Arts Lust: The Otterness Blizzard

In the early January of 2005, I took a long walk in a blizzard to look at sculpture. This recent blizzard reminded me entirely of that adventure.
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The Great New York Blizzard of 2010 forced the city into a white, wind-whipped argument with nature that nature won, of course. But the loss of normal order brought gains in beauty and drama, the feel of a swiftly moving epic that lowered itself around you and reopened your awareness of life in ways extremes often do. For me, the storm pulled open the drawer. Almost everyone with a history of writing for publication knows about the drawer. It's a kind of cliché, really. That's where the orphans go, the ideas proposed and stories written and rejected by editors.

In the early January of 2005, I took a long walk in a blizzard to look at sculpture. This recent blizzard reminded me entirely of that adventure, of bronzes that seemed to float, barely visible through the cloudy scrim of a sky that fell in frozen pieces.

The walk had its origin the previous fall. The pieces were by the well-known Brooklyn-based sculptor Tom Otterness. They'd appeared that September of 2004, spaced along the traffic islands in the middle of Broadway, stretching from 60th to 168th Street, 25 sculptures in all. "Tom Otterness on Broadway" was funded by the Marlborough Gallery, which represented Otterness, and was sponsored by the city. Cranes installed the pieces as the weather started to cool, and reappeared to remove them the following March 19. It was roughly the same time that "The Gates," the monumental project by the artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude was up in Central Park. Its saffron-colored curtains became famous. Few people remember, though, that it was one of two epic public art displays covering miles of Manhattan in those months. I enjoyed "The Gates" well enough. But the Otterness pieces knocked me out, partly because they dug deep into a bedrock of feelings one doesn't always embrace.

Otterness's work often involves horror -- political, social, emotional, all layers at once -- and wields a whimsical irony that is literary but works as sculpture. It has the playful darkness of fairy tales and, it turns out, reflects a rich prophetic gift. The true prophet is the one who looks clearly at what is right in front of him. Otterness understood the great boom years, and obviously sensed what was coming next. In darkly polished bronze, he cast giant pieces of money rolling along inches behind terrified little people, giddy tycoons out of the 1920s dancing in their top hats on top of bags of money, only with the top hats spilling off on occasion.

On the corner of 95th Street and Broadway, just up the hill from where I live on the Upper West Side, stood the figure of a large puppet-man, goofily savage, sinking a hammer blow with a mallet one hand onto the head of an identical, much smaller guy he grips in his other fist. To me, the piece mirrored a broad acquiescence toward destruction, specifically economic and political self-destruction, in America.

We were in the Bush era when the Otterness pieces showed up. The invasion of Iraq was an American-created violence that came without much American conscience or outrage. I sensed then that Otterness had a special teasing relationship to this apathy. He displayed virtuosic agility in his perceptions and materials. I fell in love with this work, and approached several editors seeking an assignment to write about it. I got close in one case, but it didn't work out. Fall turned into Winter. I gave up.

Then, came that blizzard. I woke up early on a January morning, looked out at the tumbling flakes. I dressed, grabbed a notebook, headed into the early morning dark.

For hours, I moved by subway and on foot as the snow fell, wrote notes on paper that got wetter and wetter. At home, I wrote an account of my trip, sculpture by sculpture. I think I sent it to one or two editors, but nothing happened.

I put it in an actual drawer, and never felt it the urge to look at it again as strongly as when I awoke to the just-finished snowfall on the last Monday of 2010.

Kindly Geppetto, 2001, bronze by Tom Otterness, courtesy Marlborough Gallery. Photograph, in warmer weather, by Allan M. Jalon. 95th Street and Broadway.

The day I'd planned to hike up Broadway, a journey to look at 25 public sculptures by the artist Tom Otterness, began badly. When I awoke, it was already snowing. I'd hoped to leave before the storm arrived, to see most of an outdoor exhibit that reaches up much of the island, Columbus Circle to 168th Street. I reconsidered as the snowfall that Monday became more like a blizzard. It was a gelid 12 degrees, hardly weather to view public art, but I can be contrarian. I pulled on long johns, a flannel shirt, a heavy sweater and a quilted down parka that my wife says makes me look like the Michelin Man. In fact, I looked a little like the high, rounded figure by Otterness that dominates the traffic island at the corner of 95th Street and Broadway, an uphill walk from my building on West End Avenue. His bronze shape, when I reached the corner across from him, was barely visible through the churning white haze.

Standing at about seven feet, atop a three-to-four foot base, with a diving bell torso and a head a bit bigger than a basketball, this bronze man looms over the median's empty bench. In his fat, three-fingered right hand, he grips a miniature version of himself, the legs and arms dangling helplessly. With his left hand, he twists his bulbous body back for maximum torque, pulling a massive mallet back as far as possible over his left shoulder, ready to hammer his smaller image with a devastating blow.

He's a suicide hammerer or a homicide hammerer with his prey in his grasp. Both figures have grimly simple scratches for mouths - and for eyes, the same concave dots that a child might press into a snowman's face.

Last September, standing transfixed with bags of groceries in my arms --
art in the neighborhood! -- I watched as a crane lowered the violent yet playful piece into place. It came with a plastic-covered map on a metal stand showing all the Otterness pieces and their names. His name was, "Kindly Geppetto." I was both fascinated and disturbed from the start. I hadn't lingered long in front of him, even in good weather,
yet could not forget him. My back turned, heading past him in the snow, I wondered again: What kind of awful fairy tale is this piece telling?"

The falling snow gave me an excuse to head quickly for the subway to go downtown and start my public art odyssey.


See No Evil, bronze, 2002. 60th Street, Columbus Circle. This and following images © Tom Otterness, courtesy Marlborough Gallery. Photos: Adam Reich

I'd previously walked past the Otterness on an island where Broadway moves north from Columbus Circle. It showed three geometric figures similar to the one at 95th Street, anxiously covering their eyes, ears and mouth with their hands. It was called "See No Evil." Now, when I emerged into deep winter from the subway at 59th Street, I crossed the street and couldn't see it. It wasn't there. An unbroken blanket of snow covered the place where it had stood, and all that remained was one of those stands with the plastic-covered map.

The theme of avoiding awareness of the worst things that threaten one's conscience, one's peace of mind, has always intrigued me. In a house where members of my family still live in Switzerland, I would look at a little coffee-table sculpture of three monkeys, hands covering eyes, hands over ears, hands to mouth. From this house, a certain relative departed and never returned, having gotten trapped by complex circumstances in Nazi-dominated Holland, dying in a concentration camp. When I was a boy, it couldn't be talked about. "Over this subject," I was told once, by an aunt who physically moved a hand down over her face, "We lower a veil that is never to be lifted."

I'd peak at the three clay monkeys and wonder what they knew.

These days, I often must force myself to follow the news, even more so since the torturings at Abu Gharaib - to not avert my eyes from images of torturing and killing, and more killing, in Iraq. The war has seemed a sort of killing of sense, the reasons for the invasion a killing of the truth, the use of words like "freedom" and "democracy" the murder of language as genuine meaning. I've been confused by elusive sensations of implication and helplessness. So, like others, I wanted to turn away from the war.

Yet there was no chance to contemplate this sort of willful aversion directly today, in front of Otterness's monkeys. The invisibility, inaudibility and unspeakability of evil had themselves vanished. The sculpture was gone. Maybe ongoing construction in Columbus Circle had prompted the sculpture's removal. Snow fell heavily in the blank space where it once stood, quickly filling my footprints as soon as I made them in the white smoothness with a fresh white layer.

The snow settled densely over the street. It rose in ragged hills over the curb and reached to my ankles when I crossed back to the eastern side of Broadway and walked north. The intensity of the cold made this one of those times I truly worried about frostbite. At 66th Street, across from Lincoln Center, I saw a frog laying next to another of the geometric figures Otterness uses, at ease on a sort bed.

Of the actual fairy tale, I remembered little but that a princess met a frog, he turned into a prince and they lived happily ever after.

Months before, I'd passed "Frog Prince" in clearer weather. I'd seen the frog laying on the bed on his back, hands clasped over his chest, as if sleeping. But I'd noticed something: While the frog lay facing upward, his toes pointed downward. Now, the snow had heaped into a kind of hat shape over his face. The snow cap created the accidental illusion that the frog lay face down, hands clasped behind his back, bound like those of a prisoner awaiting torture.

On either side of the traffic island, cars ground cautiously ahead. I had thirty blocks to go through this blizzard story in search of the manmade story sculptures. The next piece was a kind of tableau, called "Trial Scene," with animals for the jury, judge (an owl), prosecutor (a dog) interrogating a cat on the witness stand. The cat had just swallowed a bird. A feather with a thin coating of white snow on it poked from its mouth.

To me, it also looked like the feather end of a quill pen. It looked like some instrument of writing that had been swallowed by a predator who was failing (or refusing) to hide what had happened.


Big Moby Dick, bronze, 2002. 71st Street.

It's a sculpture of a whale with a man strapped violently to its back, and one realizes that Otterness has reproduced in his way the culminating encounter between Melville's leviathan and the Pequod, the ship that hunts it.

It is the third day of the mad pursuit in which Ahab has driven his strange crew across the oceans. Moby Dick, enraged by harpoons flung into him, is breaching into view, in Otternesses version. A tangle of whale lines lashes the body of a dead harpooner to his back. The figure, yet again, is one of the sculptor's odd geometric everymen.

Otterness confronts us with the end of the doomed ship: His Moby Dick carries a leg in its mouth, like a trophy. Whose leg could it be, I think, but Ahab's?

Moby Dick has already crashed the ship to bits. The whaling boat has whirled into the sea - gone. And here the whale remains, having swallowed the boat, which interpreters have taken for America's obsession with its divine destiny. The great whale -- the ideal whose temptation consumes us, in our crazed righteousness, those interpreters say -- still swims.

Whiteness and darkness thread through Melville's novel, the white whale and sometimes white sea birds set against the dark sea. Some critics say the contrasts symbolize conflict between good and evil. Mostly, usually, Otterness's Moby Dick is bronze, its copper-brown color far from the white of its literary model. But a few hours of heavy snow was bringing Melville and Otterness together. Snow had collected along the darkish surfaces. It was like white glue between the whale's back and the back of the whale-snared sailor. It dusted Ahab's toes. It filled round holes Otterness had made for Moby Dick's eyes. I stood a long time, enveloped in the entrancing quiet building up around "Big Moby Dick" with the thick snowfall, then awoke with a jolt to the sounds of cars whose slow-turning tires were crunching up and down a barely drivable Broadway.

2011-01-04-MadMomat79thStreet.jpg 2011-01-04-BigBigPennyat91stStreet.jpg

Mad Mom, 2001, bronze, 79th Street. Big, Big Penny, 1993, bronze, 91st Street.

The only person with whom I conducted anything close to an interview on my trip was a woman named Dorothy. She crossed the island where Moby Dick looked like he'd surfaced through snow and waited for the light to change. I stepped out of my reverie and joined her. I nodded to the whale and asked if she'd noticed it. "I see it," she said, shyly. "I live in the neighborhood, but it doesn't mean anything to me. Who is the artist?" she asked.
"Tom Otterness," I said.
"Should I have heard of him?"
"Not necessarily," I said.
"Why a whale?"
"Moby Dick."
"Oh, I just ignore it," she said.

Just before we reached the curb, she tugged the sleeve of my jacket and, as if making a confession, said: "There's another one up on 79th Street that I like. A man, a very tall man. I think he's funny."

Indeed, he is. Only he is a she -- called "Mad Mom." She stands, hands on hips, an all-American Mom peering furiously over Broadway. Looking at her, you feel like one of her annoying children.

Mad Mom is a mother who doesn't quite get what her kids are up to out there on the big street--but wants it stopped... NOW!

It was getting almost too dark to see the rest of the pieces as I got closer to home. I saw a giant head I glanced at across the street -- monumental, seeming like an echo of Italian futurism. I paused at a giant Otterness coin, a penny up in its edge, with the words "United States Of America" in square-lettered relief. On top, the coin carried small people who seemed to run through a blizzard of financial catastrophe.

They looked like a small family.

One more inch of a roll and they'd topple into the snow.

Here, I met the only person all afternoon who spontaneously responded to one of the sculptures.

He was a hefty little boy whose thick yellow jacket that was open to a brown sweater. As his real live mother gripped his naked hand and pulled him as quickly as she could across the traffic island, he looked to the side and yelled: "A giant penny! Mama! A giant penny!"

Looking like one of Otterness's little people, he trailed the air with his free hand as if trying to slow himself down, but she pulled him past. All he could do, when she paused at the island's far edge, was turn his soft, round face back to me, dark hair flopped to one side, and watch with unmistakable envy that I got to stand still and keep looking at the piece.

I wanted to grab his other hand and take him with me on my trip. Having him along, I might reach a better understanding for this Disney-influenced art, I thought, as "Kindly Geppetto" came back into view. It seemed, in the snowy dusk, to be holding its ground against the weather. It acquired a kind of summery power after what I'd seen: The missing acknowledgement of evil by the three monkeys, the frog the snow turned into a victim, the infantilizing principle of the giant Mom, the feline predator on trial, Moby Dick retold in bronze, eyes whiter and colder with traces of demonic righteousness overturned (remember those interpreters) than the sculptor intended.

These days, sometimes against my wishes, Otterness's hovering scene of victimizer and victim in the Geppetto piece forces me think about the darkest news: People hammering each other in Iraq, the sheer helpless terror of being hammered, the shame of association with the hammerers, the anger one can feel at those from the other side of the world who did the hammering here in New York on 9/11.

It was past six. Leaving Broadway, heading west on 95th Street, toward the Hudson River, I glanced at this large, malevolent Geppetto, barely visible through swirling snow that shimmered in headlights, and his doomed Pinocchio. A white edge of snow ran along the top of the destructive toy-maker's hammer. Small heaps lay on the heads of the two figures, on the strange squarish hats both wore (like the caps hotel porters wear in old black-and-white movies of the 1930s.) The punisher's momentum was that of someone doing just what he wanted. There was no resisting it. Left alone in this weather, barely visible, he'd do his worst to the kid in his grasp. There would be no evidence. And who cared? Wasn't it just a statue, metal only, showing this man mauling a powerless boy? I felt guilty that I couldn't intervene, but wasn't able to think about it much. I focused on every step as I headed downhill, afraid of a clumsy fall. It was completely dark, now, and snow swept over me, hitting with hard billowing gusts that showed no sign of stopping.

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