Sidewalk Geometry

By Marie CatalanoFebruary 2, 2024

Sidewalk Geometry
BETTINA NEW YORK: 1965–1986, Ulrik, New York, November 18, 2023–February 1, 2024.

“If you saw a building doing this, would you rather sleep—or shoot it?,” asks a 92-year-old Bettina while holding up one of her photographs in the documentary Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel (2022). The black-and-white image contains a wavering Manhattan skyscraper, unhinged at its top tier as if throwing its head back in laughter. An artist who lived and worked alone in the Chelsea Hotel, Bettina took this photo as part of her 1970s Phenomenological New York series, which captures distortions and patterns reflected in mirrored building facades that twist, stretch, ripple, and fragment the city’s architecture and its inhabitants. To her, these were glimpses of a divine force at play. Sometimes Bettina arranged them into linear montages, other times grids, rotating them like quilt squares. Over three decades after their making, these photographs were displayed publicly for the first time at Ulrik in New York, as part of New York: 1965–1986, both Bettina’s first solo show in the city since the 1980s and the first since her death in 2021. 

The exhibition prominently features a second series alongside the photographs: nine fanlike wooden constructions that unfurl across a grid of mirror-topped pedestals in the center of the room. Though ostensibly distinct, these sculptures all belong to the same torqued world as Bettina’s photos. Entitled One Constant. Euclidean to Non-Euclidean Curve (1972–73), these works take the form of wooden slats twisted around an axis. The photographs also began with a constant: the city’s buildings, around which Bettina moved with her camera. The works’ modest scale and simple materials belie their complexity. Informed by mathematics and mysticism, Bettina used her embodied perspective to explore spatial possibilities of the built environment. While she never created work larger than what she could hold in her hands, Bettina imagined that these wooden constructions could be exhibited as public sculptures. Examining these series together, I’m reminded of proposals for unrealized earthworks by artists like Agnes Denes and Nancy Holt, who similarly perceived their environments in radical ways. Bettina and her contemporaries used their cosmological perspective to reimagine space and their place within it. Rather than concern herself with the logistics of monumental fabrication, Bettina remained focused on the city as she saw it: full of patterns waiting to be found.

LARB Contributor

Marie Catalano is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn, New York. Her current research centers on art in public space and exhibition histories. In 2022, she was awarded a fellowship from Emory University in support of her research on Art Across the Park, an exhibition of ephemeral installations and performances initiated by David Hammons in New York’s Central Park. She currently teaches at New York University.


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