The three works and their dates are: Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #107A and #107B, Bars of Color, February/March 2003; Kara Walker “Event Horizon,” 2005;
Petah Coyne Untitled #587, 1988
For nearly ten years I’ve walked past the New School’s Arnhold Hall at 55 West 13th Street on my way to classes paying scant attention to the signature Sol LeWitt late mural visible from the street. And when inside I’ve never failed to notice, but likewise never stopped to reflect on Kara Walker’s mural displayed on the interior stairwell walls.
No surprise that it’s difficult to view art in this space. 55 West was built in l891 and variously housed manufacturing firms and a Bon Marche department store. It was acquired by The New School in the l990s and renovation was completed in 2003. The building is now institutional to the core. Today the ground floor seems almost threatening with its security portals and sweeping black desk and attendant pressing crowds forward to the bank of elevators. To view art here we must first slow down to look, we need to know that time is better spent slowing down—it’s the most basic requirement for intense viewing, deep thought and reflection.
Only when we do slow down do we begin to notice that various architectural elements speak to each other. LeWitt’s bands of color reinforce the left leaning curve of the semi-circular wall taking us deep into the space. His colored wall also provides a transition from sunlight to artificial indoor light.
Likewise the hard angles of the terrazzo stairs, the mesh and steel somehow echo in three dimensions the geometry of the mural. After slowing down it is startling to view Kara Walker’s entire scenario with its human forms ominously spilling off a painted cliff (at mezzanine height) the scene set in motion by a white male character, one of Walker’s familiar personae. The barbed wire hanging sculpture (1988) by Petah Coyne installed later is perhaps meant to materialize or objectify the pain in Walker’s two-dimensional drama.
But it’s hard to be moved by Coyne’s work because the only place to really observe it is on the stairs while walking up or down. This unfortunately situation reflects the real challenge of placing work in spaces not designed for them.
A little background might be helpful here. The Sol Lewitt mural was a gift of the artist. Kara Walker’s work was commissioned by the University for this very stairwell and Petah Coyne’s construction was a gift of Vera List. All gifts came from very different institutions within the University. The work by Coyne was languishing in storage, and with all good intention restored and displayed (she helped install it in the stairwell). But the installation still looks like the afterthought that it was.
Wall text can sometimes be a terrific aid in understanding a work and its context. I wish there were some wall text telling us the histories of the two commissioned works (perhaps it was there lurking in a shadow and I didn’t see it). But the small wall label on the side of the stairs explaining the origins of Coyne’s and Walker’s work in gender politics and race politics seems disconnected from the entire ensemble. Too didactic. A better idea might be to have an additional wall text, larger, with a meaningful phrase or a paragraph by a feminist writer, a political writer, a journalist, or better, the artists themselves. Show us, don’t tell us.