There's a treasure trove of free sculpture art to admire in the city-who knew?
New York City offers $250 million of postwar art—free? Well, yes and no. Most of New York’s great contemporary art is indeed in private homes and pricey museums, but many masterpieces and near-masterpieces—the kind that would fetch stunning prices, if you care about such things, and you probably do—are actually very easy to gawk at.
The price of a drink will buy you a look at a legendary suite of Warhols in midtown; a stroll down Fifth Avenue an abundance of far-better-than-usual public art. Other works worth discovering are found in corporate lobbies, subway tunnels, warehouses or a Harlem playground. Here, a no-cost skim of the city’s best free-view art from the 1950s and beyond (we’ll flag the classics another day):
Alice, José de Creeft, 1959
Central Park, with more than two-dozen statues—including a 3,000-year-old monolith from Egypt and a delightful dancing-animal clock in the zoo—is an embarrassment of sculptural riches. And none is as beloved as the Alice in Wonderland statue at 74th Street adjacent to the boat pond. The giant bronze heroine is surrounded by her friends and oversize mushrooms worn smooth over the years from children’s climbing and sliding. Designed by Creeft, who taught at the Art Students League, it was commissioned by George Delacorte, Jr. Fun fact: The artist put Delacorte’s face on the Mad Hatter.
Mural with Blue Brushstroke, Roy Lichtenstein, 1986
This mural is breathtaking for its sheer size alone– it’s five stories high. Owning the atrium of the Axa Equitable building at 787 Seventh Avenue, the work features motifs from Lichtenstein’s career: a beach ball, a sponge, a sunrise. When it was unveiled, The New York Times dubbed it “an event of major artistic importance.”
My Coney Island Baby, Robert Wilson, 2004
Walls of New York City subway stations feature artworks by major names including Eric Fischl and Romare Bearden (he’s got a fine stained-glass triptych at the East Fremont station). But one of our favorites is of Robert Wilson’s (he of Einstein on the Beach). It’s a multi-paneled mosaic in the Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue station. Showing kids and bumper cars, and a giant Wonder Wheel, it’s both vivid art and advertisement of the legendary amusement park above.
The Earth Room, Walter De Maria, 1977
This one is marvelous, and little-known. Artist Walter De Maria’s Earth Room is exactly that: a room in 141 Wooster St. filled with 280,000 pounds of rich, deep dirt smelling like the country and the planet. Sometimes, mushrooms and blades of dirt sprout up, although a Dia Foundation curator is there to cull them out. Soothing, shocking and surprisingly affecting, it’s one of the more unique spaces in New York.
"A slew of frantic, cartoonish figures on a traffic-cone orange background, (Haring's Crack is Wack) is one of the few works by the pioneer street artist that is still on street view."
Wall Drawing No. 896, Colors/Curves, Sol LeWitt, 1999
When Christie’s auction house relocated to 20 Rockefeller Center, it decided to honor the complex’s tradition of great public art (Diego Rivera did a mural, now gone, for Rock Center.) It commissioned minimalist LeWitt, who complied with a bold, glossy, abstract riot of color floor-to-ceiling in the lobby. But Christie’s is on the list for another reason: it (and Sotheby’s, at 1300 York Avenue) displays the art that will be for sale the following week. These installations are both flat-out terrific, and free.
Single Form, Barbara Hepworth, 1961-1964
The United Nations has a fine art collection – Leger, Chagall, etc. – but this monumental work by Barbara Hepworth is visible from the street. A salute to U.N. secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld, the giant, monochromatic slab of bronze climbs up 21 feet and yet is surprisingly graceful.
Crack is Wack, Keith Haring, 1986
In the most unlikely of places, in a 128th Street playground just a few feet from a busy highway, is Keith Haring’s two-sided anti-drug mural. A slew of frantic, cartoonish figures on a traffic-cone orange background, it’s one of the few works by the pioneer street artist that is still on street view. The mural has achieved official recognition by the city: The park is now labeled, on a metal plaque at its entrance, the “Crack is Wack Playground.”
Celebrity Series, Andy Warhol, 1970s-1980s
Highlights of Andy Warhol’s celebrity series portraits get pride of place in Midtown’s Casa Lever restaurant. The bar affords a view of Dennis Hopper, cowboy hatted, Giorgio Armani, and Aretha Franklin, along with fashion and actor types (the collection rotates). The long, swanky space has a 1970s airport lounge aesthetic: a Milanese eatery as an Italian futurist might have designed it. Just outside the restaurant, owner Rosen usually has sculptures on loan from his huge collection on display.
Looking Toward the Avenue, Jim Dine, 1989
Perhaps Sixth Avenue’s most iconic sculptures, three Venus de Milo-inspired figures, headless, armless and topless, rise at the fountains in front of 1301 Sixth Avenue. The trio of green patina-ed goddesses hold their own against the skyscrapers. For a museum-quality stroll, start there, turn two blocks downtown, and there’s Robert Indiana’s iconic Love. Cut from Fifth to Sixth on 53rd, and there’s not quite a sculpture but a bit of history: a big chunk of the Berlin wall. At 666 Fifth, a lovely garden-set Isamu Noguchi waterfall screen marks the lobby. And at 510 Fifth, in the Joe Fresh store, is a recently restored 1964 Harry Bertoia nickel, copper and bronze screen, dubbed by The New York Times a “midcentury masterwork.”
Jose de Creeft: Central Park Conservancy
Roy Lichtenstein: Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Robert Wilson: Rob Wilson
Walter De Maria: John Cliett
Sol LeWitt: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2013
Barbara Hepworth: UN Photo/Milton Grant
Keith Haring: NYC Parks
Andy Warhol: Casa Lever
Jim Dine: Paramount Group