - On Groucho Walking

This special new series about the Marx Brothers in New York continues this week, following the brothers into a career in Broadway and into the movies, but first I would like to take a little time to discuss Groucho's peculiar way of walking. Sometimes described as a "lope" or "stoop," Groucho's silly and often lecherous walk became just as an important part of his persona as his glasses, eyebrows, cigar and greasepaint moustache. He didn't walk this walk all the time, but as you recall from the films, Groucho would often bend his knees and lean forward as he proceeded from point A to point B. To imitate Groucho properly at a costume party, it's important to get this part down. • Groucho explained that it was simply a bit of inspired improvisation. From the book Hello, I Must Be Going by Charlotte Chandler, he says, "I was just kidding around one day, and I started to walk funny. The audience liked it, so I kept it in."(pps. 153-154) Chand

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

The Thin Man Walk: A New York Holiday Adventure with Nick and Nora Charles

(Revised) Line up the cocktails. As Nick says, "You see the important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. A Manhattan you shake to foxtrot, a Bronx to two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltz time." If ever a couple possessed complementary drinking rhythms, it would have to be Nick and Nora Charles , the much-envied glamorous cocktail-swilling quick-thinking duo of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man . Inspired by the writer's blossoming affair with playwright Lillian Hellman , the novel, published in January of 1934, motivated MGM to rush a cinematic adaptation into production. The movie, released in late May of 1934, proved popular enough to spawn sequels, foremost because of the stellar chemistry and witty performances of William Powell as Nick and Myrna Loy as Nora. Decades later, many people still search for their own Nick or Nora. Beyond the playful banter, the partying Charleses exude a confident security and ease in their

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det