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New York State Theater No. 16 - Modern Art in the Theater

“While the New York State Theater was under construction, Johnson also proposed the purchase of several sculptures by Reuben Nakian, Edward Higgins, and Lee Bontecou, and a painting by Jasper Johns for the entrance foyers of the theater. Approval was given by the Art Committee and by the [Albert] Lists for financing from their gift. Two bronze sculptural works were made available by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller for the New York State Theater. She placed the "Birth of the Muses” by Jacques Lipschitz on indefinite loan to Lincoln Center and made a gift of the "Grande Martirio Sanguinante" by Francesco Somaini. These two sculptures can be seen at the ends of the side corridors that provide access to the theater's orchestra level.” [1]

(right) "Birth of the Muses” by Jacques Lipschitz (Orchestra Right Hall)

(left) "Grande Martirio Sanguinante" by Francesco Somaini. (Orchestra Left Hall)

“Artists did not like to be subordinate to architects, and architects did not like to be subordinate to artists. The works [Robert Moses] selected for the State Theater, for the most part, successfully balanced this dynamic. Among the highlights was a Lee Bontecou assemblage that, in his words, fit 'as well as a baroque statue in the niche of a baroque hall.'" [2]


Untitled, 1964 by Lee Bontecou

"Word that Miss Bontecou had been commissioned for one of her highly individual constructions, which are built around ventilator like orifices, gave a shaky feeling that in a theater devoted to ballet and operetta her contribution might look like a bit of exposed plumbing. But with a long horizontal composition built around not one, but three orifices, and including some stretches of canvas suggesting parts of a dismantled World War I biplane, she has risen above every connotative hazard to produce a vigorous and superbly balanced design perfectly adapted to the allotted space." [3]

“If it must he called something, 1964 is as good a tile as any. This massive, three-dimensional structure of curving semi-geometric shapes is to be installed this month on a wall near the entrance of Lincoln Center's New York State Theater. Its creator, Sculptor Lee Bontecou (in background), usually avoids titles for her elaborate, sometimes macabre works. "I get one reaction," she explains, "and other people get different reactions." But she accepts 1964 as a nice ambiguous title. "It could mean that I did it in 1964 or that it connotes 1964 either one would be right.” 1964 is a 7×20ft. assemblage of welded metal rods, pieces of canvas, epoxy resin and the plexiglass turret of an old World War II bomber. It suggests a complex flying machine that might actually be able to get up off the ground and soar. The artist herself has soared spectacularly up through the art world. At 33, she is looked on as one of the country's most original artists and has also proved to be one of the most successful. [4]

"Most of the sculpture she has completed over the past five years has been snapped up by collectors and museums. She works hard at her art and. when she isn't stitching or welding away at one of her huge jet-age assemblages, she makes tiny model airplanes in her studio. Lee Bontecou spent five months putting 1964 together. At left she welds pieces of metal to form the curving outlines of the sculpture. Once the frame was finished, she tied pieces of canvas to the frame with wire (below). The bulges in the sculpture are molded fiber glass forms, covered with stretched canvas or with white pigment. Some of the canvas she found in the street. Some is from an old fire hose she cut open and spread out. She gave tone to parts of the finished structure by blowing soot on it. The only color in the work comes from pieces of yellow chamois she stitched around the holes. [4]

“Poised with wings spread, Lee Bontecou’s Untitled of 1964 looks as if it is about to fly off the wall and swoop around the lobby of the New York State Theater (renamed the David H. Koch Theater in 2008), part of Lincoln Center in Manhattan (Figure 1). Two recessed holes, possibly taking the place of propellers, flank a central protruding black oval, conceivably once a gunner’s turret but now an empty pit. Pieces of fabric in somber colors cover the truncated and gutted flying machine, attached to one another by wires, the ends of which, twisted together, poke straight out, lining the sharp edges where fabric meets armature. Is this a sad ghost of a bomber from World War II, or perhaps a prehistoric premonition of some futuristic flying contraption?” [5]


Numbers by Jasper Johnson

Hilary Lewis: "Can you tell us about the other art in the public places of the theater? We noticed a beautiful Jasper Johns on the main floor."

Philip Johnson: "That's my choice. It's called Numbers. It's done in Sculpmetal, which is very difficult stuff to use. It's the only thing that's become valuable. It's very amusing. I never knew Jasper was going to be such a success.” [6]

"His one regret concerned the piece that was and remains the great masterpiece of that collection, a vertical Jasper Johns numbers composition in metallic silver that he placed uncomfortably in a space better suited to a horizontal work. 'We'll fix it--someday,' he wrote. Alas, it remains in the same awkward position." [2]


Ancient Song & Ancient Dance by Yasuhide Kobashi

These two sculptures were commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein in 1972 for the Stravinsky Festival. Ancient Song is the curvilinear one, and Ancient Dance is the one that looks like bones to me.


Sculpture, 1963 by Edward Higgings & Voyage to Crete by Rueben Nakian


[2] The Man in the Glass House by Mark Lamster

[3] Ada Louise Huxtable, New York Times, March 23, 1964

[4] Life Magazine, April 10, 1964

[6] Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words by Hilary Lewis and Philip Johnson

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