When Lincoln Center announced its plans for renovating David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall, and before that Philharmonic Hall) in early December last year, one detail was conspicuously absent: any word on the fate of the mid-twentieth-century modernist sculptor Richard Lippold’s Orpheus and Apollo (1962). Consisting of two hanging metal constructions, one at each end of the lobby, the work is made of rectangular bronze plates strung together with wire and resembles a frozen swirl of oversized, glittering confetti. It had been a fixture of the building from the beginning, having been commissioned by the architect Max Abramovitz. Its shimmer caught your eye from the plaza outside, inviting you in; seen inside, the sculpture enlivened the otherwise dead interior of Abramovitz’s Mussolini Moderne architectural conception.
In 2014 Lincoln Center announced that Orpheus and Apollo would be “temporarily removed for maintenance and conservation.” But as time went on, “temporarily” began to look ominously like “permanently.” In November 2015, The New York Times quoted a Lincoln Center spokesman as saying “it would be ‘premature’ to say whether it would be returning once the renovations are finished.” And while there was no mention of the Lippold in Lincoln Center’s December 2, 2019, press release about the renovation, on that same day, in a story on the decision to eliminate five hundred seats from the auditorium, the Associated Press reported that “Richard Lippold’s Orpheus and Apollo sculpture . . . will not be reinstalled in the lobby because of current safety standards that impact the wiring, [New York Philharmonic President and ceo Deborah] Borda said.”
Lippold (1915–2002) used constellations of strung wire and metal and the play of light to evoke ethereal, even spiritual states. He was primarily a sculptor of large public spaces. Flight (1962) in the lobby of the MetLife Building in Midtown Manhattan dates from the same year as Eero Saarinen’s twa Terminal at jfk Airport and, like it, is a paean to man’s liberation from gravity to journey through the heavens. As the British critic Edward Lucie-Smith described Flight in the catalogue to a 1990 Lippold show at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum,
The “base” of the sculpture . . . is an oval inscribed on the floor. From this oval rise what seem to be rays of light, formed from innumerable strands of wire. Other great rays or ribbons of light sweep across the whole breadth of the space. In its very center, miraculously suspended, is a design of interlocking circles, which coalesce to form a diaphanous sphere, surrounded by broken orbits.
Why did Lincoln Center change its mind about Orpheus and Apollo? Chief Communications & Marketing Officer Leah Johnson told me that safety was one factor, “based on close visual inspection at the time .” Though it looks feather-light, Orpheus and Apollo weighs five tons, its myriad metal strips held in place by 450 wires. After a half century, some physical degradation was inevitable. Still, reinstallation would almost certainly have been possible had Lincoln Center wanted it—there’s a company in Newport, Rhode Island, with experience in the conservation of Lippold sculptures. The main reason Orpheus and Apollo won’t return is surely that Lincoln Center doesn’t want it to. It has other plans for Geffen Hall’s public spaces.
Understandably, press reports in December emphasized the changes to the concert hall by Diamond Schmitt Architects. But the public spaces, the lobby in particular, are to be the focus of equally sweeping transformation, to be undertaken by the firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners. The lobby will double in size and open up on three sides to connect with the rest of the campus. The Grand Promenade will be enlarged also. The escalators will move. At the lobby’s core will be a “media streaming wall” displaying concerts and events in real time. There will be new dining amenities. All this and more, in the interests, says the December release, of providing “better opportunities for people to gather and connect.” Details are sketchy at this stage, but the clear implication is that either the well of space in the fifty-foot-high, twenty-five-foot-wide, and 180-foot-long lobby will be so gobbled up by the media wall and the rest as to leave no room for the Lippold, or that Lincoln Center’s management simply regards it as passé, the relic of an earlier age at odds with the lobby’s new look.
Lincoln Center is not a museum, and so doesn’t have the same duty of care to artworks as does an institution like moma. Nonetheless, for an arts organization dedicated to fostering the highest standards of cultural excellence to be so cavalier about the work of a major American artist in its collection is shocking. Were the issue a display of Leonard Bernstein manuscripts, you can be sure there would be no question about removing it. This episode is eerily reminiscent of an earlier incident in the late 1990s when Lincoln Center talked about selling Jasper Johns’s Numbers (1964), hanging across the plaza in lobby of the David H. Koch Theater, to raise money for building repairs. Only a public outcry prevented this from happening.
Just as troubling is the fact that Lincoln Center’s actions regarding Orpheus and Apollo stand as a stark exception to the record of responsible stewardship of mid-twentieth-century modern artworks in public spaces elsewhere in Manhattan. Lippold’s Flight is currently inaccessible because the concourse of the MetLife Building is being renovated. But in response to my query in December, Kate Perez, the spokesperson for MdeAS Architects, the firm doing the work, emailed to say that “Flight will remain in its original location and is being cleaned, restored, and augmented with new lighting.” And she reminded me that some months earlier her firm had been responsible for recreating and returning a Josef Albers mural, Manhattan (1963), to another spot in the MetLife lobby, above the doors leading to the Grand Central escalators. The building’s previous owners had removed the work in 2000 and, when the Formica panels that comprised it were found to contain asbestos, disposed of it.
Elsewhere in midtown, the Rockefeller Group, which owns the Time & Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas at Fiftieth Street, conserved Relational Painting #88 (1960), by Fritz Glarner, during the building’s renovation. The fifteen-by-forty-foot geometric abstraction by a follower of Theo van Doesberg and his theories of Concrete Art is as iconic a work of public art as Lippold’s Flight and Orpheus and Apollo and will be back in the lobby when renovations are completed. In 2018 the company donated William Crovello’s outdoor Cubed Curve (1972), the cobalt blue abstract sculpture which had long served as the building’s landmark, to the art museum at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia. And on East Fifty-fourth Street, a restoration campaign has recently been completed on a sculptural environment by Louise Nevelson in a chapel at St. Peter’s Church adjacent to the Citicorp Center.
Ms. Johnson told me that “Lincoln Center has reached out to the Lippold Foundation and others about finding a new home for the piece,” and expects to begin discussions “in the coming weeks.” But given that the work was designed specifically for that site, relocation is hardly an ideal solution.
As it happens, the architects for the new public spaces, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, are uniquely positioned to speak to this issue. They have had their own experience with the disappearance of a cherished creation. Their American Folk Art Museum building on West Fifty-third Street, highly acclaimed when it opened in 2001, was subsequently bought by moma and then demolished to make way for its latest expansion. At the same time, they are adept at updating for the present while keeping faith with the past, as they demonstrated in their Barnes Foundation building in Philadelphia in 2012. In other words, they above all must understand what’s at stake here. They should insist that Lippold’s Orpheus and Apollo be as much a part of Geffen Hall’s future as it had been Philharmonic Hall’s past.
Meanwhile, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the traffic, as it were, has gone in the opposite direction. Naum Gabo’s Construction (1951), a major work of twentieth-century sculpture and for many years hardly visible at all, was recently restored to permanent view.
Gabo (1890–1977) was one of the greatest modernist sculptors. Yet sadly he has almost completely fallen out of favor. Museums hardly show his work, and the last U.S. retrospective was nearly thirty-five years ago. Born in Russia in the twilight years of the Tsarist regime, Gabo studied natural sciences and engineering before turning to art. As a young man he eagerly embraced the four great upheavals of the young century: modernism, in particular Cubism and its implications; the social utopianism of the Russian Revolution; the theories about a space-time continuum espoused by Albert Einstein and others; and the technological revolution. The ideas and ideals of all four would inform his art. (“An aeroplane contains all the elements of the new sculpture,” he observed at one point.)
All this combined to make Gabo an artist of almost reckless ambition, his aim nothing less than to give form to the formless. Instead of traditional sculpture—static objects isolated in space—he sought to create works that combined form, space, time, and motion. The quintessential expression of this effort is Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) of 1920. One end of a vertical wire roughly eighteen inches tall is embedded in a base whose mechanical interior, when activated, causes the wire to oscillate in such a way that it describes an attenuated hourglass-like form suggesting a volume in space. Thereafter Gabo rejected literal motion, preferring rather to suggest it through the arrangement of his forms and his choice of materials. He worked mainly in plastic, thin metal wire, and nylon monofilament, choosing them not just for their aesthetic potential but because they evoked the impersonality and efficiency of twentieth-century machine technology.
Baltimore’s Construction was commissioned in 1950 for the stairwell of a new education wing. Made of painted aluminum, bronze mesh, Plexiglas, and gold and stainless steel wire, it consists of two parts. Attached to the ceiling is a relief—what looks like a wiggly black circle with two protruding elements and nests of wires fanning out in between. Suspended a few feet below it but, importantly, not from it (Gabo wanted to avoid what he called the “chandelier” effect) is a second and, at roughly fourteen by four feet, much larger open form that appears to be floating in space. This one consists in the main of two intersecting black, longitudinal loops at whose center is a clear plastic form that looks like two horizontal circles stretched to reach, respectively, the top and bottom of the loops.
In the original installation, the optimal way to see Construction was by starting from the bottom of the stairwell and slowly making your way up. “Gabo had sought ‘to take into account the fact that the observer would inevitably be looking at the work not only from a series of points on a horizontal plane, but also from all the points along the vertical axis of the spiral periphery of the stairs,’ ” write the British art historians Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder in Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo, their definitive study of the artist. They then eloquently, even movingly, describe that experience:
The sculpture comes into view as the stairwell is entered from the gallery spaces. From directly below, the viewer perceives two intertwined linear loops framing an irregular, but basically cruciform element which is defined by dark contours and is seen in steep foreshortening. As one begins to ascend, the two loops remain fixed, but the configuration of lines gradually opens up and extends itself. The construction starts to register as a vertical form occupying the centre of the stairwell, with its black curvilinear drawing standing out against the white cubic space. With their taut curves, these lines perform a kind of dance in space around the periphery of the construction, encouraging the movement of the viewer. Within this rather indeterminate form, one also becomes aware of a more ethereal central passage consisting of reflective plastic curves, which in turn enclose fine golden stringing that echoes strung passages coming into focus within the upper element. In the lower part of the stair, the viewer’s sense of structural and spatial relationships remains highly uncertain.
At a certain point in the spectator’s progress, the large element dramatically disengages itself and is revealed to be freely suspended in space, held in position merely by four thin clusters of gilded steel wires, barely visible to the casual glance, which emerge without apparent fixture from the ceiling. The structure continues its dynamic linear pirouette until, at the top landing, it can be seen without foreshortening, disclosing the essential structural order of the form. The construction stabilizes itself visually at the point when the viewer also attains a more stable, horizontal plane.
The key words here are “dynamic linear pirouette.” In Construction, Gabo has attained his goal of fusing form, space, time, and motion, not by making the sculpture itself move—he had specifically rejected the idea of an Alexander Calder–style mobile—but through the agency of the viewers and their changing perspectives and perceptions as they transit a vertical spiral.
From its unveiling in 1951 through 1982, Construction was continuously on public view. Then the education department moved elsewhere and those spaces were taken over by the conservation department and Construction became only intermittently visible. In one of the short videos made to commemorate the museum’s centenary in 2014, a member of that department describes it as “one of the secret gems of our collection, sitting quietly behind mostly closed doors.” Three years later the sculpture was removed when the stairwell was demolished as part of an enlargement and reconfiguration of the temporary exhibition galleries and reinstalled in 2018 in another stairwell in a public area linking an interior courtyard with the Cone Collection galleries.
We should applaud the return of Construction to permanent view after so many decades of benign neglect. Still, the current installation subtly but irrevocably alters its meaning.
The first problem is that you now experience the sculpture primarily on a horizontal rather than vertical axis, going to or from the Cone Collection. Not only do you now miss the gradual, chrysalis-like revelation of the artist’s conception, but your inclination is to do as you do with other artworks: stop in front of it, look, then move on. This effectively transforms Construction from a Gabo—a dynamically unfolding three-dimensional form—into a sort of Picasso: a Cubist-derived sculpture whose meaning resides in, and is limited to, the static interrelationship of its lines, planes, spaces, and surfaces.
Nor do the signals sent by the museum do much to suggest there is a larger, truer experience to be had here. Granted, the accompanying wall text notes that “for Gabo, the ascending and descending spectator . . . would give an imaginary movement to the sculpture,” but the museum has done little to encourage such an encounter. The upward portion of the staircase is roped off at the level of the bottom step while the downward side leads to a dark, little-lighted space that looks like a dead end. Everything about it says “Do Not Enter.”
There’s an easy fix here: move the barrier on the upward flight to the top, allowing visitors some degree of ascent; redo the lighting on the downward side to make it more inviting; and, finally, rewrite the wall copy to encourage visitors to experience Construction as it was in its original location. Then one of the greatest twentieth-century sculptures in any American museum will once again come into its own.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 52
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