Carmen Herrera’s park life

I encountered a fleet of news vehicles as I made my way to New York’s City Hall Park to see artist Carmen Herrera’s Public Art Fund commission. They were likely stationed there in case of sudden developments in the Jeffrey Epstein case (he was being held in a jail nearby), but the presence of journalists idly drinking coffee reminded me how often public art comes off like a sad reporter on the 11 o’clock news, delivering her story live, in the dark, outside a government building, hours after the actual action occurred. Yet when I rounded the corner, glimpses of red, yellow and blue blinkered through the throngs of tourists and business people on their lunch hour, and I could see that Herrera’s brightly coloured sculptures were holding their own, still in the thick of it.

The one-hundred-four-year-old Herrera was a smart choice for a public commission: for the last half century-plus, the painter has dedicated herself to colour and form, but the social underpinnings and utopian potential of her geometric abstractions have possibly not received this much attention since 1936, when she displayed paintings of a tearful Christ with a swastika in the background in a park in Havana, in her native Cuba, partly as a means of protest against the rise of Hitler and a visiting party of Germans. Here in New York, Untitled Estructura (Red) (1962/2018), positioned near the park’s northeastern entrance, introduces its politics more subtly. The sculpture resembles an enormous meander motif, the kind of mazelike pattern that decorates the placemat at your favourite Greek diner. According to an informative plaque, Herrera originally made the work during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the two halves representing the duel between her Cuban origins and her life in the United States. The connection is quite hamfisted, but it still makes clear the goal of Herrera’s tender platonism: to connect the personal to the larger events of this world.

Elsewhere, Estructura Verde (1966/2018) exemplifies Herrera’s rigour. Its interlocking L-shaped blocks exude the pleasant didacticism of a word problem in a maths test, requiring us to contemplate the relationship between the parts and the whole. The puzzle is enough to hold your attention; pink hollyhocks and clusters of mauve hydrangeas, which complement the sculpture’s vibrant green colour, also make for an inviting scene. Unfortunately, an ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ bars the general public from this tiny patch of greenery (all the lawns were fenced off from public use). I wasn’t too bothered, though. The squirrels, pigeons, finches and bumblebees who scrounged for food at the base of the sculpture brought to mind a council of experts. “Who better to know what to do with Herrera’s work than these critters?” I thought.

The sculptures make for a refreshing complement to the people (and animal) watching, positioned, as they are, on the basis of aesthetic resonance, rather some specious connection with local history. The park already reflects how various mayoral administrations have interpreted site-specificity to their own ends. In 1999 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani – an evil genius with media relations – sought a symbol of how his policies had returned the city to greatness, so his people reinstalled the current fountain, originally designed for City Hall Park by architect Jacob Wrey Mould in 1871, but which had been mouldering in the Bronx for 80 years (they also tracked down some of the park’s original iron fencing, which had been repurposed by a cemetery upstate). Giuliani called it ‘a final gift from the 20th century to New Yorkers of the 21st’, but the full story casts doubt on his generosity. The 1871 fountain was itself a replacement for the Croton Fountain, the park’s original water feature, which was built to celebrate the new waterworks and the arrival of clean water to New Yorkers for the first time. The modest, vaguely European-inspired design of the former must have disappointed anyone familiar with its predecessor, which spouted a jet of water 15 metres into the air.

Perhaps Herrera’s sculpture Angulo Rojo (2017) guided my appreciation of the historical drama these public works represent. The play between the matter-of-fact right angle, and its appetizing cherry-red colour sparked a kind of mischief, and must have coloured my reading of the granite paving stones engraved with the park’s history – one way or the other, Herrera’s sculptures induce a playful response to the physical world. The graven words are accompanied by historical photographs in the fashion of Catholic tombstones – think grandma dressed in her house clothes holding her scraggly Chihuahua at the kitchen table – but years of foot traffic have buffed out most of their detail, proving that even images etched in stone are ephemeral. Once again, a more touching alternative to the vagaries of site and memory can be found in the physicality of Herrera’s Pavanne (1967/2017). It presents itself as an imposing cube, but close inspection reveals the three interlocking forms that comprise its shape. The elegiac colour, that of a deep body of water, exudes a palpable glow in a shady patch of the park, and softens the work’s otherwise strict geometry. Herrera made the sculpture in response to her brother’s death, and though the sculpture’s modular units are held suffocatingly tight, the two L-shaped blocks that form the base are held together by the open arms of a bracket – what resembles a tight, and enduring embrace.

On my way home, I passed the fleet of newspeople once again, and wondered why they didn’t wait instead at the park. The detention of a powerful billionaire pending a trial for child sex-trafficking was certainly an important story (not to mention Epstein’s subsequent suicide), but off-camera, on this beautiful afternoon, I thought how much the reporters themselves were missing out. Even the most solemn of Herrera’s sculptures brought its own kind of breeze to this green patch of Manhattan. I could only imagine that the experience would have brought some additional humanity to the news agenda.

Online exclusive, 30 August 2019. Estructuras Monumentales is on view in City Hall Park, New York, through 8 November.

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