Featured image: Bahar Behbahani, "Eram, "Oil, acrylic, crayon, marker on canvas, 72 x 54 inches / 183 x 137 centimeters
Whether or not Tolstoy was right in suggesting that only art is capable of setting violence aside, artists have long been uniquely positioned to rouse, revolt, speculate, complicate, tell the truth, and offer protest and possibility in polarized and violent times.
In collaboration with Creative Capital, the nonprofit known for supporting provocative and progressive work, and which in 2019 celebrated its 20th year of funding and advising artists, LARB has published nearly a dozen essays over the last year on issues facing contemporary art in the United States. Each contributor focuses on a particular year of Creative Capital’s history and/or on a specific artist, beginning with Johanna Fateman’s introduction to the series, which reflected on the founding of Creative Capital (1999) in response to the subsequent decreases in federal funding for individual artists. Essays by Eunsong Kim, Yxta Maya Murray, Greg Allen, Orit Gat, Greg Youmans, Rahel Aima, Claudia La Rocco, Andrew Russeth, and Paddy Johnson followed. In this essay, Wendy S. Walters concludes the series from the viewpoint of catastrophe in late 2020.
Together, the essays in this series reflect the current state of arts writing as a field, just as they reveal the myriad ways that art matters now as much as ever.
IN LATE OCTOBER 2020, a crane on the side of an 85-story tower whipped around in the wind, smashed through the building’s facade, and sent debris raining down onto a street in midtown Manhattan. This skyscraper, built over the former Steinway & Sons piano showroom, is one of many aggressively slim, luxury residential towers constructed over the last decade on 57th Street. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the chunks of steel, concrete, and glass cascading to the ground came across as an overstatement about the ways the world on high and below seemed destined for collision.
The Steinway Tower is one of many luxury buildings situated on 57th Street, now known as Billionaire’s Row, in part for the remarkable prices the apartments command. In 2017, a report from the Municipal Art Society called The Accidental Skyline noted that these new towers, clustered like spikes hammered into the trunk of the city, inspire a particular concern because of their potential to cast shadows over the future gardens at the southern end of Central Park.
The skyscraper and garden both accommodate speculative thinking about growth, though they represent different ways of occupying space. To look at them together is, perhaps, an attempt to bridge the competing ambitions of wanting to see a space open to cultivation and to hold all the space as one’s own. This dynamic is reminiscent of the ideas of Le Corbusier, whose grim vision of urban life comes through in his plan Radiant City, a cluster of high-rise towers built atop the ruins of a formerly vibrant community. His obsession with dense rows of residential towers is mitigated slightly by his affection for rooftop gardens, which he imagined would provide a source of pleasure and protection for the roof. In his vision, the cultivated botanical world sits triumphantly over shared housing. Le Corbusier’s hierarchy of value was not rooted in any sense of environmental concern but rather in his affinity for simple shapes and colors, as he was searching for clear lines to define all the moments that followed the catastrophe of war.
I have also stood in catastrophe, witnessing the crane accident midway through a pandemic with more than 400,000 deaths, and which, at that time, showed no sign of end. So, when I saw the image of the crane spinning in the wind, I disliked the building it was affixed to even more than I regularly do. Its contribution to the chaos of the moment was a further affirmation of my suspicion that the sky was falling.
The Steinway Tower is also awesome to behold, thanks to its southern face, a decrescendo of glass planes slipping downward, as though they are in motion. From the park side view, it looks like a shimmering brushstroke, deftly controlled and still wet with impulse. The flipside of dislike is affection, of course, especially in the context of critique, which allows one to point out specific reasons why a thing does not work for them when deep down, they wanted it to. One can only name a problem after recognizing it, and this often requires deep engagement and study. I think it is a misdeed not to recognize this kind of attention from the writer as affection, especially in the realm of nonfiction, as hyper-focus, which could be read as a kind of affection. This is not always the case, but sometimes, it is, indeed, the case.
Two artists who navigate the space between aversion and regard much better than I seem to are Alan Ruiz and Bahar Behbahani, both of whom are developing large-scale, multi-year projects that reimagine ways of thinking about space in the city: Ruiz’s project considers the value of the air, and Behbahani’s focuses on the ground. Both projects demonstrate an appreciation of the possibilities of shared space and offer a critique of the practices of ownership that might subvert it.
Ruiz’s Spatial Alchemy is described as “part of an ongoing body of work that explores the way seemingly benign architectural and environmental elements reflect or reproduce social hierarchies.” One facet of this research is dedicated to the legal form of property called “air rights” and “the privatization of sunlight.”
Ruiz, whose practice sits at the intersection of art and architecture, explains that one goal of his work is “to show what is already there.” While in graduate school at Yale, Ruiz studied painting but found himself drawn to architecture. In our conversation by phone, he noted how materials he works with are “indexical of social relations.” His sculptural work borrows from a language of architectural enclosures often associated with contracts. He remarked, “I really wanted to highlight that this seemingly benign and totally banal document, like the contract form, indexes the power relation between two or more parties.” The first successful iteration of this project was the leasing of the air rights for a small residential property registered with the city’s financial department. The contract for this lease is held in a municipal archive of property records in New York City. “The contract is now a public artwork. The record of it will be permanently indexed within the city’s archives.”
Ruiz recognizes the role an architect or administrator plays in making a space visible: “What was interesting to me about this particular project in relationship to air rights and the contract form itself,” he told me in our conversation, “is that air is an invisible immaterial element. It’s a kind of immaterial asset in this case that’s only given physical representation through either physical enclosure, such as when a building is built or when that contract is somehow registered. I was interested in how one could make visible the invisible somehow.” The next iteration of this project, a piece that considers the air rights of The Kitchen in New York City, will premiere there in June 2021.
Having also begun her career as a painter, Bahar Behbahani says she is “more interested in raising questions to be able to find solutions.” Her project, Ispahan Flowers Only Once, is, as she explains it,
comprised of a long-format video and building a community garden in the city of New York. The video explores the artist’s personal relationship with American scholar, Donald Wilber, and his duality as a historic expert in Persian gardens and a spy who secretly orchestrated the 1953 CIA coup in Iran. The community garden, inspired by Persian garden design, philosophy, plants, and flora will bring people together to take part and re-activate the history by gathering and gardening through conversations, screenings, readings, and performances around politics and poetics of the garden.
The Persian garden, however, is more than the locus of an aesthetic. “When one thinks about a garden in Iran,” Behbahani told me, “one immediately comes up with a lush oasis in the middle of the arid area: beautiful, romantic. Part of this is the fruit of Orientalism and the European imagination. But then, on the other hand, these gardens are made in very harsh nature, with droughts and floods.” She further emphasizes that the project also reflects on “the politics around water.” The garden, like the city, is a locus of intersecting concerns, and given the role that wildfires and floods have played in reshaping communities worldwide during this difficult year, perhaps worthy of more critical attention.
Behbahani explained that her ongoing project also incorporates the issues of “climate, environmental justice, and all the symptomatic problems of art history and visual art.” At this intersection, she sees an opportunity for building community and collaboration. She said, “I’m hoping that there are other like-minded people who come behind it, and we all make it, build and cultivate it together.” There is hope that she will secure a suitable location for her project soon.
In these times, collisions between the real and imagined world seem inevitable, and it makes sense that artists would be offering new ways to think about this phenomenon. Behbahani’s project points to a future in which Western versions of history can be reconsidered alongside individual experiences of place. Ruiz’s project provokes us to think about how space is created through legal agreements. Both offer a way for us to engage the largeness of the coming era and signal the growing significance of the artist in defining it.
Wendy S. Walters directs the graduate Nonfiction Concentration at Columbia University and is working on a book about paint. She is the author of Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal and two books of poetry.