Monday, January 30, 2012

Elegant Trash

Sometimes, all too rarely for most of us, you have an Eureka! flash of inspiration and a wonderful insight is handed you. One of our favorite watercolors, New York City Trash Basket (created in 2003 for our exhibition Central Park at Didier Aaron, Inc. in Manhattan) was one such moment and we wanted to share the image and the story behind it here—if only to prove that we are after all contemporary artists, despite occasional protestations to the contrary!

We created a number of life-sized elevational watercolors for the Central Park show (here is a link to the NY Times review), the largest among them being well over a yard long or high. The idea behind the show was to make an æsthetic departure from our detailed historical elevations: to render objects and architectural details in the park with our usual attention to realism while presenting them at the scale of contemporary art. (Below, a life-sized one-point perspective of a marble vase at the Mall in the gallery.)

We particularly sought subjects that would translate into graphic images with an immediate visual impact, and when we came across one of these iconic wire-mesh trash baskets while scouting the park—as former New Yorkers, it is as evocative of Manhattan as one of Proust's madeleines—we had one of those ahah! moments.

Measurements and photos were duly taken and back in Paris the drawing was plotted out and rendered and, despite the unanticipated scale of the effort those few words gloss over (it seems always to be the case), the results did not disappoint. (The original watercolor is over a yard high, so do imagine an image exactly as big as the real thing.)

For the gallery etiquette we wrote:

Overlooked and overflowing, bent and abused and often obscured by black plastic liners, the ubiquitous New York City trash basket is found throughout Central Park. The minimalist geometry of its design embodies the dictum that form follows function and strikes the eye particularly by what is absent. The simple wire skein defines the void it surrounds and generates elegant geometry reminiscent both of Paolo Uccello's famed Renaissance explorations of perspective and the Op Art movement. And certainly the Warholian subject also evokes Pop Art. It comes as a slight shock that such beauty harbors Manhattan's refuse.

More prosaically, the watercolor depicts the Standard Expanded Metal Waste Basket, model #MO5539500 black, designed in the early 1980s by Corcraft Products of the NY State Department of Corrections and manufactured by the female inmates of the Albion state prison. Later, vertical re-enforcement bars were added as the mesh had a tendency to squash over time from the baskets being tossed back in place from the backs of sanitation trucks (as New Yorkers with windows facing the street all know, this basket-toss is best done at dawn).

Once we'd hung it among the other watercolors in the gallery, the Trash Basket became the mascot of the exhibition and was purchased by the New-York Historical Society for their permanent collection. In 2009 it was included in their exhibition, Drawn by New York, and we were bowled over to find that it had been hung at the very end of the enfilade of galleries, the culmination point of six centuries of works on paper depicting New York.

Today, this trash basket has been almost entirely replaced by a new, uglier design that nonetheless better survives the rigors of hanging out day and night on NYC street corners. But we are happy to report that new examples this classic design are still to be found within the park itself, the last bastion of elegant trash.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Eco-terrorism alert!
The Eiffel Tower, world's largest garden trellis?

A serious project is under development to plant the Eiffel Tower, with work to begin as early as June if the Paris city council votes its approval, reported Le Figaro newspaper and CNN.

600,000 plants, sacks of growing medium and watering tubes together weighing 378 tons would be attached to the 1073-foot tall structure in a $96 million plan overseen by the Ginger engineering firm, Vinci Construction and the architect Claude Bucher.

Apparently the plants are already being raised in nurseries and a reduced-scale model of the tower has been built over a period of two years in a Paris suburb to test the idea's feasibility. The plants would be left to grow on the tower for four years, to be removed in 2016.

That in a nutshell is what is being reported, and it's hard to know where to start when faced with such monumental decadence, but let's begin at the beginning of the radical idea that urban structures can and should be a garden, which takes us, surprisingly, to Vienna in the mid-1980s and the Hundertwasser Haus, designed by the Viennese artist of the same name.

A piebald ode to the romanticized Teutonic vision of das Leben alternativ (or the counterculture) painted in a bright de Stijl palette, the idiosyncratic Viennese apartment block features a literal roof garden, trees planted in living rooms and undulating floors ("an uneven floor is a melody to the feet"). Both urban folly and provocation, the Hundertwasser Haus was a manifesto celebrating rustic handcraft and whimsical impracticality at a time of slick commercial atria sheathed in polarized glass sheltering rows of ficus trees, the iconic Trump Tower (below, the pink marble and polished brass atrium) being the apex—or nadir—of the trend.

More recently, the Parisian urban eco-gardener Patrick Blanc has been creating "vertical gardens" and gained great notoriety with his 2005 project at the Quai Branly Museum of First Peoples in Paris (below). Blanc, who obviously knows his plants, perfected the system of growing plants in pouches of planting medium irrigated by nutrient-rich water carried by a skein of drip lines.

Spectacularly lush and visually compelling, Blanc's sensuously cascading plant walls have become enormously popular with corporate clients wanting to make an eco-friendly statement with maximum visual impact. They are beautiful and truly stunning... and oh-so trendy. Affixed to a bare wall, as below, these vertical gardens can make a compelling statement and add immeasurable beauty, and quite simply are wonderful and nearly wondrous additions to most urban spaces, period.

But. Ah yes, there is always that "but," and in this case it's a big one: But the Eiffel Tower?

Is this eco- or ego-gardening? What madness possesses people to want to turn one of the most famous engineering feats of the 19th century, the symbol of France, into the world's largest scaffold for plants, which can after all be grown just about anywhere else? Why isn't this massive investment of time and resources being used to create, say, an innovative garden in Paris, instead of disfiguring and possibly weakening a great historical landmark?

Well, these are all rhetorical questions; you certainly know. That particular madness is of course trendiness. Fashion. Cool. Thinking one is right-thinking. And not a little bit of free-floating arrogance and self-referential decadence (BoBo nombrilisme, or "bohemian bourgeoisie navel staring" as it's known here). A corrosive brew indeed, and it is no surprise that this is occurring in Paris, world capital of fashion and when, for the first time, the younger generations have become bored with their past—a true sea change in France's self conception.

It is also proof that the 20th century's mental stupidity (for it is not even worthy of the word mentality) in treating the great monuments of our ancestors with disdain is alive and well and actually thriving. The poster child for that is of course the late Penn Station in Manhattan. In France, it is le feu Les Halles (below), the grandiose, old central market torn down under Pompidou (who suffered from Manhattan envy) to make way for a massive underground metro and suburban-train hub and a shopping mall with—you guessed it—hideously cheap atria lined with ficus trees. The White Hole, it is unaffectionately called here. Inevitably, it was so awful and so badly constructed that it is now being razed and replaced with a trendy new eco-friendly shopping mall, which will carry it along for another 40 years.

Other, lesser desecrations include Daniel Buren's infamous Two Platforms installation of 1986 in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal, home of the Ministry of Culture, and the more recent wrapping of the handsome beaux-arts-meets-art-deco façade of the old Louvre Department Store in aluminum spaghetti à la Cy Twombly, also perpetrated by the Culture ministry when it purchased and renovated the property to serve as an annex.

But Paris hardly stands alone here. A perfect American example of people-who-should-know-better-but-don't is the staff of Metropolitan Museum of Art, which since the late seventies (under go-go Tom Hoving) has seen fit to use its monumental beaux-arts façade as a banner support, even though there are flag poles in the plazas to either side that would be perfect for the purpose. One can only hope that the Met, trapped in 70s æsthetic amber with its pop-art colored banners, tired M® shopping bags and chunky tubular brass handrails, will bring itself into the 21st century responsibly and not plant its celebrated landmark façade but rather reveal and light it properly. (They might also—though no rush as it's only been a century or so now—finally get around to commissioning someone to carve those stacks of limestone piled atop the cornice into something resembling art, seeing as it is an art museum and not that poor.)

As for the Eiffel Tower, it has been used as a billboard for at least two decades now. First it was bathed with colored lights at night, copying the Empire State Building, then it received a dazzling star-like light-show for the millenium which sparkled for the first ten minutes of every hour (truly inspired, but apparently opening Pandora's box), and in 2008 (below) it became a propaganda poster for the ill-fated EU constitution, reduced to the Lisbon treaty. It has also been decorated to promote other such political ventures.

Now it may well become the world's largest trellis frame and most expensive and inefficient "carbon trap," to go with the French government's dubious obsession with the real carbon trap, carbon taxes.

"To the glory of France!"