From the vault – Public art in New York and Philadelphia raise questions about ownership and maintenance

In celebration of artblog’s 10-year anniversary, we are bringing you posts from past years. In January, 2004, we were viewing different instances of public art in Philadelphia and New York. Libby took issue with Penn’s commissioned work by Jenny Holzer, a far cry from her controversial ‘Truisms,’ while Roberta visited an out-of-order Creative Time installation. Century 21 even had some ‘word art’!


Corporation makes “art”

By libby


January 8, 2004

The University of Pennsylvania bought itself a Jenny Holzer. No, that’s not right. The University of Pennsylvania paid Jenny Holzer and put her name on a walkway with benches where Hill Field at 33rd and Chestnut used to turn to mud under soccer cleats.

 A Jenny Holzer has unsettling twisted aphorisms inscribed in lights or incised in metal or stone.



The incised stone is there, in the form of granite benches and curbstones. But this piece has no aphorisms, nothing twisted. It’s straight Penn.

The piece does exactly, I would think, what Penn was hoping. It offers quotations that shed historical light on women’s education at Penn and the role of women in society. It was created in honor of the 125-year anniversary of women’s admission to the university. And it has not a rough edge to ruffle a single feather or raise a hackle.


So Jenny Holzer’s main role was as editor, the person who selected which quotations were used. Is this what the artist’s role has become? A cat’s paw for corporate intent?

Landscape architects designed the space, including the bridge crossing the swale (only landscape architects talk about swales). The walkway was a given in terms of its orientation. The allee of trees was a given.

The “art” was endless words, barely legible quotations from past presidents, past professors, past students, etc.


For succinctness, legibility and poetry you had to look to the “no” sign (shown): No Skateboards/ No In-Line Skates/ No Roller Skates/ No Bicycles/ No Vehicles/In This Area

For art, you had to go home and make a painting.


Downtown ancestors and expanded ladies

By roberta

January 6, 2004


On the plaza outside the Ritz Carlton hotel in Battery Park City sits one of the least likely public art pieces I’ve seen. “Peace” by Chinese-born, New York artist Zhang Huan presents what looks like a gilded nude about to have a deadly encounter with a big, dark bell.

Huan, a body artist whose performances are dark and whimsical, puts himself into oppositional relationships with things in the natural or man-made world to emphasize human frailty, longing and other emotional states. (You may remember seeing him at Moore College several years ago when he showed slides and talked — via translator — about his work at a symposium about performance art organized in conjunction with the great VALIE EXPORT exhibit.)

Here, in what is supposed to be a movable interactive sculpture (it was inoperable when I saw it), a cast of the artist’s body is headed for a collision with a Chinese bell inscribed with the names of his ancestors. The sign states “the sculpture’s movement is currently restricted” and that you should come back again another time. I was most disappointed. I imagine the ring of the bell to be wonderful but I’ll never know because I probably won’t make it back down there at a time when the bell will be working. (If you’ve heard it, let me know.)

The piece, the third installment of the “Art on the Plaza” program, sponsored by Creative Time in partnership with Millennium Partners, The Ritz Carlton and Battery Park City Authority, will be there through April.


Not that I want to be a complainer about arguably one of the best public art purveyors around but this is the second Creative Time-sponsored installation that’s been out of order when I saw it. (the other was the Mariko Mori brain wave machine which was closed due to the heat (see my post of 7/12/03).

I suppose you get what you pay for but it made me question the budgeting for temporary public sculpture and how inadequate maintenance or other fixable (with staff and money) issues might wind up shooting the art in the foot and what a shame that would be. (Top three images are Huan’s “Peace”)


Anyway, before moving on, I’ll offer something serendipitous that might qualify as word art. We saw it in Century 21 while cruising for designer bargains. My husband Steve, who collects instances of oddball grammatical construction (e.g. “Not all doors will open,” an Amtrak fave) took the picture.

We wondered if ‘expanded ladies’ is a new euphemism for plus-size.