Philistines at the Gateway to SoHo
by Daniel Rothbart
I first experienced Forrest Myers’ installation The Wall as a child in the mid-seventies. I remember that it piqued my curiosity and I was drawn to it, but I didn’t really understand it. Over time, as it became part of my day to day reality, I began to appreciate its subtleties and particularly the play of light and powerful shadows that transform The Wall over the course of a day as the sun traverses the sky. I had become familiar with Forrest Myers’ Light Sculptures and came to see his wall as an extension of this work with shafts of light.
Three years ago, while walking on Broadway, I looked up and realized that The Wall was gone. I knew that the 599 Broadway condominium board had been litigating to remove the sculpture and assumed that the Philistines had won their case. The truth is more complex.
New York City widened Houston Street in the 1940s, and a building that stood beside 599 Broadway was demolished, leaving its interior wall still attached to the northern façade of its undamaged neighbor, bound with four-foot channel irons that projected out over the sidewalk. The effect was unseemly and Charles Tanenbaum, when he inherited the building years later, resolved to change it.
Tanenbaum contacted Doris Freedman, the director of an organization called City Walls, to view the site. City Walls (which later became The Public Art Fund) sought to realize contemporary art initiatives in the city through partnership between public and private entities. Freedman entered into dialogue with artist Forrest (Frosty) Myers, who had conceived his project for The Wall and when Tanenbaum approved, City Walls raised the $10,000 necessary to realize the work. The Wall was successfully installed in 1973, and soon became known as “The Gateway to SoHo.”
The Law Suit
Tanenbaum sold the building in the late seventies and in the eighties the building was converted into a condominium. The new owner wanted to remove The Wall but there was a community outcry and he backtracked, raising enough money to restore and repaint the sculpture. Nothing happened until 1997 when condo units were being sold and a man named David Topping wanted to remove it entirely to put up a billboard advertisement. The 599 Condominium offering plan had already suggested that this wall space could become a source of advertising revenue.
The Landmarks Commission told him he couldn’t touch the work and Topping brought a lawsuit against the Commission, the City of New York, and Forrest Myers. Topping insisted that he was being deprived of use of his property without just compensation, that he had been the victim of an arbitrary and capricious decision because other artworks had been removed without contention and finally because he believed his First Amendment rights were compromised because he hates Minimal Art.
Forrest Myers’ attorney Richard Altman filed ten counter claims and invoked the Visual Artist’s Rights Act (VARA), a 1990 statute, which says that a work of art cannot be destroyed if it has recognized stature. Altman also pointed out that the work had been up there for 30 years, so that Myers must have certain real estate rights
Who Owns What?
The Wall was built shortly before SoHo became a landmarked neighborhood, and because the building falls under the protection of the Landmarks Commission, the crucial issue became the question of ownership. Statuary and decorative art on a building is something owned by the building. If an outside party owns the art, it can represent an infraction of the owners’ rights.
The case went to trial on March 15 of this year. Topping claimed that The Wall belongs to City Walls. Doris Freedman, who originally raised money to build the piece, died in the late seventies and City Walls merged with The Public Art Fund. Charles Tanenbaum, the former landlord, was deposed in court where he exclaimed, “Of course I owned it!
The Judge rightly questioned if the work could be removed without destruction (like a fresco or a tile floor). Myers then explained that the building is part of the work. The Judge asked if it could be reassembled elsewhere.
“Would the Statue of Liberty work in Maine?” queried the artist.
When asked if he had created other site-specific works, Forrest Myers described The Lunar Lander, a work that accompanied Apollo 12 to the moon. It consisted of drawings by six artists that was conceived in 1969 when computer technology was first coming into come into prominence. The work included drawings etched into a ceramic tile (less than one-inch square). Forrest Myers, David Novros and John Chamberlain all drew geometric designs. Robert Rauschenberg drew a straight line, Andy Warhol a penis and Claus Oldenberg an image of Mickey Mouse. Lunar Lander was conceived for the moon where it resides to this day.
Columbia Professor and SoHo resident Rosalind Krauss testified to the importance of this work of art. She said it creates the perception of a ghost building on the other side (though at the time of her testimony she didn’t know about the other building that once existed to the north). She affirmed that it is site-specific and cannot be moved.
The condominium board fired back that The Wall is not a work of art because it is not copyrightable (geometric forms are often considered too simple to be copyrighted). Thankfully their argument made little impression on the judge who ruled on behalf of Myer’s claim. Topping and the condominium board have already filed an appeal.
The Wall, which was removed for structural repairs and cleaning, is scheduled to return to its façade in 2006. In these times, with the Arctic Refuge oil drilling on the horizon, it is comforting to know that some things are protected from runaway profiteering. I, for one, wish The Wall a healthy continued sojourn on its perch above Houston Street, constant yet ever-changing like the city beneath.
Since the writing of this article, US District Judge Deborah A. Batts has ruled against the City of New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Forrest Myers. Batts declared The Wall is owned by City Walls, Inc. and that the city must pay the owner just compensation if it requires the owner to restore the artwork. Furthermore, she ruled that Myers couldn’t compel the restoration of The Wall under the Visual Artist’s Rights Act. Adding insult to injury, the landlord has asked Judge Batts to award attorney’s fees against the City and Myers (some $500,000 for the City and $175,000 for Myers). Myers and the City of New York have appealed the decision.
The ruling is a major blow to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and bodes ill for the future of public art in this town. Judge Batts, with little thought to her karma or legacy, would destroy public artwork in the public name and grace us with the presence of yet another billboard on West Houston Street. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “Ads are the cave art of the twentieth century.”
© 2005 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.