On June 26th, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs will celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the Percent for Art Program, and its first art installation, Growth, by sculpture artist, Jorge Luis Rodriguez. Here are some wonderful images of the artist and Growth as it was being created, and a few thoughts on this historic occasion by the artist when we visited his studio in May, 2020.
Due to bad weather, the celebration has been rescheduled for Sunday, July 5th from Noon to 2:00pm. Stop by and meet the artist, Jorge Luis Rodriguez at Art Park. Please remember to wear a mask. Social distancing will be in place.
How did you come up with your idea for Growth?
“I was awarded the New York Percent for Art commission in 1984 for a sculpture in Harlem Art Park. The park was under construction and I was able to follow its progress, observe the interaction of the surrounding natural elements to better capture the vitality of the trees, birds, and people in relation to the proposed art. I established a dialogue with the community from the start and spoke to many residents about the project.”
“I wanted to focus on how my art would reflect the symbiotic relationship of all life forms within this park and create something site specific that would allow for different interpretations. The idea for the monumental public sculpture Growth was mostly based on memories from my childhood when I loved to plant seeds and watch them sprout and grow in my tropical garden. I was inspired by these experiences to design and produce a work of art that would reflect these memories and capture the joy as well as complexities of flora and fauna in Nature.”
Stepping back in time, below are images that will take readers from the beginning of the process with the artist in 1984 from sketch pad to the Flame Cut Steel Factory, the finished sculpture and ribbon cutting in Harlem Art Park in 1985.
Continuing in conversation……
“This motivation was integrated into the project to compel the visiting public to participate, analyze and visualize the multiple variations of a seed sprouting from the ground, a bird or insect flying into space and other infinite renditions. It was an analogy created to represent and announce the inception of the New York Department of Cultural Affairs’ newly created Percent for Art Program, its first project, the first artwork, sprouting and peeking from the cobblestones of the public green area for the community of New York City public at large and visitors from all points of the world.”
“It was my vision that Growth would represent Nature’s vibrancy and constant metamorphosis for the public to view their surroundings with enjoyment. The piece has been free of graffiti and never vandalized for thirty five years; I am grateful that the public respects the work of art.”
Harlem Art Park has an interesting history. The City of New York originally acquired the first part of this property, behind the historic Harlem Courthouse, as a site for a public bath in 1929. The bath never materialized and the site lay vacant for nine years. By 1938, the land had become a popular informal sitting park ~ and was finally acquired by Parks in 1945.
Harlem Art Park doubled in size in 1992 when half of the closed off road at Sylvan Place was added to the existing park. Harlem Art Park is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project.
We find that 2020 is as much a celebration of the artist as it is with the program for which he is so widely known. Born in Puerto Rico, Jorge Luis Rodriguez arrived in New York City at the age of 18. He worked as a Junior Art Director before attending School of Visual Arts and New York University, receiving his Bachelor Degree and Masters in Fine Arts respectively, with his first professional show in 1976 at Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM), located on West 57th Street, just months before his graduation from the School of Visual Arts.
In his first exhibition, Circles/Circulos (1976), Rodriguez used a found object, recovered from the trash of a building located near the Just Above Midtown Gallery.
Also in the Just Above Midtown (JAM) exhibition, a series of graphite drawings, which are two to four feet in diameter, the artist experimented with line density and shading, while alluding to concepts related to astronomy, biology, and architecture. A set of two cylindrical sculptures were also installed in the gallery space and explore similar forms of abstraction.
Inspired by the infamous readymades of French artist Marcel Duchamp, Jorge Luis then installed the metal hoop in the gallery, placing it against the walls at an angle. Using light and shadow, the optical illusion of the “four corners” referenced in the title of the work is produced. Thus, the found object was integrated seamlessly into the circular theme of the exhibition. The artist later donated the readymade to the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1981.
The 1976 exhibition at Just Above Midtown Gallery was followed by the 1977 exhibition, Recent Works, which was his senior thesis, at 80 Washington Square East Galleries, followed by a 1978 exhibition entitled Recent Sculptures, once again at Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM). In that exhibition, Rodriguez presented Circle With Four Corners (image above).
The image above, from left to right, David Hammons, Jorge Luis Rodriguez and Charles Abramson ~ all three were artists-in-residence from 1980 to 1981 at Studio Museum in Harlem.
From there, Rodriguez would go on to exhibit in a plethora of galleries and installations too numerous to mention spanning all medium over decades.
A few of his most recent are shown here in images below, beginning with a series of four temporary installations in that very park in 2015.
They would be named ~ Birdhouse; Fish Spine; Hummingbird; and Palenque. The four installation initially resided as temporary installation in various locations throughout Harlem and East Harlem. In 2015, the four works arrived in Harlem Art Park as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of Growth.
Birdhouse, 1986. Pablo Neruda’s poem “Las aves maltratadas,” (“The Brutalized Birds”) references the conduct of birds that assemble en masse in public places. They perch, nest and produce their offspring in an array of environments. Their survival is affected by the behavior of mankind, as well as the forces of nature.
Fish Spine, 1987. Rodríguez’s recollection of fishing adventures in the Caribbean Sea with his brother is captured in this simple elongated spine: assembling nets, preparing bait, casting, celebrating their catch and the final act of consumption that left behind only a vestige of the delectable sea creature.
Hummingbird, 1987. The symbiotic relationship between fauna and flora is captured in this swift, frozen moment that depicts the bird’s constant hovering while it extracts substance from nature in a movement so rapid that it appears motionless.
Palenque, 1987. The sculpture is inspired by Mayan architectural devices used to record the passing of celestial events. The interplay of openings in the “roof comb” of buildings, such as those observed in Palenque, allowed for the recording of light and shadow that provide essential markers utilized in daily life activities such as for the planting of crops and understanding of patterns of astronomical phenomena.
In that same year, the major installation ‘The Oracle of the Past, Present and Future’ would be on view in Tompkins Square Park, in the East Village.
Jorge Luis Rodriguez: The Oracle of the Past, Present and Future, 2015 was inspired by the study of celestial bodies; the influence of the sun, moon, planets and constellations of the zodiac on human affairs, and the natural world. The fascination with the prediction of events and casting horoscopes endures.
The Oracle of the Past, Present and Future was created with steel, wood and glass. It was on view in Thompson Square Park from June 2015 through May 2016.
In addition, Rodriguez was selected by the Institute of PR Culture/Instituto de Culture Puertorriqueña to exhibit his beautiful Zebra Bird, pictured above, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2019. This installation was a version of his Zebra Bird on view in an earlier exhibit, Early Encounters, (below) on Governors Island.
Above image of the artist in Early Encounters, a group exhibition on Governors Island.
The thoughtful exhibition (and one of my favorites) A Monument to the 500 Years of the Cultural Reversal of America was installed at The Center for Puerto Rican Studies in East Harlem in 2015.
This exhibition at The Center was a compilation of decades of artwork by the artist entitled ARTchives: Method and Documentation. Part of this exhibition included an exhibit entitled ‘A Monument to the 500 Years of the Cultural Reversal of America,’ which was a small-scale exhibition of the artist’s original sculpture of a Galleon ~ a slave ship, including ceramic slaves placed in the hold of the vessel (above image). Here the artist brought the original sculpture down to scale, painting the Galleon on the wall of the library, with fifty of the original 126 ceramic slaves beneath.
We can’t leave this exhibition without a mention of the original, commissioned sculpture, which coincided with the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
Below is the image of the original sculpture, a twenty-foot long medieval slave ship. The glove at the front-end of the ship alludes to the post-Columbian “New World” while the indigenous, Pre-Columbian inhabitants are represented by feathers placed all around the vessel.
The major installation Atlas of the Third Millennium was unveiled in Marcus Garvey Park, East Harlem, in late 2017 (image below).
This 14-foot tall, galvanized steel sculpture in the form of a universe paid homage to actors, writers, musicians, artists, educators, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders.
Atlas, along with an accompanying catalogue, was on view to October 2018. We were pleased to be able to visit the artist in his studio in Brooklyn to get a peek at Atlas, while is was in the making (image below).
We were also pleased to attend a gallery exhibit, which included the globe portion of Atlas, in June, 2016, pictured below.
The artist lit the globe from within for this exhibition, which created a spectacular site to viewers attending the one-month long gallery exhibition.
We found some interesting background reading on the Percent for Art program and the first Percent for Art installation by author/historian Michele H. Bogart in her book, A Companion to Public Art,’ where she writes (on p. 396) about criteria for choosing artists for Percent for Art ~ questioning whether to consider emerging or established artists; creating a pool of artists to select from, and selecting panelists to choose the artists. Bogart followed up extensively on this program in her book, Sculpture in Gotham: Art and Urban Renewal in New York City. The Percent for Art Program has gone on to unveil over 300 installations throughout our five boroughs since its first unveiling in 1985.
Jorge Luis Rodriguez lives and works in Brooklyn with his wife Evelyn.
The East Harlem Art Park has gone on to host several temporary installations through the efforts of Public Art Initiative, including the current installation, Susan Stair: Roots on Fire. Ms. Stair will be joining the festivities with paper mosaics for kids!
In addition, Friends of Art Park Alliance recently installed the ongoing, and growing ‘East Harlem Remembers‘ memorial wall, with a remembrance of loved ones who have lost their lives due to COVID-19. A Moment of Prayer will take place at 2:00pm.
You will notice the historic Harlem Courthouse in the background.
The East Harlem Art Park is located on East 120th Street and Sylvan Place between Lexington and Third Avenues. Follow Friends of the Art Park Alliance on Facebook.
Wish you had a piece of ‘Growth’ to call your own?
Posters measuring 11″ x 17″ are available for $20 each + $5 shipping & handling. To receive your poster, email the artist, Jorge Luis Rodriguez at JorgeLuis.Growth@gmail.com. Specify name and number of poster.
Or get all of them + many more in the book, Jorge Luis Rodriguez: Sculptures, Installations, Collaborations ~ hard cover, 72 pages measuring 8 1/2″ x 11″ including 119 color photos. $35 + $5 shipping & handling.
Did you miss the party? Not to worry. We’ll take you there with a few pictures from the very festive day.
We can’t end this day of celebration with out mentioning a memorial celebration held for local residents of East Harlem who lost their lives to COVID-19. A beautiful wall can be seen on the eastern side of the park ~ each ribbon with the name of a loved one recently lost to the virus. More on the Memorial on Friends of Art Park Alliance Facebook Page.
Friends of Art Park Alliance would love suggestions on what park goers would like to see in their park. If you didn’t fill out the questionnaire at the event, you can find it on Friends of Art Park Alliance Facebook page, along with a way to buy a t-shirt or tote.