Brett Littman on Frieze Sculpture 2020

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday September 10, 2020

Peggy Roalf: As Director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, you already had a strong connection to Rockefeller Center through a work by Isamu Noguchi commissioned in 1938. How did you become involved as Curator of Frieze Sculpture last year? Above: Red Earth by Andy Goldsworthy; photo courtesy of Frieze and Casey Kelbaugh

Brett Littman: I was approached to curate the inaugural Frieze Sculpture in NY by Loring Randolph, the former director of Frieze New York/Frieze Sculpture. She called me in November 2018, and said that she wanted to collaborate with Rockefeller Center to bring Frieze Sculpture to NY and kept passing Noguchi's News on the site and then thought of the Noguchi Museum and then of me to oversee and curate the project. I immediately said yes.

Isamu Noguchi's “News,” a 22-foot tall stainless-steel bas-relief showing a group of five reporters getting the scoop was commissioned in 1938 by the Associated Press for the façade of their building at 50 Rockefeller Plaza. It was Noguchi's first public commission in New York City. At the time it was the largest and heaviest stainless-steel artwork that had ever been made, and was heralded as a breakthrough collaboration between art and industry. The project was difficult for Noguchi. He was concerned about censorship by the Rockefellers after the Diego Rivera mural incident, so he presented a more politically neutral image than what he had submitted to other public competitions in the early-to-mid 30s.  

PR: Please tell the readers how Noguchi handled the Associated Press commission.

The relationship between the fabricators, General Alloys in Boston, and Noguchi was complicated. Although Noguchi was friendly with the CEO of the company, his frustrations about the pace of the fabrication and his active participation as a laborer and grinder on the floor of the factory led to friction between himself and management. He also went to the Rockefeller’s more than once to ask them to increase the budget of the project so he could keep up with the mounting costs of fabrication. He was denied each time. Fortunately, in the end Noguchi was able to persevere, and he installed this important figurative work to much fanfare and press in 1940.


PR: How did you go about identifying the areas in the Rockefeller Center campus that you felt would make ideal sites for sculpture?

BL:  Last year, in preparation for Frieze Sculpture 2019, which I also curated, I made many site visits to the campus before choosing locations for the 14 artists we showed. I was a true flaneur and walked through the whole campus, inside of building lobbies, in the concourses, in forgotten stairwells, and I looked at the more than 100 works of commissioned art throughout the compound, the building friezes, and architectural elements that already exist on the site. As well, in collaboration with Tishman Speyer we did surveys of ground conditions, talked to the gardeners and the engineers to determine placement feasibility considering weight and height limitations. So, for Frieze Sculpture 2020, I had a very good idea of all possible locations (some unusual) where art could go. Above: R.M.M. (Power Broker Purple) and R.M.M. (Organ, Organ, Organ Red) by Lena Henke; photo courtesy of Frieze and Casey Kelbaugh 

PR: How did you go about selecting the artists for the fair, and then match them up to the various sites?  

BL: In July 2019 we did an open call to the galleries who would have participated in Frieze NY 2020 [on Randall’s Island]. We sent the descriptive curatorial thesis for this year—which was the idea of the garden/nature in the middle of the urban environment—and then started to study the submissions to select the most appropriate works. Once we had developed a checklist (the original project was to include 15 artist and 19 works) we started to site the works both outdoors and indoors. I worked with Jonathan Marvel Architects to develop renderings of the sculptures so I could see what they would like at scale in situ—these drawings really helped me to determine the best locations for specific works. 

PR: In the first iteration of Frieze Sculpture, last year, you included several indoor spaces. Could you talk a bit about your decision to place some of the work indoors? 

BL: Last year I was interested in the juxtaposition of certain pieces with existing art and architecture on the site. For example, in the spare white-on-white marble lobby of 1 Rockefeller Plaza hangs “Man and Nature” by Carl Milles, made in 1941; this is a series of hand carved wooden sculptures and a small silver bird that flutters its wings and chirps on the hour. I sited here three elements from Walter De Maria's “Truth and Beauty,” comprised of 17 sets of four steel rods in a chevron or X pattern on top of marble bases that have the inscription, “Truth and Beauty”. The work as a whole is about sequenced repetition. By pairing Milles and De Maria, we have man, nature, truth, and beauty all in one place.


PR: This year, the works are more concentrated, occupying the Channel Gardens and the 30 Rockefeller Plaza area. What led you to this decision?

BL: Well, this year I was always planning to do a site-specific piece in the Channel Garden with an artist using botanical material as the foundation of the sculpture. Ghada Amer’s “Women’s Qualities” was a perfect work for that site—I am really lucky to have been able to commission her to do the second iteration of that garden piece for Rockefeller Center.  My other choices were a result of Covid-19 socially distanced restrictions, although, honestly that only really affected the location of one piece. I had to move Beatriz Cortez’s “Glacial Erratic,” which actually found a better home right in the center of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Above: Women's Qualities by Ghada Amer; photo courtesy of Frieze and Casey Kelbaugh

PR: The themes of this year’s fair deal with range of issues, including women’s suffrage, migration, urban planning, and ecology. How did these ideas come together, and how did you use them to work with the sculptors in bringing their work to public view?

Left: Glacial Erratic by Beatriz Cortez; photo courtesy of Peggy Roalf

BL:  These ideas were already inherent in the pieces I choose for the project. I see my role as the curator of this outdoor sculpture park as making sure that all of the logistics work, finding the best location for the sculptures so they work well on site. Lastly, it was important to tie the whole experience together for viewers as they walk through the site so they can understand the artists’ intentions of specific pieces as well as my curatorial theme. 

PR: How did the idea of commissioning an artist for a new set of flags surrounding the skating rink space arise?

BL: I did a flag commission with the artist Ibrahim Mahama in 2019 and was already thinking about possible artists to work with on a new flag commission in 2020. I reached out to Galerie Lelong to see if Andy Goldsworthy would want to participate in the project and he said yes. We did a site visit together at Rockefeller Center in late 2019 and he was immediate drawn to the flag poles. Two days later, Andy sent me drawings and description of “Red Earth,” the project that is up now. It was amazing that he could conceive of such a complex piece in such a short amount of time—but Andy is probably one of handful of artists whose work is so imbedded into the environment that this kind of thinking is almost second nature to him.  

PR: How many of the works in Frieze Sculpture 2020 commissions?

BL: There are three site specific works for Frieze Sculpture 2020; Ghada Amer’s “Garden,” Andy Goldsworthy’s “Red Flags” and Thaddeus Mosley’s three new bronze sculptures at 5th Avenue. Each project was developed in collaboration with the artists, their galleries, and Rockefeller Center. In the case of Ghada’s project, we worked with Future Green, the landscape designers who create the flowers and fauna installations for the Channel Gardens several times each year. 


PR: I understand that you visited Thaddeus Moseley in his studio, in Pittsburgh. How would you characterize his 60-year career as a self-taught artist? Could you describe his process of working from discarded wood and then executing the resulting work in bronze? Above: Illusory Progression, True to Myth, and Rhizogenic Rhythms by Thaddeus Mosley; photo courtesy of Frieze and Casey Kelbaugh

BL:  Thaddeus is an amazing artist and also an amazing human being. He has made art continuously for 60 years due to his vision and need to work with hands and desire to create new forms in wood. He did attend art school—so I am not sure that I would call him self-taught—but he is auto-didactic in terms of the wide base of knowledge he has about how objects are made. 

These new bronze sculptures are Thaddeus’ first editioned outdoor works in his career. His gallery Karma, in New York City, put Thaddeus and UAP together and they developed specific processes to cast his wooden works in bronze so that the wood grain, chisel marks and patina would be very close to the originals.   

Right: Illusory Progression, True to Myth, and Rhizogenic Rhythms by Thaddeus Mosley; photo courtesy of Peggy Roalf

PR: What is there about sculpture created on a heroic scale that appeals to you?

BL:I am actually a bit ambivalent about the idea of heroic scale. In 2019 and 2020 projects for Frieze I would say that I was more interested in human-scale sculpture and how that feels to experience and walk around in the historic site of Rockefeller Center. For me the idea of the urban sculpture garden should move away from grand gestures, oversized work and big statements. 

PR: What is there about organizing a showing of public art at this scale, on this historic site, that is satisfying to you as a curator? 

BL: To be able to make culture at this scale in the middle of New York City at one of the most iconic sites in the world is truly a great honor. Probably a once in lifetime experience. 

PR: Visitors will be seeing the sculpture installed amid one of the great urban settings of the of the 20th Century. How do you feel that this combination of art and architecture will enhance the visitor experience?

BL: The placements of the works are made with a conscious eye towards juxtapositions with the existing fabric and architecture of Rockefeller Center and so my goal with Frieze Sculpture is to allow viewers to see things anew and through the lens of contemporary art on a site that we often take for granted.  

Frieze Sculpture 2020 continues through October 2 at Rockefeller Center. Info PRinterview


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