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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 PĂ©rigny-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.

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