What Becomes Legend?

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday July 20, 2023

Public art has the power to uplift a city. This has been proven true in New York City, which now has numerous foundations devoted to installing large-scale sculpture in places where people gather. From Doris Freedman Plaza at Central Park, to City Hall, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line and beyond. But some pieces become legends. It’s impossible to say why, exactly, but here are a few examples.



Sunday, July 23, 5:30 pm: Celebrate The Cube’s Return

Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo, installed at Astor Square in 1967, has outlasted all expectations—including those of the artist. The eight-foot high, 1,800-pound painted Cor-Ten steel cube, which spins on one of its points, came to a halt earlier this year, and began listing sideways. It was removed in May and restored by Versteeg Art Fabricators, which has been making interim repairs and touch-ups since 2005. After spending last weekend at the Hamptons Art Fair, it was reinstalled to its home earlier this week. Photo above © copyright and courtesy of Ajay Suresh

The public artwork, one of 23 in D.O.T.’s permanent art portfolio, has sat at the location since 1967, when the spot was merely a triangular traffic island. In 2016, one block of Astor Place roadway was closed between Lafayette Street and Cooper Square, creating what the city has dubbed Alamo Plaza — though most people still probably just known it as Astor Place. The Cube is one of the city’s most beloved landarks, and for college students and visitors, something of a rite of passage. 

“I get asked very often what makes a great work of public art,” Kendal Henry, the assistant commissioner of public art at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, said at the Tuesday unveiling. “You know when a work of art was supposed to be up for six months, but [after] over 50 years it’s still here; you know when a piece is damaged not from vandalism, but from love of use; you know when it becomes an urban legend—is there a man living in the cube?—and you know when other artists are using the image in their own artwork.… This, I dare say, is one of the most successful works of art in New York City

This Sunday, you can give The Cube a spin at a party sponsored by the Village Alliance (which looks after its day-to-day maintenance) and Joe’s Pub. 



LOVE returns to Rockefeller Center in September

Robert Indiana’s LOVE began its public life as a MoMA Christmas card in 1965, and went on to become the museum’s most lucrative holiday card. The design became so popular that it appears in hospital waiting rooms all over town even today. Its life as a large-scale sculpture began with a commission to produce it in Cor-Ten steel, in 1970, which has been issued in more than 50 editions sited from New York to Tokyo (below). LOVE became a first-class postage stamp in 1973 and in 2008, Indiana transformed it into the HOPE logo for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

The LOVE that’s loved by New Yorkers first appeared at the entrance to Central Park, now called Doris Freedman Plaza in honor of the city’s first chief of Cultural Affairs, who commissioned the work in 1970. Until last year, it has occupied a small plaza on Sixth Avenue at 55th Street (above), until it was removed for restoration by Lippencott Foundry — which also fabricated Rosenthal's Alamo. There’s no doubt as to its influence on other artists, the most recent of which is exemplified by LAND, by Nicholas Galanin, currently installed in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

While it catapulted him to global fame, LOVE largely overshadowed all his other work, with Indiana himself rejecting the Pop art label: “I was the least Pop of all the Pop artists,” he said. The widespread popularity of LOVE also led many of his contemporaries to label him a sell-out, though Indiana did not enjoy a great deal of financial success from the work; he never copyrighted his designs, which led to unauthorized reproductions. 

But if you want to celebrate the original, you’ll have to wait until fall. From Wednesday, September 13 through Tuesday, October 24, Rockefeller Center—in partnership with The Robert Indiana Legacy Initiative—will install artworks from Robert Indiana throughout its landmark campus, including the long-awaited return of his LOVE sculpture to the Central Plaza. 



Pamela Rosenkranz | Old Tree, on the High Line

My nominee for New York’s next accidentally permanent sculpture installation is Old Tree, a 25-foot-tallpainted steel work by the Swiss-born, Zurich-based artist Pamela Rosenk ranz. On view through the Fall, the piece has justly taken on status as one of the city’s iconic places to gather. A scale model of the work was shown at the Sprüth Magers and Karma International joint booth at Frieze NY 2023 and was continuously mobbed by fairgoers. 

Rosenkranz’s work reflects on the human need to anthropomorphize our surroundings in order to understand them. In doing so, she investigates the codes through which people give meaning to the natural world. On the High Line—a contemporary urban park built on a relic of industry—Old Tree raises questions about what is truly “artificial” or “natural” in our world. Made of man-made materials and painted in startling shades of pink and red, it provides a social space while casting an ever-changing, luminous aura amid New York’s changing seasons. See the video