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Sanford Biggers Opens Multimedia Installation at Rockefeller Center

By Julie Smith SchneiderMay 5 2021
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At conceptual artist Sanford Biggers’ new exhibition that’s taking over Rockefeller Center this spring, there’s tons to see—about 7.64 US tons (15,280 pounds), to be exact. That’s the weight of Oracle, the 25-foot-tall cast bronze sculpture that serves as the centerpiece of Biggers’ epic art installation featuring a varied slate of works, an inviting gateway into Biggers’ expansive body of work. On display through June 29, Biggers’ campus-wide exhibition includes the latest installation in the 2021 Art in Focus series, produced in partnership with Art Production Fund and kicked off by Hiba Schahbaz earlier this year.

The monumental Oracle commission, installed at the entrance to the Channel Gardens, is the largest yet in Biggers’ ongoing Chimera series, which consists of hybrid sculptures that merge mythology and history. Each is a mashup of masks and figurative sculptures from different countries and cultures, including Greco-Roman and African sculptures. “What we think we know about these objects and how they represent certain cultures is not always true,” Biggers says. What he refers to as “historical abstraction” is a recurring theme in his work. “Stories and narratives have been built over centuries upon those objects.” The imposing figure of Oracle, in particular, combines elements of an ancient depiction of Zeus with an “Africoid mask-bust figure” that’s a composite of several masks and busts from different African cultures, Biggers says.

Concepts and imagery that have been part of the ongoing visual and conceptual narrative of the artist’s work for years constellate across the Rockefeller Center campus. A work titled Seigaiha (meaning “big blue wave” in Japanese) features flags that ring the Rink. Each flag is emblazoned with a graphic wave design, reminiscent of the ’70s album art of Biggers’ youth, that animates in the wind. Vitrines hold three small versions of his Chimera sculptures with photo backgrounds made from stills from his video series “Shuffle, Shake, Shatter,” filmed over 10 years in Brazil and Ethiopia. A 125-foot-long mural fills a subterranean passageway with a cloudscape and the repeating words: “Just Us.” Several more murals are scattered throughout the complex; details on them are incorporated into the Oracle sculpture.

Photo by Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund

“This spring is extra special for all of us—it’s a comeback and an awakening, it’s hopeful and optimistic, and celebrating it with Sanford Biggers’ art makes it all the more meaningful,” says EB Kelly, Tishman Speyer managing director overseeing Rockefeller Center. “As a New Yorker, Sanford was the perfect choice for our first campus-wide takeover by a solo artist.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1970, Biggers came of age while hip-hop culture was taking shape. “I was a first generation b-boy,” he said in a 2020 interview with Modern Art Notes podcast. He practiced all the hip-hop art forms: rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti—influences that still echo through his work today. Biggers grew up in a home that valued arts and culture and the full breadth of history. (There’s also another notable artist in the Biggers family tree: muralist John T. Biggers, Sanford’s cousin.) Sanford Biggers’ mother was a teacher and his father was one of the first Black neurosurgeons in California, and they gave Biggers what he has described as a “dual education”—the one he got at school and the one his parents provided, filling in the gaps in Black history and culture that the school’s curriculum left out.

Biggers says he has a drive to “be a sponge,” constantly soaking up and sharing knowledge about other cultures, as his artwork reflects. From a young age, Biggers started playing piano and making art. In high school, he was invited to exhibit his art in the hallway of the school—an early boost of encouragement that he says propelled him in his trajectory as an artist. His formal education continued with college degrees—a BA from Morehouse College in Atlanta and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—as well as stints at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Syracuse University. Numerous fellowships and residencies have taken him around the globe, including to: Berlin; Rome; Warsaw, Poland; Budapest, Hungary; Vancouver, British Columbia; Japan; and throughout the United States. He also taught sculpture for nearly a decade at Columbia University, Harvard University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Since the early 2000s, he has called New York City home, and soon he’ll be opening a new studio in South Bronx.

Photo by Chris Roque for UAP

Featuring a layered mix of imagery and symbols that draw from global cultural influences, history is one of the main subjects and mediums of Biggers’ multidisciplinary practice. His work rejects the idea of a single, tidy narrative or a lone source of truth. Conflicting perspectives and histories jostle and merge in a transcendent vision of time and history that’s anything but linear or past. He has created works of all scales from a range of media and genres, including video, performance, marble, sand, bronze, latex, feathers, mirrors, and paint. In works examining police shootings of Black Americans, including BAM (for Michael), Biggers dipped African sculptures in wax, “resculpted” them with bullets at a shooting range while filming the process, and recast the figures in bronze, a process he details in his 2016 TED talk, “An Artist’s Unflinching Look at Racial Violence.” Reworked and embellished pre-1900 American quilts are another central material—and the primary focus of Codeswitch, his recent solo show at the Bronx Museum with an accompanying monograph. Details of his quilt-based pieces are on view in murals around the Rockefeller Center campus. Through explorations of code switching, mandalas and circular movement, sacred geometry, race history, art history, hip-hop, mythology, science fiction, and abstraction (to name a few), each material and genre that Biggers employs is another means to further the ongoing messages of his art.

In addition to making visual art, Biggers leads Moon Medicin, an experimental five-piece band with its own shapeshifting Chimera-like spirit. Often clad in costumes with a backdrop of found photos and video footage, their surrealist performances mix political satire and black humor, taking audiences on a surrealist funk journey. “There's a lot of moments of the absurd, but all backed by pretty serious musicianship,” Biggers says. Fun fact: André Cymone, Prince’s original bassist and Biggers’ longtime friend, plays bass for Moon Medicin. The band’s music plays through speakers around the Rockefeller Center campus—part of a playlist that Biggers curated.

Loose, abstract storylines that Biggers first explored in his monumental 2011 exhibition at MASS MoCA called The Cartographer’s Conundrum continue in this new installation at Rockefeller Center. “It follows a hypothetical, quasi-sci-fi journey of a cartographer who’s just going through different periods of time and learning about cultures through relics [...] They don’t have to necessarily be objects; they can be poems, sound, video, and so on. But all of those strung together seemed to create narrative in my mind,” Biggers explains. “And I think the works that are in the Rockefeller [Center] installation are part of that narrative.”

Photo by Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund

For Biggers, having the Rockefeller Center installation come to fruition after years in development is an achievement. “Being a New Yorker and doing anything at Rockefeller Center is huge. It’s just so steeped in history and it’s a truly New York experience. I feel very honored to be part of that tradition and to be able to interact with my city in this way,” he says. “The whole complex itself has such historical and cultural significance for New York, and [...] such a rich visual history. I’m extremely excited about putting in more myth and references and playing with some of that history within the content of the installation itself.”

The spring timing of the show’s opening feels serendipitous to Biggers. “People are reemerging from a very, very, very long hibernation,” he notes. And art awaits. The installation is an invitation to get outside the homes where we’ve been cooped up, get fresh air, see art in person, explore. And, the closer you look into the layers and references and objects on display, the more you might discover. “It will reward the person who does the extra work, for sure,” Biggers says.

Sanford Biggers’ campus-wide exhibition is on view throughout Rockefeller Center through June 29. The Art in Focus installation, part of the larger exhibition, continues a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

Photo by Daniel Greer, courtesy of Art Production Fund

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