Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bennett's Owls

This post also appears on Fashion Herald.

James Gordon Bennett Jr.'s adoration of owls may have bordered on pathological, but in the best possible way. While serving as a Third Lieutenant for the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (the pre-Coast Guard Coast Guard) during the Civil War, the son of New York Herald founder James Gordon Bennett Sr. claimed that a serendipitous owl guided him through rough seas to safety.

As a tribute to his spirit animal, he lined the Herald building with several bronze owls in 1894, and years later even had an owl shaped tomb designed to hold his remains. The Herald owls, along with the statue of Minerva and the bell ringers, were created by French sculptor Antonin Jean Carles. The two corner owls with their wings spread had eyes that lit up to the delight of evening passersby.

The Herald building in the early 1900s, looking north from 34th Street. Statuary from the Bennett monument in Herald Square is on the facade of the building along with Bennett's owls.

Today those two owls perch on either side of the Herald monument, and their eyes continue to light the way.
Back of the Herald Square monument, facing south. Photo: 34SP

Two more of Bennet's owls guard the entrance to Herald Square.

Entrance owl. Photo 34SP
The Herald building may have been Bennett's most well known tribute to the bird, but it wasn't his first. At some point in the mid 1800s Bennett bought a stone villa in Newport Rhode Island, originally built in 1833 by Rhode Island stonemason Alexander McGregor. The new homeowner enlisted the help of Newport architect Dudley Newton to add several embellishments to the property, including gateposts topped with owl statuary. It's hard to see in this picture, but these look to be a leaner species than the Herald owls, but no less fierce.

Bennett's stone villa and owl sentries in 1957, shortly before the building was demolished to make way for a shopping center. Photo: Preservation Society of Newport County
So solid was his devotion to the bird, he also had Stanford White design a 200-foot high tomb shaped like an owl that would serve as Bennett's mausoleum. Work was halted due to the untimely but not entirely surprising death of Stanford White in 1906. The design never came to be, but the Times reported that in 1918, shortly after Bennett's death, drawings of a model owl tomb were found on the desk of sculptor Andrew O'Conner, who had been commissioned by White to work on the initial designs.

That same year Frank Munsey, then owner of the New York Sun bought out the Herald, combined the two papers, and moved the offices to 42nd Street. The owls were removed from the facade of the Herald building. A few have since resurfaced: aside from the Herald Square owls mentioned above, the Brooklyn Museum has a couple on display, and there are a few above the entrance to NYU's Shimkin Hall.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reviving Tony Smith's "Presences"

This post also appears on the Bryant park blog.

In the early 1960s American artist Tony Smith constructed a number of sculptures from tetrahedral and octahedral shapes -- he called them "presences." In 1966 he was included in a critically acclaimed exhibit of minimalist and "reductive art" at the Jewish Museum called Primary Structures. Just one year later, several of Smith's sculptures were exhibited in Bryant Park as part of the first temporary display of contemporary art in a city park. Thankfully the tradition continues.

The Parks Commissioner at the time was Thomas Hoving. In March of 1967, just after the Smith exhibit was installed in the park, Hoving left that post to become the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He oversaw a huge renovation and expansion project of the museum, and then wrote about it. But, during his 14 months as Parks Commissioner, he brazenly went about the city, collecting donations to make changes to the city's parks and igniting an interest in public art.

Tony Smith (wearing hat) and workers during the installation. Image: New York City Parks Photo Archive

Installation of Tony Smith's "The Snake is Out" Image: New York City Parks Photo Archive

Tony Smith with "Willy," "Amaryllis," "The Snake is Out," and "Spitball" (L to R). Image: Tony Smith Estate

Nineteen years later, in 1998, another of Smith's pieces, "Smug" (1969-1970) was exhibited in Bryant Park, this time on the fountain terrace. (I think this image may have been scanned backwards -- from this angle on the terrace you should see 40th Street, not 42nd with the Grace building. It's a beautiful shot of the sculpture though).

"Smug" on the Fountain Terrace. Image: Tony Smith Estate

Smith's work is incredibly recognizable and all over the place, but apparently not fully inventoried. There is, however, an ongoing effort by the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art -- North America (INCCA) to compile a complete inventory of Smith's sculptures. The Tony Smith Sculpture Project South Orange has a good partial list along with a lot of supplementary information about the artist, his life, and work.

I saw one recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC called "Moondog" (1964). It was inspired in part by composer and street performer Louis Harding. Harding was also known as Moondog and the "Viking of Sixth," for his chosen location (usually) at Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street.

Smith's "Moondog" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC
Here is the muse "Moondog" in his Viking garb. He was pretty amazing, and no doubt, one of the city's more interesting "presences."

In conjunction with the Tony Smith Centennial Celebration this year, Smith's works "One-Two-Three" (1976) will be on view in Bryant Park from March 13 - April 10, on the upper terrace. Come check it out!

Read about previous public art exhibits in the park:
Kenneth Snelson (1967)
Mel Chin (1984)
George Rickey (1986)
Alexander Calder (1993)
Kate Gilmore (2010)
Sheryl Oring (2003, 2011)