Peter Coffin Goes Public


Music by Norah Jones and Van Morrison tracks preceded ceremonial speeches by Mayor Bloomberg, Susan K. Freedman, the President of Public Art Fund, and Peter Coffin last Thursday, for the opening of the artist’s first major outdoor exhibition, “Untitled (Sculpture Silhouettes).” Haunting in their banality, it might be a stretch to say they complemented the black aluminum sculptures (13 of them, no less) installed among the trees in City Hall Park.

From Left: Sculpture Silhouette (R. Smithson, Gyrostasis, 1968), 2009; Sculpture Silhouette (S. LeWitt, Incomplete Open Cube, 1974), 2007; Sculpture Silhouette (U. Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913), 2008. Photo by James Ewing, ©The LeWitt Estate and Courtesy of Public Art Fund.

For the original series, Sculpture Silhouette Props (2007), exhibited at London’s Herald Street Gallery, visitors were invited to physically move them. Here that’s not the case; instead, the city careens around them. For each work, the artist selects photographs of iconic works of sculpture from art history textbooks, tracing the image to produce a silhouette. In most cases the silhouettes are larger than the originals, and viewed from the front they appear downright monolithic. Walking around the works reveals their flatness (they are just one inch thick) and the supports slip in and out of view. Corresponding plaques provide straightforward, contextualizing details: Sculpture Silhouette (2007) updates and blocks out from Sol LeWitt, Incomplete Open Cube (1974). It’s almost as if you can source the ominous Rorschach back toits original signified. In fact, two of the sculptures here flattened can be found a few miles away at the Museum of Modern Art (Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk (1973) and Picasso’s She Goat (1950)).

Coffin looks as far back as Easter Island Moai figures, and to Nam June Paik’s L’Olympe de Gouges in La fée électronique (1989), giving the work a refreshing continuity—and an ominous homogeneity. The weight of art historical significance is in tension with the retained memory of sacrosanct icons. Coffin’s sculpture echoes faintly Spencer Finch’s replication of shadows from the Parisian alleyways, photographer by Eugene Atget a century earlier. Coffin is similarly interested in the abstract significance of the shadow of sculptures. (LEFT: SCULPTURE SILHOUETTE, UNIQUE FORMS OF CONTINUITY IN SPACE, [1913], 2008. PHOTO BY JAMES EWING, COURTESY PUBLIC ART FUND.)

This isn’t grand, monumental, or particularly universal public sculpture. Coffin differentiates his own work from the stereotype of the genre, “They are not always apparent and are not meant to exist as public sculpture often does, with all paths leading to it and a prominent, obvious base.” Coffin says instead that, “The Silhouettes are installed in the park in such a way that they seem to hover weightless in place. They are meant to be seen together so that they may be compared and so that a kind of dialogue of comparison may exist.” While the trees prevent the works from being seen as a entire group, at angles pairings emerge, enabling viewers to connect the works through individual narratives not yet explored.

Untitled (Silhouette Sculptures) is on view through May 2010. City Hall Park is located at Broadway, Park Row, and Chambers Street, New York.