How Real Estate, Violence, and Public Protest Destroyed These Iconic New York Artworks

Isaac Kaplan
Oct 14, 2016 10:41PM

There are many ways to tell the story of New York City. One can look at the objects and works of art that have survived the test of time, the murals and monuments that commemorate the past. But there is also value in uncovering the art that has been destroyed, as the stories that have been suppressed can tell us as much about our history as the work that endures. Artworks that were destroyed by real estate development, by violence, or by an outraged public illustrate how the city’s values have shifted over time, or remained the same. Here, we look at six New York artworks that didn’t make it—from those destroyed through acts of iconoclasm to accidental catastrophes.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring’s Palladium murals

Created 1985 • Removed 1997

Mural by Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Palladium. Photo © Tim Hursley, courtesy of Garvey Simon Gallery.

Mural by Keith Haring in the Palladium. Photo © Tim Hursley, courtesy of Garvey Simon Gallery.

As the landscape of New York City has changed over the years, it has become harder and harder to square the myths of the past with the present day. The Palladium was one of the city’s most prominent nightclubs, attended by the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The latter two artists painted large murals for the club, which began its life as a concert hall designed by Thomas W. Lamb. Haring painted his massive, 10-meter-long mural to coincide with the club’s opening in 1985.

The space proved to be a creative hub for more than just visual artists: New wave, house, and techno music blossomed there in the 1990s. But, as New Yorkers well know, the gritty downtown Manhattan of yesteryear is gone, replaced by soaring rents and the purple sweaters of New York University (NYU) students. That school bought the Palladium in the late ’90s, eventually tearing it down to build more dorms. Though perhaps meant as an homage, that NYU also decided to name its bland housing complex “Palladium Hall” only highlights the distance between the New York of today and that of the early ’80s and ’90s. The works are held by the artists’ estates but they will never again be seen in their intended context.

Art Deco bas-reliefs, Bonwit Teller building

Created 1929 • Destroyed 1980

Donald Trump courted controversy and a reputation for destruction long before his current presidential campaign. In 1979, when he was a relatively unknown New York real estate developer (the mind boggles), a 33-year-old Trump acquired the historic Art Deco Bonwit Teller building, only to demolish it a year later to build what would become Trump Tower. He promised, however, to save two 15-foot-high bas-relief panels that adorned the Teller building and donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art should he be able to remove them. Despite his word, the “pieces that had been sought with enthusiasm by the Metropolitan Museum of Art…were smashed by jackhammers yesterday on the orders of a real estate developer,” as the New York Times report from the time tells it.

That unnamed developer was Trump, and the paper condemned his actions. Trump’s organization retorted that the two-ton panels lacked “artistic merit,” and that saving them would have created an undue delay on construction and cost $500,000 (that figure was a fraction of the total cost of the building, which was estimated at $100 million). The Vice President of the Met’s board, Ashton Hawkins, provided a dismayed quote to the Times, saying that “architectural sculptures of this quality are rare and would have made definite sense in our collections. Their monetary value was not what we were interested in.”

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc

Created 1981 • Removed 1989

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


Technically, Richard Serra’s masterful work of Post-Minimalist sculpture that stretched across Federal Plaza (otherwise known as Foley Square) in lower Manhattan was never actually destroyed. Rather, after a contentious legal battle that forced the work’s removal, Tilted Arc was dismantled and taken to a storage space. But the case is more complicated than that. The piece, commissioned by the General Services Administration, provoked public outrage, both at the price (more than $500,000 in today’s currency) and at how it obstructed a clear path across the square for those who entered the buildings surrounding the plaza each day for work.

Despite major cultural figures testifying in favor of the piece remaining in its original location, the work was removed following a contentious legal trial that cited security concerns as a rationale for removal. It is currently housed in a Maryland storage space, where it has lived since 1999. The work will likely never see the light of day again, since, as Serra noted, “it is a site-specific work and as such is not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work.” So, although Tilted Arc still exists as a physical object, the work has been robbed of its context—an act tantamount to its destruction.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies

Created Early 20th Century • Destroyed 1958

If you had picked up a copy of the New York Times on April 16th, 1958, you would have found a front-page news story about a fire at the Museum of Modern Art. The story describes harrowing scenes, including descriptions of employees huddling in the treasurer’s office on the fifth floor, and the museum’s famous director of collections, Alfred H. Barr Jr., smashing his window open with a chair, allowing people to flee to an adjacent roof. Others were evacuated via ladder. Elevator operators reportedly “stuck by their posts through the fire and smoke.” Rene d’Harnoncourt, the museum’s director, “trudged out to the street, with tears of grief welling from his eyes.”

Firemen and staff—including “women employees, soaked by dripping water, [who] kept helping save the pictures”—were able to rescue some $4 million worth of art from the museum (that is roughly $33 million in today’s dollars). But the blaze, started by smoking workers who were installing an air conditioning system, caused one death and damaged six pieces of art. Among them were two of Monet’s “Water Lilies,” both irreparably damaged, one by firefighters who had unknowingly crushed it when breaking through the building’s windows. Efforts made to repair the work over the next three years were unsuccessful, despite a letter from Dan Flavin, who offered to make a contribution towards the painting’s restoration.

Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads

Created 1933 • Destroyed 1934

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One wonders why, exactly, the industrialist and capitalist magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr. thought it was a good idea to ask the famed Marxist Diego Rivera to paint a mural for him. Rockefeller originally commissioned Rivera to paint a mural in the lobby of the Rockefeller Center’s RCA building, and an early sketch showed a soldier, a worker, and a peasant holding hands. But after receiving criticism for being a sell-out from left-wing and communist groups whose politics he shared, Rivera changed his plan and crafted a vision of socialism that highlighted the worker, capping it off with a portrait of Lenin that he integrated into the mural.

After Rivera rebuffed calls to erase the image of the Marxist leader, Rockefeller had Rivera fired and the mural destroyed. It wasn’t lost forever, though: Rivera recreated the piece for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. This wasn’t the only mural Rivera painted for a famous American industrialist. In 1933, Edsel Ford, president of the motor company founded by his father, and the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned the artist to create an artwork about industry in Detroit. Even though, in the resulting murals, Rivera caricatured the managers and lionized the workers, that mural fared better (Lenin made no appearance) and is now a cherished icon of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection.

Alexander Calder, Bent Propeller

Created 1970 • Destroyed 2001

The attacks of September 11th, 2001, in New York killed nearly 3,000 people and wounded more than double that, forever altering the international geopolitical landscape. Though understandably not a focus in the immediate aftermath, a large amount of art also met its end from the attacks—some estimates put the figure as high as $100 million-worth of art, housed in the Twin Towers or displayed in the public plaza below.

One such work was Calder’s Bent Propeller (1970), a 25-foot-tall, glistening metal work that stood at the foot of 7 World Trade Center. In the weeks after the attacks, a grandson of Calder worked with a friend to distribute flyers to those sifting through the rubble. In patriotic rhetoric, the flyers emphasized the American nature of the sculpture and echoed the missing posters that papered lower Manhattan for months as New Yorkers continued to search for family and friends. Though some 40 percent of Calder’s sculpture was recovered, it was not enough to restore the piece.

Isaac Kaplan