A Walking Guide to Public Art in Manhattan and Queens
“A sculpture in the city must be as useful as signaling poles placed in sea lanes and waterways with their red discs, yellow squares, and black triangles,” said Alexander Calder, the American sculptor who is famous for his abstract mobiles. “It must be designed as a real urban signal as well as sculpture.” In New York, these urban signals abound and have cemented certain streets, neighborhoods, and corners in the public imagination—take what is arguably Robert Indiana’s most iconic LOVE sculpture at 6th Avenue and 55th, or the sculptures of Jeff Koons and Jean Dubuffet that grace the plazas of corporate buildings in the Financial District (FiDi).
Public art is thriving across New York, from downtown and midtown Manhattan to Harlem and Queens. Below, we’ve drawn up four walking tours, organized by neighborhood, for you to enjoy the city during these last dog days of summer.
Start: Jackie Robinson Park (Nearest subway stop: A/B/C/D at 145th)
Finish: East River Esplanade at East 116th St.
Walking Time: 1 hr.
Harlem’s parks are truly community hubs—so it’s only fitting that they are now filled with art that pays homage to the neighborhood’s diverse population and vibrant culture. This tour spans Jackie Robinson Park and the East River Esplanade, and includes an abundance of newly commissioned works to examine.
Start your walking tour with the Studio Museum’s recently unveiled “inHarlem” public art series, which has placed four works by four different artists—all with personal connections to the neighborhood—in four historic parks across Harlem. In the speckled shade of Jackie Robinson Park (enter on 148th St. and Bradhurst Ave.), 1 | Rudy Shepherd’s Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber (2016)—an amorphous, cave-like structure of wood, metal, and colored concrete—welcomes its visitors to enter a human-sized niche intended to dispel feelings of racial prejudice and everyday negativity, and to instead encourage feelings of compassion.
Next, head south on Bradhurst, turn right on 145th St., and then left on St. Nicholas Ave. Continue until you reach 137th St., where 2 | Kori Newkirk has attached industrial strips used to shield walk-in refrigerators to metal poles to create a canopy hanging above the terraced entrance to St. Nicholas Park. Named Sentra (2016) (after his first Nissan), these translucent curtains shift between blue and purple, rippling in the wind and—at the top of the stairs—framing an iridescent view of the street below.
Back on street level, head south on St. Nicholas and continue onto Manhattan Ave. until you reach the entrance to Morningside Park on 113th St; follow the path cutting through to the other side. An ideal spot for a picnic lunch, the park is now home to 3 | Kevin Beasley’s Who’s Afraid to Listen to Red, Black and Green? (2016), three disc-shaped “acoustic mirrors” covered in articles of clothing that have been dipped in resin. Their lustrous surfaces look entirely different from a distance, so get close to the works and see the garments (which all come from local thrift shops) begin to take shape. If you speak into the sculpture, you’ll also hear your voice amplified.
For the final installment of “inHarlem,” head in the direction of the Studio Museum itself—to Marcus Garvey Park, where you’ll find three Zimbabwean imba yokubikira-inspired sculptures by 4 | Simone Leigh in A particularly elaborate imba yokubikira, or kitchen house, stands locked up while its owners live in diaspora (2016). The work’s absence of entrances reflects the artist’s interest in the history of displacement that has accompanied the African diaspora. The park also boasts Jordan Baker-Caldwell’s metal patchwork sculpture Golem (2013) and Suprina’s spiraling DNA Totem (2016). Don’t miss these last two works—they’ll be down by September 15th and 30th, respectively.
Leaving the park on Madison Ave., head east towards Park Avenue, where you’ll stumble on 5 | Naomi Lawrence’s colorful crocheted Lotus (2016) woven into a fence around Eugene McCabe Field. Then turn left on 120th St. and head east towards Harlem Art Park, a small, intimate space featuring two sculptures by Puerto Rico-born artists. 6 | José Soto’s Focus (2016), two gold mirror-surfaced blocks punctured by square-shaped “apertures,” plays with your visual perception, offering a photographic glimpse of your surroundings. Jorge Luis Rodriguez’s crimson steel sculpture Growth (1985), a metamorphosis of plants, birds, and insects, expresses a theme of renewal—invoking the history of the site, which was created by joining a former park in disrepair to Sylvan Place.
Leaving the park, head east on 120th St., turn right on 1st Ave., and six blocks down, turn left onto 114th St., where you’ll find an entrance to Thomas Jefferson Park. Walk down the path and past the pool, and you’ll find 7 | Tomorrow’s Wind by the important African-American sculptor Melvin Edwards. Here since 1995, the sculpture consists of a steel disk and crescent welded together, their angles tilted to reflect changing sunlight throughout the day. Back on 114th St., head down Pleasant Ave., turn right onto 116th St., and head towards the Harlem River waterfront. At the East River Esplanade, 8 | Kenny Scharf has covered an existing brick column with his token cartoon faces in TotemOh (2016)—unfortunately, a 60-foot banner accompanying the work was stolen for the second time earlier this month.
Start: Union Square Park (Nearest subway stop: 4/5/6/L/N/Q/R at Union Square)
Finish: Seagram Building, 375 Park Ave.
Walking Time: 1 hr. 50 min.
Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral—there’s no shortage of iconic New York landmarks to be found in Midtown. What, exactly, constitutes “Midtown” is up for debate, but for our purposes this area includes the whole stretch of central Manhattan, from Union Square to Central Park. It’s an amalgam of neighborhoods, from ritzy Midtown East to the chaotic Theater District, each offering its own unique sights and sounds.
Start in Union Square, where 1 | Morphous (2014) by South African artist Lionel Smit stands majestically amid traffic flow on the east side of the park. The two-headed bronze sculpture is a reflection of hybrid identities in post-Apartheid South Africa, as well as the relationship between the country’s past and future. Head uptown on Union Square East and continue onto Park Ave. Then turn left on East 23rd, where 2 | Martin Puryear’s Big Bling (2016) stuns in Madison Square Park. Forty feet high, the sculpture consists of multiple tiers of wood enveloped in chain-link and fastened at the top by a gold-leafed shackle. It evokes myriad interpretations, from the nose rings of urban youths to an Egyptian feline—which you might ponder while sitting in the park.
Now head west to Chelsea and enjoy a walk up (or down) the High Line, which is currently host to several notable works. Standouts include 3 | Barbara Kruger’s hand-painted mural Untitled (Blind Idealism Is…) (2016) at 22nd St., which reads “Blind Idealism Is Reactionary Scary Deadly,” an altered quote by the revolutionary Afro-Caribbean philosopher and postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon; and Nari Ward’s Smart Tree (2016), at 23rd, in which a wheel-less Smart car, bedecked in strips of tire treads with an apple tree sprouting from its hood, rests motionless on a cinder-block platform. It beckons passersby to reflect on the rapidity of surrounding developments, as well as the High Line’s past as a major railroad.
Off the High Line, head back east. Walk about three-quarters of a mile up 9th Ave. until you reach West 36th, where you’ll see another work by 4 | Jordan Baker-Caldwell: Ascension (2016), a nine-foot-tall cylindrical steel sculpture that, suspended at an angle, contrasts the constant commotion of the city streets. Though public sculptures by African-American artists abound in Harlem, this is the first to be permanently installed in Midtown. And next, a treat for any 5 | Yayoi Kusama fans: one of her signature spotted pumpkins has been installed outside of the Sky apartments on West 42nd St., between 11th and 12th Ave.
The rest of your art walk is further uptown—it’s about a 30-minute walk, but you can take the E train from 42nd St. to 7th Ave. (or the M12 bus from 12 Av/W 43 St. to W 58 St./Broadway) and save about 10 minutes. On the corner of West 55th and 6th Ave. is 6 | Robert Indiana’s LOVE (1966–1999), versions of which are scattered around the world in multiple languages; the artist was inspired “on the original premise that the word is an appropriated and usable element of art,” as he wrote in 1969. Turn right on West 57th and head towards Madison Ave. on the east side, where 7 | Alexander Calder’s insect-like sculpture Saurien (1975) is a larger-than-life translation of one of his mobiles. “My mobiles and stabiles must be put in open spaces, like city squares, or in front of modern buildings,” he once said. “And the same goes for all contemporary sculpture.”
Keep walking east and turn right on Park Ave. When you reach 53rd St., look up—8 | Tom Friedman’s stainless steel giant, aptly named Looking Up (2015), was made by molding and casting crushed aluminum foil pans. Gazing up at surrounding skyscrapers, it invites you to do the same. Another sanguine work is right ahead on Park Ave. in front of the Seagram Building—Jean Dubuffet’s Welcome Parade (1974–2008), a puzzle-like cluster of abstract figures in motion. Friedman’s and Dubuffet’s works will be de-installed on September 5th and 10th, respectively, so catch a glimpse while you can.
Start: Thomas Paine Park (Nearest subway stops: J/Z at Chambers Street, 4/5/6 at Brooklyn Bridge - City Hall)
Finish: 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza
Walking Time: 30 min.
This tour spans the Civic Center and the Financial District and consists of just five destinations, all within close walking distance. Nestled in New York City’s civic center area, Thomas Paine Park at Foley Square is embellished with three large-scale steel sculptures by 1 | Dee Briggs, whose work is inspired by the industrial environs of western Pennsylvania, where she was raised in the 1970s. Lacking an internal plane of symmetry along their x, y, or z axes, these playful orange sculptures are titled Chirality (2015–2016) for the scientific property of asymmetry.
City Hall Park is practically within a hair’s breadth from Foley Square. Leaving Foley Square on either Lafayette or Center St., head south towards Reade St., and turn right onto Chambers St., then left at Broadway. Here you’ll catch the last few weeks of 2 | “The Language of Things,” an exhibition organized by the Public Art Fund that aims to show that language “is not limited to the form of words.” Scattered throughout the park, works by Carol Bove, Claudia Comte, Michael Dean, Adam Pendleton, Tino Sehgal, Chris Watson, and Hannah Weiner include sculptural “code poems” and a sound installation of birds in flight. A highlight is Claudia Comte’s Italian Bunnies (2016), in which seven pairs of bunny ears constructed of veined and polished marble—each named after an Italian sculptor, from Pietro to Michelangelo—poke out from the lawn, speaking the language of both modernist abstraction and animal cartoonery.
Next up: A shiny 3 | Jeff Koons awaits in the Financial District. From City Hall Park, head south on Broadway (in the direction of traffic) and turn right on Barclay St. On your left, sandwiched between West Broadway and Greenwich St., Balloon Flower (Red) (2006) glistens in the center of a plaza fountain. It’s only fitting that Koons’s work sits here, just blocks away from Wall St.; in a former life, the artist was a stockbroker.
Back on Barclay, head back in your original direction and turn right on Church, then left on Liberty a few blocks down. Right past Broadway, the striking red of 4 | Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube (1968)—perched on a corner and pierced by a gaping hole—delightfully juxtaposes the verticals and horizontals of its surrounding buildings. Continue on Liberty and turn right on Nassau, then left on Pine. In front of Chase Manhattan is 5 | Group of Four Trees (1969–72), another work by Jean Dubuffet commissioned by David Rockefeller in 1969. This comes from a larger body of work called “L’Hourloupe,” which Dubuffet explained as “some wonderland or grotesque object or creature” and “the figuration of a world other than our own, or...parallel to ours.” A sort of alternate reality is indeed imaginable in these “drawings which extend and expand in space,” as he called them, with their amorphous lines and crisscrossing planes.
Start: Jackson Ave. & 46th Ave. (Nearest subway stops: G at 21 St. - Van Alst, 7 at Court Sq., E/M at Court Sq. - 23rd St.)
Finish: Socrates Sculpture Park
Walking Time: 40 min.
Easily accessible from Manhattan, a scattering of public artworks in Queens—from industrial Long Island City, with its expansive roadways and vibrant murals, to welcoming, family-oriented Astoria—beckons visitors to the borough on a late summer or early fall day. Starting in the vicinity of MoMA PS1, this tour will finish up at Socrates Sculpture Park by the waterfront. And with just three stops, you might also consider a visit to the SculptureCenter or the Noguchi Museum.
Begin at the intersection of Jackson Ave. & 46th. Ave., where 1 | Mary Ann Unger’s Unfurling (1986) sits nestled in foliage on the street corner. The aluminum spiral sculpture reflects the late sculptor’s dual interest in architectonic and organic shapes, resembling both a shell in nature and the gridded urban environment. Continue just a few blocks on Jackson Ave. and you’ll find Court Square Park on your right. 2 | Wendy Klemperer’s ecologically minded exhibition “Shadow Migration” features a steel cut-out bear, fox, and wolf, among other animals, lurking throughout the park. These are species that were once threatened in the last century, but that are now appearing with some frequency in cities and suburbs as humans continue to take over their habitats.
Last but not least, head to Socrates Sculpture Park, which is just under a 40-minute walk; alternatively, until September 11th, you can take the LIC Art Bus free of charge from MoMA PS1. (To get there on foot, continue on Jackson, turn left at 43rd Ave., right on 23rd St., left on 40th Ave., and finally right on 11th St.; keep walking for about a mile until you reach the park.) Early this summer, New York-based architecture and design studio 3 | Hou de Sousa assembled its winning design for the 2016 Folly competition: Sticks, a wooden canopy constructed of standard-dimension sticks of lumber. The work is expected to transform over time with the incorporation of scrap materials and will serve as a site for educational and public programming—including both artmaking and exhibitions—for the remainder of the year.
Illustrations by Jan Buchczik for Artsy.