Making Progress with Public Art: The Final Section of the High Line Opens

Artsy Editors
Sep 22, 2014 9:14PM

On a sunny day, a refrigerator stocked with refreshing drinks is a welcome sight. But as tourists on the elevated High Line park queue up to buy a drink, they soon realize what they are looking at is no ordinary vending machine. 

Skittles (2014), an installation by American artist Josh Kline, contains homemade smoothies made up of the figurative ingredients of stereotypical New Yorkers. Several bottles labeled “Williamsburg” list items like a credit card, American Apparel clothes, kale chips, kombucha, microbrew, quinoa, and agave. “Tourism” contains Starbucks coffee, cheap sunglasses, a metrocard, hotel soap, cupcake, cheesecake, and a cronut. And the more satirical, “Anarchy,” holds infused vodka, Axe body wash, protein powder, Red Bull, self-tanner, a banana, and the hormone supplement dhea.

“Kline’s refrigerator is a parody of the juice obsession of our contemporary society—an industrial fridge with 15 different kinds of homemade ‘juices,’” says Cecilia Alemani, curator and director of High Line Art. “It’s amazing to see people lining up to buy them, and then realize it is only an artwork!”

Skittles is one of many works that are a part of “Archeo,” a group exhibition developed by High Line Art that consists of perplexing sculptures including a heap of melded, ceramic dishware swinging on a hammock and rusted railroad tracks jutting upwards from the slatted boards of the park pathway. Since its inception in 2009, High Line Art has been curating installations like “Archeo” for the passersby on the über popular High Line. A relatively new park, the High Line took a decommissioned, elevated freight line running through the city and transformed it into a public pathway, complete with benches, pop-up vendors, and sweeping views of the Hudson River. The first section debuted only five years ago, connecting the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea. A second length opened in 2011, and a final path opened this past weekend on September 21st.

 With millions of visitors at the park each year, High Line Art faces the challenge of curating exhibitions for an audience even more diverse than most popular museums. Its visitors range from mothers pushing strollers and teenagers lounging on the park’s many long, wooden benches, to tourists snapping skyline photos and, occasionally, a few art connoisseurs. 

Public Art and its Place in Communities

The success of the High Line is greatly debated—native residents of Chelsea can attest to the swaths of tourists and investors that have flooded their neighborhood, driven up prices, and pushed out long-time residents. Jeremiah Moss, author of the blog Vanishing New York, wrote an article for The New York Times in which he snarkily stated, “Not yet four years old, the High Line has already become another stop on the must-see list for out-of-towners, another chapter in the story of New York City’s transformation into Disney World.”

The High Line, and many other public art programs around the country, however, are bringing accessible art to new audiences. A similar project to the High Line, The 606 in Chicago, is currently under construction to be converted into a park and trail system opening in June 2015. It will stretch through Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Bucktown, and Wicker Park, complete with murals, a performance space, a program for creative residencies, an observatory, and a skate park.

When developing the plans for the park, the design team’s lead artist Frances Whitehead said they made an effort to combine both art and architecture. “We focused on asking important questions related to public art, including placemaking, the practice between ethological approaches, and bringing in all kinds of public art themes in the process.” 

Several sites have been identified for major art commissions, and Whitehead adds that the high walls of the park allow for a lot of mural space. In contrast to New York City’s High Line, The 606 already snakes through communities with strong artistic grassroots and a vital street-art scene. “We have recognized that there are many different communities of art practice that will be co-habiting this space and collaborating on the trail,” Whitehead says. “This is actually one of our strategies, to link high and low culture, to link communities and practice, to link the neighborhood to the cultural institutions... and with all of that, achieve diversity and connections.”

Creative placemaking has benefited urban landscapes in many cities and in some cases, helped inspire entire communities. In Philadelphia, a project initiated to combat graffiti became a highly regarded mural arts program after providing struggling youth with a positive form of expression. Jane Golden, executive director and founder of the Mural Arts Program, formulated this project in the ’90s after visiting graffiti artists in various neighborhoods across the city.

“I was meeting graffiti writers for the first time and seeing (through looking at their black books and seeing their work on walls throughout the city) that many of them had extraordinary talent that had historically and sadly gone unrecognized,” she says. Golden developed classes that offered the artists a chance to hone their skills, collaborate, and translate their work into vibrant murals. “As kids learned about color theory and design, they also were building scaffolding, doing design transfer, and more importantly, making their mark on the city in big, bold ways… And it was in some of our city’s most struggling neighborhoods that we began to deliver art as a city service.”

Today, Golden says the Mural Arts Program has commissioned more than 3,600 works and has noticed excellent success in its education programs, with a 100 percent graduation rate in its advanced art education program and 85 percent of students moving onto higher education. Last year the program finished an 18-month project called “Philly Painting” by two Dutch artists, Haas & Hahn, that wrapped 61 buildings in color. Golden says the project was able to inspire and build potential in a neighborhood that has dealt with loss of industry and poverty. “All of this, the intensive programming and large scale projects that are done in collaboration with communities, helps foster a sense of energy and potential, a sense of hope and optimism,” Golden says.

The Final Section 

The highly anticipated final section of the High Line, which wraps around the future Hudson Yards neighborhood, unveiled on Sunday, September 21st. Along with its opening was the debut of a collection of sculptures by Adriàn Villar Rojas, an Argentine artist known for his large-scale site-specific sculptures that often grow with the spaces they inhabit. “[The sculptures] will literally expand the landscape of the High Line itself,” Alemani explains.

Made from a mixture of concrete and clay designed to decompose, the sculptures will crumble through the length of their exhibition. Seeds embedded in the sculptures will grow with it, allowing for a natural transformation. It is an installation that embodies the spirit of High Line Art—a work of art that fits seamlessly into the park’s conscientious design. 

Alemani says the park will continue to be a backdrop for all kinds of art. Take a walk along it today and you’ll find curious sculptures hidden in its vegetation, performances that involve daily visitors, and bright, captivating murals created by artists from across the world.

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Josh Kline, Skittles, 2014. Part of Archeo, a High Line Commission. On view April 17, 2014 –March 2015 on the High Line, New York. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

 Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Him and Me, 2014. Part of Archeo, a High Line Commission. On view April 17, 2014 – March 2015 on the High Line, New York. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Marianne Vitale, Common Crossings, 2014. Part of Archeo, a High Line Commission. On view April 17, 2014 – March 2015 on the High Line, New York. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Adrián Villar Rojas, The Evolution of God, 2014. A High Line Commission. On view September 2014 – Summer 2015. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Photos by Steve Weinik for the Mural Arts Program

Artsy Editors