Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Socrates Sculpture Park

By Robin Lynn

Socrates Sculpture Park, on the water’s edge in Long Island City, is not an outdoor park covering hundreds of acres on a hilly landscape with precisely sited sculptures hidden among its hills and dales. It’s an urban sculpture park: a 4+-acre plot of land cheek-by-jowl with a Costco parking lot, separated from it by a prosaic chain link fence. It’s large by city standards and roomy enough to present multiple large-scale sculptures (changed annually), with enough space for the non-profit to offer outdoors movies and opera productions, yoga classes, and even kayaking off of its cove. Best of all, it can be reached by foot from the R train after an urban hike past auto repair shops and one-story factory buildings.

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Socrates Sculpture Park on the Long Island City waterfront looking across the river to Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Photo by Robin Lynn.
The park isn’t that old: It opened in 1986. But it’s ancient in terms of representing a topographical and cultural shift in the art world. First, it’s in Queens: giving validity to this outer borough as a cultural player at a time when Manhattan was the only player in town. Its organizers recognized the physical allure of the water’s edge, long before the city began developing its recent slew of waterfront parks. A lot of the park’s charm, and its breezes, are based on its location on the western shoreline in Queens (across from the East 80s, if you’re still counting in Manhattan terms).

Its founding even represented a bottom-up approach to developing open space, an idea gaining traction now as residents claim, and redesign, alternative open spaces such as traffic triangles, and work with the New York City Department of Transportation to bring more seating, less traffic, and more light into their neighborhoods. The well-known sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose waterside studio, where he creates his large-scale COR-TEN steel sculptures, is located just north of the park, was a formative player in developing the park. He and other artists began exhibiting art on this run-down plot of land slated for development; their visibility, their art, and encouragement from the community eventually led to the area being demapped and demarcated as an official city park, under the jurisdiction of the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation.

Today the sculpture park presents the work of emerging sculptors. In other words, this is not the sort of work seen along the median of Park Avenue where the selected artists are already well-known, many at the peak of their careers. At Socrates the sculptors are building their careers, doing well but could be doing better, and this exposure is very helpful indeed.
This summer the Architectural League of New York is presenting the winner of its Folly competition, with a work where architecture, design, and sculpture intersect to interpret architectural folly. Toshihiro Oki won with “tree wood” [sic], a whimsical, wooden structure that has nothing practical about it. The work—and it’s hard to know whether to call it art or architecture, but that’s the point—is on exhibit until August 4, 2013. It has a still-under-construction feel to it, although it’s complete. It’s just a force of linear elements that’s open to the elements, and fits perfectly into a park which was itself a folly back in the day.

Other works include “do it (outside)”—more conceptual than sculptural—where artists’ instructions are spelled out on long boards. Presented by Independent Curators International, and curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the art is cerebral, and evokes past art historical movements. In the continuing Broadway Billboard series, Brooklyn-born artist Chitra Ganesh creates a sort of end-of-the-world narrative entitled “Her Nuclear Waters.” These colorful works give off a cheerful sense of desolation. Should the end of the world really look this good?

Chitra Ganesh, “Her Nuclear Waters,” at the entrance to Socrates Sculpture Park. Photo by Robin Lynn.
Within the park, the many works of sculpture, and sometimes multi-media art, have unlikely competition: a meandering path along the water’s edge, shielded from the sculpture by an allée of trees. In the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” school of thought, the park has built a perimeter walk where visitors can think about the art, and relax, while viewing the high-rises across the river in Manhattan, themselves a series of sculptural forms. For one year in the not distant past, there were even hammocks by the water’s edge, good for falling asleep after having taken in the art.

I’ve watched this relatively small sculpture park evolve from an underutilized lot, once a dumping ground, to a “gotta go there” space during the many years I’ve lived nearby. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an equally worth seeing smaller enclosed garden nearby in the Isamu Noguchi Museum—a five-minute walk south along Vernon Boulevard. The former factory, across the street from where the Japanese-American artist lived and worked from 1961 until his death in 1988, exhibits his life’s work—sculpture made from basalt, marble, metal, and other materials—as well as his tools, photographs of his studio in Japan, examples of his lightning design, and others aspects of his life and work.

The Noguchi Museum. Photo by George Hirose © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.

But it is the outdoor sculpture garden within the larger museum that is astounding: among the most serene, yet dynamic, open spaces in the city. The high walls, covered with ivy, and open to the sky, enclose a small space with an artful arrangement of trees and sculpture. This private domain, one man’s sanctuary, is still and perfect, and keeps the city at bay. It is the opposite of Socrates Sculpture Park, an open-to-the-elements, come-one, come-all multi-purpose site, with multiple artists and points of view, where traffic pulses past the front gates. The two open spaces are point/counterpoint. Go look.


Socrates Sculpture Park
The Noguchi Museum

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