Crafting Manhattan

Crafting Manhattan


Helena Hernmarck, seasons tapestries, mid-2000s; Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle. Photo: Andrew de Lory

Elizabeth Felicella

This fall, the Museum of Arts and Design opens its latest, much anticipated installment of The Centenary Project, a series of exhibitions that investigate American craft of the 20th century. "Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design" features works in a variety of mediums by more than 160 artists and designers who explore craft, design, and the transformation of American life from 1945 through the 1960s. As such, it promises to be the most comprehensive show on postwar craft to date.

However, neither the standalone objects of greats like Alex­­ander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, Sheila Hicks, and Lenore Tawney nor MAD's comprehensive catalog can fully express the impact the era's makers had on the built environment. With the blossoming of the studio craft movement, postwar America also experienced a building boom. Many of these spaces produced opportunities for commissions of large-scale, site-specific work.

"Both architects and artists feel that new buildings need new kinds of ornamentation," critic Eleanor Bittermann wrote in her 1952 book, Art in Modern Architecture. "Occasionally a new structure develops a new kind of art," she observed. She could not have been more right.

Above are sites where such new art can be seen in (or near) Manhattan. If you visit MAD's landmark exhibition (Oct. 12 - Jan. 15, 2012), check them out. Read "All This and More" for a glimpse of the show, and if you'd like a copy of the map as it appeared in the Oct./Nov. issue, you can download the PDF below.

Algernon Miller, Tree of Hope III
A proud evocation of Harlem's original wishing tree in the green space bisecting Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., this mod "tree" is by an artist represented in MAD's "Global Africa" show who also rede­sign­ed the new Frederick Douglass Circle.

Lenore Tawney, Nativity in Nature
This magnificent early work by the late weaver presents a harmonious composition of texture and color that can be enjoyed in the ground-floor chapel's narthex, with Israel Levitan's "starlight" ceiling.

Max Spivak, glass mosaic
Colorful, organic shapes by the self-proclaimed "mosaic craftsman" seem meant for Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop, but were, in fact, made for Riker's Cafeteria, which originally had an interior mosaic. Quick action by a preservationist saved the exterior.

Henry Varnum Poor, Central Park
This wall-sized mural shows the early studio potter's knack for the large-scale, honed in the 1930s, and skillful surface handling of his late career. The playful subject was intended to distract sick children and worried caregivers.

Costantino Nivola, sand-cast concrete playground
The Sardinian-born sculptor's plump horsies, sparkling with marble dust and augmented by his fountains, a large figure (looming like a watchful nanny, according to Time magazine), and abstract sgraffito murals enliven otherwise bland public housing.

Adolph Gottlieb, stained glass windows
The abstract expressionist painter's "pictographs" represent traditional emblems, religious ritual, biblical events and holidays, in colors that the Bible says God commanded Moses to use for the Tabernacle. Made for the 1954 Milton Steinberg House; several can be seen at street level in its 1980 replacement.

"Highlights of Modern Design II," Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nestled on the first floor among the museum's modern and contemporary art galleries are several stunning postwar works, including Alex­an­der Calder's Jealous Husband necklace and Anni Albers' Pasture, in a temporary installation.

Alexander Calder, sidewalk
The only sidewalk the sculptor ever designed was for his dealer, Klaus Perls (who showed Calder's jewelry from 1954), and the galleries on either side. The zinc-lined black and white terrazzo "Portuguese pavement" was restored in 2002.

Helena Hernmarck, seasons tapestries
Photo-realistic tapestries by the Swedish-born weaver (with the Alice Lund Textilier Borlänge) in the lobby are viewable from W. 58th Street. Seasonally rotating, they echo nearby Central Park.

Isamu Noguchi, Landscape of the Cloud
For the lobby, Noguchi created sublime cloudscapes of thin railings and a floor-to-ceiling waterfall in aluminum and stainless steel, which ties it to the iconic building's metal-clad exterior. Devotees should also visit the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City and Red Cube at 140 Broadway.

Hans Hofmann, mosaic mural
One of the most influential abstract painting instructors also created lively mosaics for modern buildings. This one can be seen outside the former New York School of Printing in Hell's Kitchen, near the Theater District.

Lee Krasner and Ronald Stein, mosaic murals
Life after Pollock meant working big - really big. The larger of two murals for the Uris Brothers building is 86 feet long. (The smaller one is on the Broad Street side.) Krasner and her nephew used broken Italian glass, albeit hands-off, as unionized labor installed the work.

The Russel Wright Design Center
Well worth the day trip, the Hudson Highlands home of Russel Wright effectively demonstrates the "easier living" advocated by the designer and his wife, Mary, who revolutionized American homes with tableware, furniture, and textiles.

Caroline Hannah is a design historian in New York.