From the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt to the streets and piazzas of Florence, sculpture in public places has been fundamental in informing the visual consciousness of a society for millennia. Today, there’s even more on show than ever and – the best part is – it’s all free!
Here are a few of the best sculptural works on public display from around the world, including some lesser-known gems:
- Jacob Epstein, Sculptures for the British Medical Association Building (1908)
Location: The Strand, London
[More information: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/gallery-lost-art-jacob-epstein]
Just around the corner from London’s Trafalgar Square are these fantastic figures by Epstein, which are placed in niches high atop a building. When they were first proposed, their nudity caused a controversy and public opinion was divided on their appropriateness for display on the street. Thirty years later, when acid rain had made them unstable, some traditionalists relished taking a chisel to these amazing works and reducing them to mere torsos. Even headless and limbless, however, these sculptures remain incredibly powerful.
- Dan Flavin, Untitled (1996)
Location: 548 West 22nd Street, New York
This site-specific artwork by Dan Flavin is managed by the Dia Foundation and is always open to the public. Featuring Flavin’s signature fluorescent lights, the work was completed just before the artist’s death. Understated and slightly eerie, the piece demonstrates Flavin’s sensitivity to the specifics of the architectural space. Tip: it’s particularly atmospheric if you go at night.
- Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2006)
Location: Millennium Park, Chicago
Cloud Gate is hard to miss. This huge sculpture by Anish Kapoor dominates the plaza at Chicago’s Millennium Park, where it has been affectionately nicknamed “the bean”. The highly polished surface reflects distorted images of the cityscape around it and of the crowds of people who can pass around and under it. It’s like a funhouse mirror on steroids. This mirroring visually dissolves the form of the enormous metal structure, simultaneously blending in with its surroundings and asking the viewer to look again.
- Joan Miro, Oiseau Lunaire (1966)
Location: Square Blomet, Paris
This large work by Joan Miro (92 x 82 x 59 inches) stands in a public park in Paris’ Montparnasse area, once home to a plethora of artists living and working there in the 1910s and 20s. Miro’s sculpture, designed as a site-specific work, is intended to be a memorial to those artists who promoted avant-garde forms and theories, and influenced the work of generations of artists to come.
- Fernando Botero, The Hand (1976)
Location: Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid
If you’re looking for public sculpture, Madrid should be high on your list of destinations. It even boasts a little-known (but enormous) Museum of Public Art, which contains sculptures by Miro and Julio Gonzalez. Elsewhere in the city, you’ll find this huge sculpture of a hand by Columbian artist Fernando Botero. The work is characteristic of Botero’s voluminous style and was produced soon after the artist suffered a hand injury in a car accident.
- Jacques Lipchitz, Prometheus Strangling the Vulture (1943)
Location: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Official site: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/54047.html
This late work by sculptor Jacques Lipchitz is positioned outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a city that boasts more than its fair share of incredible works of art on public display. One of his lesser-known pieces, Lipchitz’ sculpture depicts the myth of Prometheus breaking free of his bonds and strangling the vulture who has been pecking at his entrails for an eternity. Lipchitz saw this as symbolic of the human race fighting against the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
- Lynn Chadwick, Couple on Seat (1986)
Location: Canary Wharf, London
Official site: http://canarywharf.com/artwork/lynn-chadwick-couple-on-seat/
Canary Wharf is home to London’s tallest, shiniest buildings and to crowds of harassed-looking people in suits. It might not sound like an obvious place to go looking for modern art, but Canary Wharf is also home to Lynn Chadwick’s Couple on Seat, positioned with its back to a large fountain. It’s a powerful work, taking inspiration from Henry Moore, and is well worth seeking out.
- Jeff Koons, Balloon Flower (Red) (2006)
Location: 7 World Trade Center, New York
Official site: http://www.jeffkoons.com/exhibitions/solo/balloon-flower-red
Koons created his Balloon Flower (Red) as a memorial to those who survived 9/11. It exhibits the highly polished style that can be found in several of his sculptures. Its bright color and shiny surface make it feel distinctly upbeat, a celebration of moving forwards as well as looking back. Its resemblance to a giant balloon confuses the viewer’s eye; you almost expect it to start floating up into the air.
The Background Info:
Public sculpture in the United States saw a revival under the Federal Art Program in the 1930s, designed by the government to help the country out of the Depression and to promote a connection between art and the public. In the UK, public art was similarly encouraged by the post-War Labour government in the 1950s, who chose sculpture as a tool for promoting socialist values across the country.
This strong tradition continues today, and there is consequently a wealth of fantastic twentieth-century and contemporary sculpture on public view around the world. Unfortunately, these works can become sidelined, missed by pedestrians who don’t stop to think about the work of art that they are hurrying past. Nevertheless, seeking out public sculpture can be highly rewarding; you’ll be surprised what’s just around the corner.