Ninety years ago, socialist avatar Emma Goldman drew thousands as she spoke from a soapbox in Union Square or at the labor hall nearby, still standing today as the theater where one can see commercial performance art like De La Guarda and Jump. Folks from Brooklyn and points east came to May’s Department Store, one of New York’s first, to buy inexpensive clothes on weekends. Thirty years ago, Union Square was the largest open air drug market on the East Coast. Preppies and hippies would score there nickel bags at the eastern entrance to Union Square Park and work their way west for the harder stuff.
Today, Union Square is home to the ugliest confluence of public art extant in New York. Dennis Oppenheim’s installation last week, on the east Union Square traffic island, has made it so. The piece consists of three ten-foot-high aluminum spheres, dotted with gross yellow and lavender plastic slats, attached to rusty metal plates at ground level. The effect is one of dingy roller ball helmets or bug-eyed Martian insects, which seem to absorb the truck and taxi exhaust around them.
Infelicitously, Opp’s space age bowling balls align perfectly with another public eyesore long part of the Union Square fabric, that foul golden glory hole, on a dried blood red background above a revolting granite slab, which spews aqua smoke into the air. Next to that is a headache-inducing ten-digit digital number, constantly changing without logic. The result is a tricornered hellhole of misery guaranteed to induce silent screams amidst the heat and humidity.
For years, Dennis Oppenheim has operated a boiler-room of lovely assistants who have pitched his public art projects, from his Franklin Street headquarters to all four corners of the world. He has been praised in Amsterdam and censored in Milwaukee. Depending on how much the local grandees pony up, Oppo’s materials can be cheap or majestic, his forms sparklingly sexy or toilet-bowl dull. There’s nothing about his Union Square monstrosity that a few aerosol cans would not improve.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).