One unseasonably hot afternoon a few weeks ago, I was up in New Rochelle, New York, a commuter city of about 75,000 that is a 25-minute train ride north of Manhattan, standing in Ruby Dee Park, examining a sculpture that resembles a multi-story retro-futuristic UFO. It was surrounded by a few signs reading “DO NOT CLIMB” and “NO SUBAS”—understandable warnings since the piece looks like a very tempting jungle gym. Weighing in at a sturdy 13,000 pounds, it is the work of New York artist R. M. Fischer, and it has a highly unusual backstory, having ventured across the country from Sony Pictures Plaza in Los Angeles’s Culver City neighborhood, where it was first installed in 2000.
The Sony complex was recently acquired by new owners, who decided they wanted to redo the plaza, meaning that the sculpture would have to go. Fischer, who is 70 and has work in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney and major public artworks in Manhattan and Kansas City, received word that he had the option of reclaiming the sculpture, which he had titled Wading Pool when it was commissioned from him 20 years ago.
“As a crazy first idea, I said to my wife, ‘Maybe I can put it in the backyard!’ ” Fischer said in his robust New York accent in a telephone interview, mentioning a house that the two have upstate. He paused. “Of course that was nixed immediately.” And so Fischer decided to give an old friend, the art advisor Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz, a ring to see what she thought he should do.
His timing was impeccable. As it happened, Schwartz had been working with Ralph DiBart, the executive director of the New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District, on bringing art to the city. “That sounds like it can be a Sculpture Project Münster!” she told me she thought, when DiBart first approached her about the idea. Their curatorial theme was centered on the elements—“earth, wind, water, and the sun,” she said. “We wanted to start with the sun, and Ronnie’s a light artist!” They arranged to have the work brought to the city and installed permanently in the park, using funds from the New Rochelle Industrial Development Agency and Green Mountain Energy Sun Club. Solar panels will light up the 16-foot-tall work, a surreal metal beacon hovering in public space.
“It’s only just been installed, but already it has this aura,” Schwartz said, noting that the city is planning to place a drawing of the sculpture on its official stationery. “Ron’s sculpture is the crowning piece” of the arts program, DiPart added.
Fischer has given the work to New Rochelle as a gift, and he sounded like he was over the moon about its new placement, where it “almost becomes some kind of futuristic gazebo,” he said. (In Los Angeles, it crowned a fountain.) He has rechristened the work Twilight of the Dawn, borrowing from an H. G. Wells line that he then recited from memory, “The past is the beginning of the beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.
“Which is a beautiful thing,” he continued. “It’s talking about new beginnings, which is what this piece is about, and frankly, new beginnings is what the redevelopment of downtown New Rochelle is all about.”
This has also been a time of new beginnings for Fischer. His first solo exhibition in Miami is on at the Nina Johnson gallery through October 14, showcasing a number of the whimsical, slyly funny, and sometimes very creepy sewed fabric assemblages he has been making in recent years, and more of them have been on view at the Backstreet Gallery in New Rochelle, which happens to be run by a city council member named Ivar Hyden.
First conceiving the New Rochelle work, Fischer said that he was looking at the set design for Shangri-La in the 1937 Frank Capra film Lost Horizon, a kingdom marked by ancient Greek, Aztec, and Art Deco influences where people are able to remain alive for hundreds of years. Visiting the piece in its new location, he thought, “Life is open and there are possibilities for new beginnings.
“As an artist who’s been doing it for a while,” he said, “to have this experience, it’s life affirming, it’s optimistic, and tears come to my eyes.”