Issue No. I: January-March 2021

Your Sculpture is Subject to Change

New York offers a catalog of examples
Gene Stavrou

Ida and Isadore Straus Memorial, New YorkIn this issue, we explore changes to New York City's sculpture landscape over time—changes that can help us better-understand the story.

Memory is not a film: a frame-by-frame recording of how things were—that's not how the brain works. But you do serve as unconscious director and cinematographer of your personal memories, presenting stories that have suffered interpretation, revision, deterioration, restoration, and, okay, even colorization. We tend to fill in gaps, we confirm narratives, we block and amplify scenes. Forms In Transit, Theodore Roszak, 1964, Flushing Meadows-Corona ParkAnd, of course, we can update our perspective based on new information, added context, and updated understanding. A memory may be found in the brain's recesses, but it is a product, not a faithful recording.

Collective memory is similarly a product. That's not to say that history is a fiendish manipulation. But it is worth noting that humans are equipped with certain devices, such as the golden age myth ("people were better back then") and the face-saving narrative ("our boys fought valiantly"), that can shape the story. How we remember is also a function of available information and, as we see too clearly in 2021, the effects of messaging bubbles and echo chambers.

Sometimes the story, at a point in time, is set in a material more durable than brain tissue. By memorializing in sculpture, we put that point-in-time perspective on display. Is it then a historical record? Well, yes and no. The creation and installation of a sculpture can certainly say something about those who meant to convey a message. But, as a message, the sculpture is subject to scrutiny even before it is set in stone, let alone over time.

In memorializing a life, a movement, an accomplishment, the sacrifice of war, Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1922, Mitchel Square, New Yorkor an ideology, a work of sculpture and the story it puts on display, reflects thinking at the time of installation, and, likely, the agenda of some who had power at the time.

The ongoing should-this-sculpture-be-here discussion has encompassed an array of objects all over the world, from Confederate monuments in the United States to the Parthenon's Elgin Marbles in London to the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The fates of controversial works are various as well (forgotten, assigned new meaning, placed in context, worn as badges of honor, destroyed). The dynamic that leads to a sculpture's creation often continues on as a dynamic. As an inscribed memory, even one set in stone or cast in metal, a sculpture is a product of changing factors. Its significance will change.

For Winter 2021, we'll visit a catalog of sculpture change, all in New York City.

January 5, 2021

1. Destroyed

New Yorkers had wanted to honor William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham, former Prime Minister, and advisor to King George III.

William Pitt the Elder, National Portrait GalleryPitt had helped to repeal the hated Stamp Act, but simply honoring him with a monument was tricky; New York had not yet dedicated a monument to the King. As a solution, New Yorkers of 1770 got a twofer. A monument to Pitt was placed at the intersection of Wall and William Streets, and a more prominent monument to George III, channeling Marcus Aurelius on horseback, was installed on the Bowling Green.

By July 9, 1776, following a "long train of abuses and usurpations," the Declaration of Independence was read to a crowd at what is now City Hall Park. Riled up, some made their way down Broadway later that night and pulled the gilded lead George III sculpture down with ropes, breaking it into pieces. Legend has it that most of the lead was sent to Connecticut, where it was melted into shot for the revolutionary cause. George III Equestrian, 1770, Bowling Green, New York. StavrouThe statue's head was either displayed on a pike outside an upper Manhattan tavern or stolen by Tories (loyalists) and shipped to England, depending on the storyteller. Crown-shaped finials were hacked off the green's fence, erected in 1771 to protect the statue. Pieces of the George III statue, recovered over time, are in the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

The Pitt statue was also attacked, but not by Patriots. The arms and head of the marble "friend of the colonists" were broken off by Tories after British troops took control of the city in the fall of 1776. The mutilated Pitt sculpture was removed from Wall Street in 1788 and is now in the collection of the New-York Historical Society as well.

Post Detail, Bowling Green Fence, New YorkThe Bowling Green pedestal survived another four decades, through to the end of the next war with Britain. Some protested its removal, seeing the statueless pedestal as a badge of honor, others thought it time for a surviving imperial footprint to be removed. The fence, dismantled during subway construction, was found in storage in the 1950s and reinstalled. Today, the statue's absence and the rough cuts on the fence posts serve not as revised history, but as evidence of the Revolution itself.


Next on January 20: "The Halls of Fame"

Sources & Leads