42nd Street Art Project Year 1

John Ahearn with Rigoberto Torres, Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, Jane Dickson, Dick Elliott, Karen Finley, Lyle Ashton Harris, Jenny Holzer, Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, Tibor Kalman and Scott Stowell of the design firm M & CO., Glenn Ligon, Adelle Lutz, Matt Mullican, Todd Oldham with Michael Economy, Tom Otterness, Lady Pink, Gregory Riches, and Barbara Tsumagari (whose Project included videos by William Wegman, Joan Logue, Fischli and Weiss, Jonathan Reiss/ Survival Research Laboratories and Philip Mallory Jones).

July 1993 through March 1994
42nd Street / Times Square between 7th and 8th Avenues
Photo © 1993 Maggie Hopp

More than 24 American artists, architects and designers of international repute transformed Manhattan’s Historic West 42nd Street into a dynamic, round-the-clock public art exhibition. Participating artists took 42nd Street on its own terms in both form and content, creating temporary, site-specific works in, on, and around storefront display windows, theater marquees, roll-down security gates, posters, commercial billboard spaces and sidewalks. These artists introduced an unusually broad and diverse audience to both the world of contemporary art and the renewed potential of this famous street as a destination for entertainment and exciting cultural experiences. In many cases, participating artists involved passersby and members of the community in the making of their pieces.

‘The 42nd Street Art Project’ was seen by millions of residents of, and visitors to New York City. More than 20 million tourists come to the Times Square neighborhood annually, and roughly 450,000 New York commuters pass through the area everyday.

Karen FINLEY – ‘Positive Attitude’
With the unfiltered directness of a child, Karen Finley painted a delicate watercolor mural on a wall in Papaya World at 42nd and 7th Avenue. The images formed a sweet fairy-like family, decorated with the lesions of Karposi’s Sarcoma, a skin cancer rare before the advent of AIDS. In Finley’s conception, the essence of love is acceptance. Viewing sores as things of beauty is a simple matter of perception. Called ‘Positive Attitude,’ Finley’s handwritten poetry surrounded the smiling figures.

Dick ELLIOT – “Noise Reducing Apparatus #1”
Dick Elliot covered the face of the former Kentucky Fried Chicken with 18,000 safety reflectors to create a surface of reflective light. He attempted to harmonize ancient patterns – such as the wave, which ran across the top of the work – with symbols of his own creation – female and male – expressing all of it through modern technology. The viewers experience with the piece was ever changing, altering according to their location or movement.

Lady PINK – “The Lady’s Part of Me”
On several roll down gates Lady Pink painted murals containing images of women. According to the artist, these were women who “exist and survive on 42nd Street against a background of Times Square at night.” The women depicted consisted of a hot-dog vendor, and Asian selling earrings on the sidewalk, a black woman bicycle messenger, a beautiful hooker, a business woman in a suit, a wide-eyed secretary on a night out, a homeless beggar juxtaposed against an extravagant ad for a diamond necklace loosely draped over an elegant hand. Amidst these choices sat a young innocent girl quietly suggesting ‘a child sees her future.’ The girl’s presence echoed the state of the area as 42nd street looked toward its emerging incarnation and relationship with new women who would exist within its lights.

Arch CONNELLY – “Untitled”
Do all “happy faces” look alike? By changing their shapes and sizes, and encrusting them with glitter and sequins, artist Arch Connelly makes every one an individual. Connelly said his idea was to “use a familiar icon of popular culture and transform it by giving each face a distinct character.”

Jane DICKSON – “The Bride”
The windows of the former Adult Video World were painted with picture-imperfect brides framed quaintly in cameos. Through the central door, the observer was able to look into this murky bridal shop. The interior was dimly lit except for the central stairway that was lined with fluorescent tubes and littered with unmatched women’s shoes. At the top of the stairs was a life-size bridal gown made of iridescent Mylar that was lit from within, rotating slowly, part Cinderella, part showgirl and 100% ironic. The piece probed ‘What does marriage mean in the halls of porn?’

Gregory Riches drilled peepholes in a false wooden front, painted black and white, in the former Golden Diamond on the south side of 42nd street. Looking in, the observer could spy a complex set of overlays symbolizing the technological evolution from the industrial to the computer age, and beyond. There were images of computer circuits, machine-made parts and industrial labor, as well as information strips providing statistics comparing 1892 to 1992. Called ‘AND OR NOT,’ Riches suggested that the people held the tools to deal with a great number of matters. The piece asked ‘Will our combined strength be used to solve our social and environmental problems, some of which they helped create?’

Barbara L. TSUMAGAGRI – “H2O Video”
Barbara Tsumagari selected a series of videotapes to be played on multiple screens installed in the window of the former Tad’s Steak House. Among the artists included in the program were William Wegman, Joan Logue, Fischli and Weiss, Jessica Yu, Elizabeth Streb, Emergency Broadcast Network, Gran Fury, Mark Pellington, Steve Bull, Gordon Manahan, and Bruce Mau, Jem Cohen, Burt Barr and Jim McKay.

Todd OLDHAM – “Peepland”
Fashion designer Todd Oldham worked with Michael Economy to turn the façade of Peepland into a side-show-like mural. Garish colors surrounded black silhouettes, huge and curvaceous emblems of showgirls. Part cartoon, part circus poster, the painting suggested a certain playful energy in the life of the former 42nd street. It also hinted at the menace that accompanied the life of peepshows and pornography.

Tibor Kalman and Scott Stowell covered a large billboard on the police information center in Times Square with the word EVERYBODY. Like a one word poem, it could refer to the multiples who came to pass though Times Square. It could also suggest that somehow Times Square is a symbol of the world’s people at a crossroads – maybe in need of “redevelopment.” Several chairs were mounted above the platform at the base of the sign, in hopes that they would be used by anybody for a rest, to take pictures or to observe “everybody.”

Pat DIGNAN – lighting, project wide
Abandoned buildings are always a little pathetic, and theaters are particularly touching because of the way their intended glamour swiftly vanishes. Designer Pat Dignan created lighting to bring vitality - and considerable beauty – back to the display windows and entries of now-empty theaters, perhaps a glimpse of what was to come through the 42nd Street redevelopment.

Matt MULLICAN – “Untitled”
Matt Mullican had painted several roll down security gates along the north side of 42nd street with a set of symbols. While they were not identifiable with any particular company, they were nonetheless completely familiar as the language of corporate advertising. These clever paintings suggested corporate advertising but they could not be deciphered as logos.

The PUBLIC ART FUND – “8 1/2 years of Artists’ Projects”
In the Travelers Aid Window, ongoing videotape documented over eight years of artists’ projects using the giant Spectacolor light board atop Times Square. Artist Jane Dickenson conceived the idea of placing artists’ images and messages on the electronic media board and involved the Public Art Fund in her vision.

Liz DILLER + Ric SCOFIDIO – “Soft Shell”
‘Soft Shell’ was located in the entry to the Rialto Theater. There the observer heard seductive phrases issuing forth from an enormous set of projected lips. Acting as enticements – the lure of a peep show – both lips and words were in fact parodies of what was expected. The theater doors were a screen intervening between inside and out. Covered with liquid crystal panels, the doors – the “plane of enticement” – went from transparent to opaque, drawing observers in with glimpses of pleasures within, only to then block the view. The observer was captivated, but never to be satisfied.

Adelle LUTZ – “One Size fits All”
Adelle Lutz turned the former American Male shop into “American She-Male,” a boutique that addressed important issues through her inventive take on fashion. Mannequins still decorated the windows, along with sales slogans, but a close look revealed that all was not as it first appeared. Plays on words, fake “firs” and sandals made of condom packets were some of the devices that brought a sober message along with a smile.

Tom OTTERNESS – “Big Big Penny”
Sculptor Tom Otterness is renown for casting his works in bronze, giving them the look and feel of monuments. He undermines this sense of importance, however, by creating subjects that at first glance seem too cute to be so serious, an indication to a certain kind of whimsy. But there was indeed a serious message. For 42nd Street, he made a huge, upended penny with small figures riding on top drinking champagne. They seemed unaware that two workers below were pushing the penny along like a giant wheel. But before they topple, the penny will have rolled over another character, unfortunately in its path. The playfulness of the representation belied its symbolism: that those at the top, given indifference to those who labor on their behalf, may destroy.

Lyle Ashton HARRIS – “The Victory Parade”
Lyle Ashton Harris filled the display vitrines of the Victory Theater with images and text printed on mirrored surfaces. Both street and viewer were reflected, and therefore became part of the art – a bold art which dealt with being Black and gay, all in view of lives threatened by AIDS. The pictures ranged from huge portraits of the artist to more pop culture stereotypes. The texts reflected many voices, some from writers such as James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Lorraine Hansberry, and others more from happenstance. “Our first and last love is self-love,” a message the Harris found in a fortune cookie as a reoccurring theme.

John AHEARN & Rigoberto TORRES – “42nd Street Sculpture Workshop”
Sculptor John Ahern and his studio partner Rigoberto Torrres converted a former Blimpies on the north side of the street into an art studio, a pseudo “base camp” for the whole project. Portraits of people who wandered in and volunteered were drawn, photographed or cast in plaster, painted, and hung on the walls creating an art gallery of the world of 42nd street.

Kristin JONES & Andrew GINZEL – “MIMESIS”
A heartbeat emanated from the mirror-encased admission booth of the Selwyn Theater. A trail of shoes led to the doors where more mirrors sparkled with reflections. Intermittently, a brilliant flash of light inside illuminated even more mirrors and a line of costumes that got smaller as it disappeared into the distance. This theater with no actors could still have been enacting 42nd street escapes of adventure, fantasy, sex or drugs.

Jenny HOLZER – selections from the “Truism” and “Survival” series
Jenny Holzer took over the empty marquees that once advertised events at 42nd street theaters. Instead of coming attraction, however, the public found “truisms” – statements by Holzer that had the authorities ring of proverbs. But instead of confirming accepted practices, these comments often seemed to come out of left field. Holzer reordered the world along the lines according to her uncanny “uncommon sense.”

Glenn LIGON – “The Return”
Glen Ligon collected comments on 42nd Street and its life form people for whom the street had some special meaning. The quotes were painted on metal signs affixed to storefronts along the block. They looked like the signs found on a construction site, but they addressed issues of urban change, memory, and notions of the future.

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