On The Art That's All Around Us

Print More

Public Art New York, By Jean Parker Phifer, W.W. Norton & Co., $29.95

On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City, By Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman, University Press of Mississippi, Cloth $65, Paper $35.

Jean Parker Phifer’s “Public Art New York” advertises itself as a “guided tour of the best public art in all five boroughs of New York City” but also as the first “inclusive” survey to the subject. Its format sits somewhere between a coffee-table book (driven by glossy photos) and an actual field guide (about the size of a trade paperback). The book is split into 11 chapters – seven for Manhattan and one each for the other boroughs – and each chapter opens with a map followed by a page or two on each of the included 242 artworks. The tension between Phifer’s two ambitions: to show the “best,” and to aim for inclusion, makes the selection of works much more than a rote exercise.

“Public Art New York” opts not to define “public art,” hoping to avoid a perceived myopia in prior books that limited themselves to, say, outdoor sculpture or works produced by particular organizations. Instead, Phifer casts her net wide. In addition to the statues and plaza installations you might expect, she includes, for instance, Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery as artworks, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's rooftop sculpture garden (which entails an entrance fee) and the art-filled lobby of the New York Times as “public.” Even Times Square's advertising gets its own spread. These gestures towards an expansive definition of “public art” would be welcome if they didn’t make the limits of Phifer’s inclusiveness so depressingly clear: The survey omits, or fails to see, a single mural, community garden, or popular sculpture as part of the artistic terrain. No Keith Haring “Crack is Wack” mural, no 8th and B community garden, Grant’s tomb mosaic, or Big Pun memorial wall. If it wasn’t commissioned by the government or a major corporation, it’s probably not here.

It’s no crime for a tour guide to make judgments. In fact, a sense of authority is precisely what we want from a guide. The selection of works, however, fails to address some very important questions about public art: Who exactly is the public? Where does the art's value come from? And who decides? Of course, a glossy guidebook isn’t the place to lay out a treatise, but the nature of the book’s ambition can’t help but make the urgency of the question clear and the lack of discussion particularly frustrating.

What you do get is still of value. Paging through, you will almost certainly encounter a beaux-arts building detail you’d never noticed, or a fountain you’ve never seen. Each artwork gets a handsome photo (though most of them are reproduced at a very small size in order to fit the guidebook format) and a paragraph or two from Phifer, including some clear and concise writing that often illuminates the history of a work's commissioning process but sometimes only offers a formal description – or, worse, an explanation of the work’s meaning.

“Public Art New York” aims to provide us with a baseline of what’s “worth seeing” in New York City but never lays out its criteria for deciding. As such, it’s hard not to read it as a glimpse into an elitist view of cultural value in the city: One that views the Met's rooftop as part of the public sphere.

At first glance, “On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals In New York City” appears to be a complement to “Public Art New York” – less slick, left-leaning and with a decidedly different “catchment” of work to consider, but essentially the same type of celebratory, coffee-table art anthology.

Thankfully, “On the Wall” is much more than a collection of images. Readers may be unlikely to read it cover to cover, but that would be a mistake. The book works best as a single, abundantly illustrated historical essay on the institutions and organizations that have produced “community mural projects” in New York City. The authors, muralists Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman, define their subject narrowly