The street we call Broadway, the backbone of Manhattan, goes all the way up to Albany, and started as a footpath. Along it, you can walk the length of the island of Manhattan in an almost straight line, and if you do that between now and February 1, 2015, you will also be walking the length of a show of public art curated by Marlborough Chelsea, “Broadway Morey Boogie,” which borrows its title from Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, and like the painting, is meant to be an ode to New York street life.
As we finish what feels like the Summer of Public Art in New York (Jeff Koons at Rockefeller Center, Rachel Feinstein at Madison Square Park, Tony Cragg, also at Madison Square Park, Danh Vo at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Gilberto Aceves Navarro throughout the city), Marlborough Chelsea has staged what feels like the afterparty. The show is of ten sculptures, at intervals along Broadway from Columbus Circle all the way up to 166th Street. It’s the first public art show for Marlborough, in its current iteration, under director Max Levai, who curated “Morey” with Pascal Spengemann.
On Tuesday morning, around forty people gathered at Marlborough Chelsea on 25th street for egg sandwiches and Bloody Marys before boarding yellow school buses that took them up Broadway past each of the ten sculptures. One traveler revealed that it was her first time ever in a school bus, as Spengemann passed around polystyrene cups of mimosa. Someone’s small black pug drank water out of a dish.
The first stop was Joanna Malinowska at Columbus Circle. Her sculpture caused the crowd on the bus to cheer as it came into sight. It’s a monolithic 15-feet-tall cement edifice of Smokey the Bear wearing a hat and a tourist’s camera round his neck on a red strap. As the bus looped Columbus Circle it tilted inward slightly, the viewers inside holding their iPhones up to the windows. (The seat belt buckles swayed in the aisles, unused.)
Smokey stared down Eighth Avenue, one hand (or paw) outstretched holding some kind of rock, (a plastiglomerate stone, a curator from the Polish Cultural Institute said from the bus seat behind me, a recent geological occurrence made of mineral and human debris, found on a beach in Hawaii). Office crowds and tourists sat around Smokey, eating lunch amongst the fountains.
Farther up, at the 72nd Street subway station, Devin Troy Strother’s pair of dancers, ‘Rae’Shwana & Dee’shwana (with that John McCracken lean) flank the entrance to the subway. Aluminum, covered in glitter, and reminiscent of the noodley air dancers found outside car sales, Spengemann assured us that the dancers had been weatherproofed. “Oh my God,” said one bus traveler. “That is the most Instagrammable thing I’ve ever seen.”
On 73rd street, Tony Matelli’s Stray Dog, a realistic sculpture of a lost seeing-eye dog caused confusion amongst those crowded around. “Will someone steal it?” “How do you insure it?” “Why is everyone petting it?” The pug, which had debussed with the rest of us, stood next to it, indifferent.
Lars-Erik Fisk’s Con Ed Ball, on the median strip of 79th, had apparently roused the suspicion of the police. “I was here last night polishing it,” the artist told me, “and the cops stopped and asked me if I was with Con Ed. They said, ‘Do you own this object?'” (It costs $125,000, should you be interested in owning it yourself). At 177th street is Devina Semo’s concrete block, titled EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED. As class changed over, Barnard College students streamed past it on both sides, one saying: “Oh, that thing is art?”
The show ends (or begins) at 166th street, with the most contemplative piece, Hiroshima Buddha, by Matt Johnson. A huge bronze statue of Buddha that survived Hiroshima with a melted open gash across its chest, it sits now in the greenery of Mitchel Square Park, filled with soil and supporting the plant life that grows out of the gash.
On the bus trip back to Chelsea, Spengemann recounted the opening of the sculptures to the public. “There was a politician who came up to me and was saying all this great stuff about public art, he was making a case for it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yeah dude, I’m for it, I agree. More public art.'”