From the Archives: Fourth of July Fireworks at New York Harbor


While browsing the A.i.A. archives for content to publish online in recognition of Independence Day, we were surprised to find an exhibition review on the 1986 Fourth of July fireworks display in the New York Harbor. The event was a part of Liberty Weekend, a four-day celebration of the centenary of the Statue of Liberty and the 210th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Art critic Carter Ratcliff describes the pyrotechnics as if he were standing in front of an abstract painting, and we find his sincerity to be endearing.

Since the review was originally published without an accompanying image, we have decided to pair Ratcliff’s words with A.i.A.’s May 2002 cover. It features a digitally rendered fireworks display by New York–based artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Fireworks have a rich tradition in China, but Cai uses them to address the country’s political issues today, expanding the potential significance of those festive explosives. —Eds.


Three years ago, the centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge inspired a massive display of pyrotechnics. This last Fourth of July, a double celebration, brought forth a spectacle four times as large–40,000 projectiles launched during a 28-minute period, to mark the 210th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday. From Governor’s Island, impresario Tommy Walker directed this collaboration between Grucci, Pyro Spectaculars and Zambelli Internationale.

Tightly contained by what used to be called literary associations, Independence Day fireworks are difficult to see as sheer spectacle. A look at pyrotechnics as color-field painting might be liberating.

The highest explosions occurred at about 15,000 feet, roughly three times higher than usual for a performance of this kind. As expected, the display relied heavily on chrysanthemum-bursts—sharply defined streaks of light arcing out from a central point. As they flowered, the chrysanthemums gave a quick but powerful effect of three-dimensionality. Carrying over to subsequent periods of flatness, memories of this sculptural quality helped the larger bursts to sustain their presence in the airspace above one of the world’s largest natural harbors.

Sometimes, as a chrysanthemum-burst faded, as many as half a dozen of its arcs regenerated the form, setting off secondary bursts from their points of furthest extension. When these approached the size of the initial explosion, it was difficult to separate secondary bursts from a new round of primary launches. But overlapping only rarely produced confusion. For the most part, bursts followed in waves whose quick succession served to focus attention and alert the viewer’s eye to nuances of color and intensity.

The grandest explosions brought the performance close, filling the sky to the zenith and lighting the clouds with a soft, smoldering glow. Amid the din and shock waves, the viewer felt a degree of intimacy. Small explosions in quick series had a paradoxically large effect. Permitting the sky to turn dark and vast once more, they generated the impression of an instantaneous retreat into the far distances. These shifts in scale demanded of the eye a constant attention to sustain its spatial orientation.

Chrysanthemums and similar forms—morning glories and peonies, especially—dominated much of the display. The most notable variant exchanged the radial explosion from a central point for what might be called a descending burst, an explosion downward from the apogee (always very high). Chrysanthemums and other radial missiles produced hot, phosphorescent streaks. These descending bursts scattered their light in wavery, sparkling festoons, suggesting willow trees made of tinsel. Such suggestions persisted long enough to be caught by the wind and swept across the sky. Recalling a tree as solemn—even melancholy—as it is beautiful, the willow explosions at first seemed out of place amid others of a simpler, more unreservedly enthusiastic kind. But perhaps they were not.