Public art: Controversial, uncomfortable, and good for the neighborhood

“Chonk On,” by Mark di Suvero

While riding my bicycle a few months ago past The School: Jack Shainman Gallery—a stunning, year-old kunsthalle just around the corner from my home in the Hudson Valley—I was surprised by the appearance on the gallery’s front lawn of a magnificent, red-hued sculpture by the artist Mark di Suvero.

The sculpture, entitled Chonk On, is constructed of Cor-ten steel, one of the award-winning sculptor’s favored materials. Like most of di Suvero’s mature work, the sculpture’s power lies in the sleight-of-hand the artist conjures when he lends an appearance of delicacy and weightlessness to this heavy-duty material.

My response to seeing the sculpture that first day could best be described as unreserved delight. The piece’s complex interlocking of steel beams reminded me of a kinetically charged troupe of dancers whose muscular limbs and arched bodies lean into one another, teetering on the edge of toppling over but held in precarious balance through the cooperative strain of mutual support. The exhilaration of that first viewing, however, was quickly followed by the suspicion that the unexpected and startling appearance of this twenty-foot-high, mega-ton exclamation point in the otherwise staid, predictable narrative of the tiny historic village where I reside probably would cause ripples of discomfort and more than a smattering of controversy.

The installation of an industrial-strength sculpture like Chonk On in an urban square or out in the fields of a sculpture park is no longer surprising. In fact, such installations have become an urban-planning and art world cliché. Chonk On packs an altogether different visual punch when planted in the middle of a collection of lush residential lawns, clapboard siding and weathered brick, colonial fanlights, Palladian windows, and Greek-revival trim. The stark contrast between the aesthetics of the old and the shock of the new initiates a visual conversation that is deeply provocative and radical to its core.

Over the next few weeks, I was pleased to discover that my concerns about negative pushback to the sculpture would prove to be unwarranted. Initial speculation about the sculptor’s intent was rife with charges of thinly veiled erotic content and phallic allusion. Over time even those rumors faded. Later, when it became known that an outspoken coterie had decided to object officially to the sculpture’s installation, the majority of the community rallied to express support for the sculpture and the gallery’s decision to install it. In a packed public meeting, one neighbor after another spoke eloquently of their gratitude for the opportunity to be able to view such accomplished and acclaimed art in their own community. One resident went so far as to describe the community’s response as “a love fest.”

I began to wonder. Was it possible that this small community—highly conservative in outlook and deeply invested in its traditional historic lineage—had understood the installation of di Suvero’s quintessentially contemporary sculpture not as an interloper into an historic context but as an energizing counterpoint? Could it be, I thought, that the presence of the sculpture had inspired in more residents than just myself a fundamental questioning of how we perceive our shared environment and how we define its place in the contemporary world?

“Dirty Corner,” by Anish Kapoor

These questions and the social dialogue they engender is the essence of what engaged art hopes to achieve. Contemporary artists who share di Suvero’s drive to exhibit on public turf and brave the controversy, like Richard Serra, the minimalist sculptor and bête noire of the infamous Tilted Arc, or Jeff Koons, or Christo, or Maya Lin, or Andy Goldsworthy, or Anish Kapoor (who dared to install within the manicured gardens of the Palais de Versailles a sculpture called Dirty Corner—now dubbed the “queen’s vagina”) understand that the most effective setting for inspiring oft-times unsettling social dialogue is within the public sphere.


“Atlas Obscura,” by Jeff Koons

After all, unlike the controlled environs of the museum or gallery, public space is accessible to all, raucously multifunctional, and largely unpredictable. Unlike art contained within white walls, public art doesn’t beckon from behind closed doors where mainly art lovers or the intellectually curious make a conscious choice to enter and engage in the dialogue. Public art is not polite nor demure. It thrusts itself bluntly into an otherwise open, familiar space and forces the unsuspecting viewer to become the unsuspecting constructor of meaning. For many, this unsolicited and often unwanted confrontation—particularly within an historic context—is deeply uncomfortable. And why shouldn’t it be, since most of us seek out the comfort and balance of the familiar and would rather not have anything (especially art, thank you very much) disrupt our carefully constructed zone of comfort.

I suspect that every gallerist, museum curator, and public official or government bureaucrat who approves the installation of art on public turf is well aware of the discomfort and controversy such works might inspire. But challenging the status quo is exactly the point.

Di Suvero himself lays out the argument for embracing the challenge when he admits that he wants to inspire the viewers of his work to “think differently about their lives, about their cooperative relationship with the art, with their world, with their neighbors.”


The School: Jack Shainman Gallery is located in the Village of Kinderhook, two and one-half hours north of New York City.

Information about the current exhibitions, “Winter in America,” A Multimedia Group Exhibition Including Works by Artists Representing 15 Countries, and “Room with View,” The Sculpture and Drawings of Mark di Suvero, can be found at