I first met Tom Otterness in downtown Manhattan more than 30 years ago. He was a Kansas boy with an edge, a kickboxer with a sweet disposition. He worked hard on his sculpture, staying home while the rest of us went out partying. And he could do things: I remember a girlfriend asking for help disassembling a sturdy loft bed. For the life of me, I couldn't get those bolts to budge. We called Tom, and he took care of it.
The 1980 “Times Square Show” had a “souvenir shop,” and Otterness made some plaster statuettes for it, a set of three models of Atlas, from eight to ten inches tall, the first lifting a sphere, the second a cube and the last a pyramid. They were $17 apiece, and I sprung for a set. About ten years later, an artist-carpenter making me some bookshelves accidentally knocked one of them over, and it’s still in pieces. Otterness painted his Atlases bright yellow, which I didn’t really care for at first, though they look pretty good today.
A little while later he got in a groove making cavalcades of worker figures that could be disposed as architectural details, like lintels and such. He would carve them in clay and then cast them somehow. My second wife went all weak-kneed for the things, and I had a brilliant idea, since he lived around the corner. “Go tell him you want one.” She came back happy with a plaster fragment, making it seem like I’d actually done something.
And the rest is history. Otterness went on to great success, capped in my mind by the giant bronze sculpture of a happy couple dancing atop a bag of money on Park Avenue. He's made dozens of public commissions, at least four I can think of in Manhattan right now, and floated his own Humpty Dumpty balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. His work is simple and cheerful and popular and, often enough, like his characters themselves, slyly subversive.
His new show at Marlborough Galleries, “Animal Spirits,” which has been extended to Apr. 2, 2011, has an especially childlike sensibility, no doubt because some of the works are destined for a petting zoo. He’s put the delicious sweetness of youth into sculptures like Turtle in High Heels and Sitting Bear, no small feat. A large lion, inspired by Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, is slated for the new Battery Park City Library, courtesy of one of his collectors.
As usual, even the kids get a little something to think about. The golden bronze Cash Cow, which measures more than four feet tall, shows a kind of dim-looking brahma bull in high heels and a tiny hat, munching on a dollar bill. An organ-grinder’s monkey wears a sheepish grin, because he’s asking for a handout or because he has no pants, it’s not quite clear which. And most endearing of all, the toddler-sized (25 inches tall) Curious Bear stands up to look out through an invisible fence, a reminder of the cage that’s always there.
Tom Otterness, “Animal Spirits,” Feb. 23-Mar. 26, 2011, at Marlborough Galleries, 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.