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Frieze Sculpture at the Rock

By Karen HudesSep 2 2020

With the opening of Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center on April 25, the Plaza and its surrounding buildings will transform into a sculpture park featuring the work of 14 contemporary artists, including Kiki Smith, Ibrahim Mahama, Nick Cave, Sarah Sze and Joan Miró. The exhibition brings a taste of the annual Frieze New York art fair to Midtown, while also creating a unique dialogue with the built-in art and architecture of Rockefeller Center.

Curator Brett Littman, director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, spoke with Front & Center about his process for selecting the pieces appearing in the show, and his ideas about how the work will interact with the environment of Rock Center. He will also be providing a walking tour of the exhibition, which is one of his favorite things to do as a curator. "As much as I love traveling and meeting artists," Littman says, "I actually really love touring people through."

Front & Center: Tell us a little about joining with Frieze on the project, and how it connects to the Noguchi museum.

Brett Littman: I was approached by Loring Randolph, who's the American director for Frieze... Because Noguchi's News is is one of the most important major commissions for Rockefeller Center, completed in 1940, I think she felt it made sense for our museum and myself personally to be involved in the selection and curation of the show.

News is a very, very interesting piece in Noguchi’s career, it really sits at a fulcrum of a figurative moment in the late '20s through the '30s, a very political moment for Noguchi... He had many, many failed commissions, and he applied for many commissions. News was the first one that he got in New York, so it was a major one.

And thinking also about the history of the Rockefeller Center site, particularly the Diego Rivera/Nelson Rockefeller scenario in 1934, I think News represents a project that was fraught for Noguchi in a lot of ways... also an ambition that was beyond anything that he had ever done. It was the world’s largest and heaviest stainless steel bas-relief made up until that time.

Noguchi...had many, many failed commissions, and he applied for many commissions. News was the first one that he got in New York, so it was a major one.
—Brett Littman

How did the process of selecting the sculptures work?

For any gallery that was participating in Frieze, we put out a general call. If there were sculptures that could be outside or artists who’d want to be working on this project with me, they’d be allowed to send us a series of images or to talk to me directly about possibilities. And from a fairly large list, I started to cull down a group of artists that I felt would be interesting, with an eye towards really, two things:

One, that the artist may not have sited a public sculpture in New York before, and two, that I was a little bit leery of the monumental... I really wanted to bring an alternative sculpture park, one that would be more human scale, objects that could be placed [among] existing murals, bas-reliefs and sculptures on the Rockefeller Center site, so that they could interact a little bit more harmoniously or create interesting historical juxtapositions between the fabric of the contemporary world and the historical world.

And then I really tried to be diverse, in terms of the global diversity—Frieze is an international art fair—and to be frank, in terms of men and women. And that’s a hard thing to do in sculpture, unfortunately... there aren’t as many female sculptors who are working in large-scale or even medium-scale or even human-sized sculpture that can go outdoors. So I really had to kind of push back on galleries, and make sure that instead of sending me only men, they were also considering their roster of women who could show in this project as well.

So I definitely feel in the end that not only is it geographically diverse, age diverse, career diverse—you know, some people are very well known, some people are not known at all—and also in terms of gender it’s diverse as well. As much as it can be in terms of the ratio for this year. And hopefully push for better for 2020.

When did you begin the work of seeking out artists?

Officially in January.

Wow, that seems like a very fast process.

Very fast.

Were you familiar with the artists' work beforehand?

About 80 percent of the artists, I know the work very well. There were one or two artists for whom the work is new to me... So I would say, the artist Rochelle Goldberg, I know her work, I'd seen something at the Whitney, but I didn't know the full scale of her work... But, for instance, Walter De Maria, who's passed away, is one of the artists that I am showing. And Walter and I had a long relationship for about eight years of chatting and talking and being very close. So I would say that he would represent the other side, of being in deep conversation with an artist over a long period of time.

How far back do the sculptures in the show go?

The Miró was made in 1973. The De Maria work Truth/Beauty was started in 1993 and finished in 2016 after he passed away. Most of the rest of the sculptures I would say have been made within the last three years. And some have been made literally this year or are being made for the exhibition.

As the curator, you're thinking about the relationship of the pieces to different settings at Rockefeller Center.

One thing that I'm not a big fan of is the idea of "plop" sculpture, which is like you just put something down and it has no context. Noguchi hated that kind of stuff. Since I have the legacy of dealing with a sculptor who anytime he placed a work, even indoors or outdoors, he thought that his work totally transformed the landscape, and that the landscape would have to be transformed, in some ways I was a little hesitant to just put an array of sculptures outside and call it a day. It didn't seem like that was really going to be enough.

I started going back to Rockefeller Center on the weekends to look at a site that I thought I knew, but actually I didn't know that well. I think that most New Yorkers have no idea that Rockefeller Center is filled with art and has some of the best preserved art deco interiors in the world. I mean, they're amazing. Then little by little as I started to formulate a more robust installation plan, I started to think, "What would be exciting for people if they came here, and not just simply to walk and see a giant sculpture somewhere or to see a bunch of sculptures outside? Maybe you could be a flaneur?" I mean, you could kind of re-explore the whole city, your understanding of what Rockefeller Center is and how that sits within a city within a city.

So people will be looking at the sculptures while also experiencing the environment in a new way, and the relationship between them.

I think that's really one of the most important things... For instance, Pedro Reyes, who's a Mexican artist, I like his work a lot. He tends to be working on the edge of sometimes politics and sometimes the idea of pre-Columbian forms and the history of Mexico itself. And so, of course, my initial thought was, well—I should put these two sculptures, which almost look like they are pre-Columbian forms, a jaguar, sitting in the lobby at 30 Rockefeller Center in front of the erased Diego Rivera mural.

There's not going to be a wall text that's going to explain that for anyone. But I love the idea of this kind of deep relationship. And obviously Pedro Reyes is incredibly indebted to Diego Rivera in terms of the history of Mexican art. I'm placing these two sculptures on either side of that huge check-in desk. What I love about them is that they'll be these witnesses and sentinels to what happened in 1934. They're standing guard in a way. It's like Diego's back in a way, channeled through Pedro.

How did the work by Ibrahim Mahama come about, in which he's creating jute flags to go around the Rink?

In the initial walk-through, I asked if I could use the skating rink. Originally I thought maybe I'd want to put Walter De Maria's pieces in the skating rink, because there are 17 units to that sculpture, and obviously I can't show all 17 in the lobby that I'm using. I was told no... And then I looked up and I said, "Can I use these flagpoles?" Because I was thinking that there are artists that have made flag pieces. And they said yes.

In my conversations with White Cube, I said, "Would Ibrahim be open if I commissioned him to make 50 flags to replace the flags that are up around the skating rink?" The response was yes, he was very excited about that.

I think that'll make an impact.

It will work with the other sculptures that will be on-site, but it will be very startling. Jute is a kind of beige material. The flags are a little bit heavy, they're not going to be flapping in the wind.

Ibrahim's work is about the politics of labor and inequality around the world. And also, of course, the histories of the slave trade and all these other things in which jute bags have played a role, in transporting cocoa and other materials for many, many years. I mean, I'm not going to explicitly get into that aspect of it. In an audio tour or some other text I might say something. But one of the things about sculpture is it does represent the times you live in. We live in very fraught, very complicated political times with many issues that are being raised, and artists are definitely raising those issues.

I would say this sculpture park is definitely beyond just simply showing pretty things or monumental things. There is a statement, and the statement is that sculpture reacts to the times we're in. Artists are anxious and want their sculptures to reflect the kinds of issues that they think are important, which might be issues of race, dissemination of information, the ideas of economy, the ideas of emotion. And these are all things that these sculptures will kind of wear on their sleeves.

I'm not a super idealistic person who feels art is going to change the world. But if there’s one thing that art can do, is it does change the way that we perceive things. So if you're walking through an environment that's always colorful and all of a sudden it's black and white or if it's beige or there is no color, it does change the way that you perceive things. It could be quite unconscious and very subtle, or it could be very conscious.

And you can interpret that change in different ways.

When I did my first site visit in January I looked at Noguchi's News again, and was just thinking—how much more relevant can that sculpture be in the world today? And the idea that there are five reporters out there getting the scoop, in a time when the news is constantly being attacked is surely an eye-opening moment.

That's what set me going on this project. In the end, the great thing about working on it was how I was able to integrate the sculptures I chose into the fabric and texture of Rockefeller Center. I'm going to do it again next year, so hopefully I can build on my experience from doing it the first time. I do have some pretty radical ideas for the next one. We'll see what happens.

Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center, running from April 25 through June 28, is free and open to the public. See a map of Rockefeller Center, pick up Frieze Sculpture maps at lobbies around the Plaza, and register for children's programming here. Check the blog for updates on the exhibition.

Updated: April 25, 2019

With the opening of Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center on April 25, the Plaza and its surrounding buildings will transform into a sculpture park featuring the work of 14 contemporary artists, including Kiki Smith, Ibrahim Mahama, Nick Cave, Sarah Sze and Joan Miró. The exhibition brings a taste of the annual Frieze New York art fair to Midtown, while also creating a unique dialogue with the built-in art and architecture of Rockefeller Center.

Curator Brett Littman, director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, spoke with Front & Center about his process for selecting the pieces appearing in the show, and his ideas about how the work will interact with the environment of Rock Center. He will also be providing a walking tour of the exhibition, which is one of his favorite things to do as a curator. "As much as I love traveling and meeting artists," Littman says, "I actually really love touring people through."

Front & Center: Tell us a little about joining with Frieze on the project, and how it connects to the Noguchi museum.

Brett Littman: I was approached by Loring Randolph, who's the American director for Frieze... Because Noguchi's News is is one of the most important major commissions for Rockefeller Center, completed in 1940, I think she felt it made sense for our museum and myself personally to be involved in the selection and curation of the show.

News is a very, very interesting piece in Noguchi’s career, it really sits at a fulcrum of a figurative moment in the late '20s through the '30s, a very political moment for Noguchi... He had many, many failed commissions, and he applied for many commissions. News was the first one that he got in New York, so it was a major one.

And thinking also about the history of the Rockefeller Center site, particularly the Diego Rivera/Nelson Rockefeller scenario in 1934, I think News represents a project that was fraught for Noguchi in a lot of ways... also an ambition that was beyond anything that he had ever done. It was the world’s largest and heaviest stainless steel bas-relief made up until that time.

How did the process of selecting the sculptures work?

For any gallery that was participating in Frieze, we put out a general call. If there were sculptures that could be outside or artists who’d want to be working on this project with me, they’d be allowed to send us a series of images or to talk to me directly about possibilities. And from a fairly large list, I started to cull down a group of artists that I felt would be interesting, with an eye towards really, two things:

One, that the artist may not have sited a public sculpture in New York before, and two, that I was a little bit leery of the monumental... I really wanted to bring an alternative sculpture park, one that would be more human scale, objects that could be placed [among] existing murals, bas-reliefs and sculptures on the Rockefeller Center site, so that they could interact a little bit more harmoniously or create interesting historical juxtapositions between the fabric of the contemporary world and the historical world.

And then I really tried to be diverse, in terms of the global diversity—Frieze is an international art fair—and to be frank, in terms of men and women. And that’s a hard thing to do in sculpture, unfortunately... there aren’t as many female sculptors who are working in large-scale or even medium-scale or even human-sized sculpture that can go outdoors. So I really had to kind of push back on galleries, and make sure that instead of sending me only men, they were also considering their roster of women who could show in this project as well.

So I definitely feel in the end that not only is it geographically diverse, age diverse, career diverse—you know, some people are very well known, some people are not known at all—and also in terms of gender it’s diverse as well. As much as it can be in terms of the ratio for this year. And hopefully push for better for 2020.

When did you begin the work of seeking out artists?

Officially in January.

Wow, that seems like a very fast process.

Very fast.

Were you familiar with the artists' work beforehand?

About 80 percent of the artists, I know the work very well. There were one or two artists for whom the work is new to me... So I would say, the artist Rochelle Goldberg, I know her work, I'd seen something at the Whitney, but I didn't know the full scale of her work... But, for instance, Walter De Maria, who's passed away, is one of the artists that I am showing. And Walter and I had a long relationship for about eight years of chatting and talking and being very close. So I would say that he would represent the other side, of being in deep conversation with an artist over a long period of time.

How far back do the sculptures in the show go?

The Miró was made in 1973. The De Maria work Truth/Beauty was started in 1993 and finished in 2016 after he passed away. Most of the rest of the sculptures I would say have been made within the last three years. And some have been made literally this year or are being made for the exhibition.

As the curator, you're thinking about the relationship of the pieces to different settings at Rockefeller Center.

One thing that I'm not a big fan of is the idea of "plop" sculpture, which is like you just put something down and it has no context. Noguchi hated that kind of stuff. Since I have the legacy of dealing with a sculptor who anytime he placed a work, even indoors or outdoors, he thought that his work totally transformed the landscape, and that the landscape would have to be transformed, in some ways I was a little hesitant to just put an array of sculptures outside and call it a day. It didn't seem like that was really going to be enough.

I started going back to Rockefeller Center on the weekends to look at a site that I thought I knew, but actually I didn't know that well. I think that most New Yorkers have no idea that Rockefeller Center is filled with art and has some of the best preserved art deco interiors in the world. I mean, they're amazing. Then little by little as I started to formulate a more robust installation plan, I started to think, "What would be exciting for people if they came here, and not just simply to walk and see a giant sculpture somewhere or to see a bunch of sculptures outside? Maybe you could be a flaneur?" I mean, you could kind of re-explore the whole city, your understanding of what Rockefeller Center is and how that sits within a city within a city.

So people will be looking at the sculptures while also experiencing the environment in a new way, and the relationship between them.

I think that's really one of the most important things... For instance, Pedro Reyes, who's a Mexican artist, I like his work a lot. He tends to be working on the edge of sometimes politics and sometimes the idea of pre-Columbian forms and the history of Mexico itself. And so, of course, my initial thought was, well—I should put these two sculptures, which almost look like they are pre-Columbian forms, a jaguar, sitting in the lobby at 30 Rockefeller Center in front of the erased Diego Rivera mural.

There's not going to be a wall text that's going to explain that for anyone. But I love the idea of this kind of deep relationship. And obviously Pedro Reyes is incredibly indebted to Diego Rivera in terms of the history of Mexican art. I'm placing these two sculptures on either side of that huge check-in desk. What I love about them is that they'll be these witnesses and sentinels to what happened in 1934. They're standing guard in a way. It's like Diego's back in a way, channeled through Pedro.

How did the work by Ibrahim Mahama come about, in which he's creating jute flags to go around the Rink?

In the initial walk-through, I asked if I could use the skating rink. Originally I thought maybe I'd want to put Walter De Maria's pieces in the skating rink, because there are 17 units to that sculpture, and obviously I can't show all 17 in the lobby that I'm using. I was told no... And then I looked up and I said, "Can I use these flagpoles?" Because I was thinking that there are artists that have made flag pieces. And they said yes.

In my conversations with White Cube, I said, "Would Ibrahim be open if I commissioned him to make 50 flags to replace the flags that are up around the skating rink?" The response was yes, he was very excited about that.

I think that'll make an impact.

It will work with the other sculptures that will be on-site, but it will be very startling. Jute is a kind of beige material. The flags are a little bit heavy, they're not going to be flapping in the wind.

Ibrahim's work is about the politics of labor and inequality around the world. And also, of course, the histories of the slave trade and all these other things in which jute bags have played a role, in transporting cocoa and other materials for many, many years. I mean, I'm not going to explicitly get into that aspect of it. In an audio tour or some other text I might say something. But one of the things about sculpture is it does represent the times you live in. We live in very fraught, very complicated political times with many issues that are being raised, and artists are definitely raising those issues.

I would say this sculpture park is definitely beyond just simply showing pretty things or monumental things. There is a statement, and the statement is that sculpture reacts to the times we're in. Artists are anxious and want their sculptures to reflect the kinds of issues that they think are important, which might be issues of race, dissemination of information, the ideas of economy, the ideas of emotion. And these are all things that these sculptures will kind of wear on their sleeves.

I'm not a super idealistic person who feels art is going to change the world. But if there’s one thing that art can do, is it does change the way that we perceive things. So if you're walking through an environment that's always colorful and all of a sudden it's black and white or if it's beige or there is no color, it does change the way that you perceive things. It could be quite unconscious and very subtle, or it could be very conscious.

And you can interpret that change in different ways.

When I did my first site visit in January I looked at Noguchi's News again, and was just thinking—how much more relevant can that sculpture be in the world today? And the idea that there are five reporters out there getting the scoop, in a time when the news is constantly being attacked is surely an eye-opening moment.

That's what set me going on this project. In the end, the great thing about working on it was how I was able to integrate the sculptures I chose into the fabric and texture of Rockefeller Center. I'm going to do it again next year, so hopefully I can build on my experience from doing it the first time. I do have some pretty radical ideas for the next one. We'll see what happens.

Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center, running from April 25 through June 28, is free and open to the public. See a map of Rockefeller Center, pick up Frieze Sculpture maps at lobbies around the Plaza, and register for children's programming here. Check the blog for updates on the exhibition.

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