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New York Times

Painting for a Gallery of Busy City Streets Below
 
 — By RANDY KENNEDY

 
As the elevator door opened onto his large, sparse SoHo studio, Alex Katz came around the corner wearing a plain white T-shirt, paint-flecked jeans and a smear of white gesso across the bridge of his nose. He looked less like what he was – at 78, one of America’s most celebrated realist painters – and more like a hard-working house painter, just down from the ladder to find his lunchbox.

It was an apt image because Mr. Katz had just been chosen for an unusual public art project: to create a painting that would be supersized, urban-style, 28 feet tall and 53 feet long, onto a billboard space on a wall high above the corner of the Bowery and East Fourth Street in the East Village. Several blocks away, in SoHo, on West Houston Street near Wooster Street, another artist, the British painter Gary Hume, was asked to create a painting for another billboard, 45 feet tall. And a third painter, Lisa Sanditz, the fledgling of the group in both age and reputation, was asked to take on the largest billboard, 64 feet tall, at a SoHo corner on Greene Street, where it will be in full view of an unlikely captive audience: the drivers slogging Holland-Tunnel-bound along Canal Street.

The project, like many public art exhibits that sprout like tomato plants in the summer around New York City, was created with corporate money. In this case it was the idea of the United Technologies Corporation, a Hartford-based company that makes aircraft engines and elevators, among other products, and that commissioned the paintings to commemorate 25 years of its support for the arts. But the project is unusual because public painting – as opposed to sculpture or installation-type art – is rare, generally seen only in commissioned (or more often noncommissioned, illegal) graffiti murals on building walls.
The project is also atypical because the company decided to give all three artists free rein to paint whatever they wanted, with no oversight or review before the works were writ large above city streets for a two-month run, beginning Sept. 8. In Mr. Hume’s case, a reporter saw his painting – in some ways the most provocative of the three – weeks before any officials from the company did.

Mr. Katz, whose cool, reductive portraits and landscapes have been influential for a younger generation of painters, including Mr. Hume and Elizabeth Peyton, is no stranger to outsize paintings. Some of his larger canvases approach billboard size, and he became a pioneer of larger-than-life public painting in 1977 when he created a Times Square billboard adorned with 23 heads of beautiful young women that stretched 247 feet around the facade and 57 feet up the central tower of a building at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue.

In his studio one overcast day in late May, he was about to begin work on the painting for the project, to be made on a canvas whose proportions in inches would roughly match the proportions of the billboard in feet. (Because of union rules and liability concerns, it was decided early on that the artists would not be allowed to paint the billboards themselves but would give smaller paintings to professional sign painters.)

Mr. Katz’s studio on West Broadway, where he has worked since the late 1960’s, is huge but not fancy, with a plain kitchen, old rotary dial phones on the wall and the smell of paint thick in the air. Much like a sign painter with his buckets, he had apportioned the paints for the project on a battered table: browns, grays and a Skippy peanut butter jar filled with pink, sitting next to a Luigi Vitelli tomato can full of well-used brushes.

Mr. Katz said he looked back on the 1977 billboard as “one of the biggest kicks” of his life. He never actively tried to find another project like it later. “Sort of by nature, I don’t go looking for things,” he said. But when Creative Time, a nonprofit public art organization, approached him early in the year on behalf of United Technologies, he had to restrain himself. “I said, ‘Be cool now’ – to myself,” he recalled. “I was dying to do it.”

“And when they said around 60 feet, I said, ‘Hoo! Now I’m going to get to test myself a little.’ “

No Pretty Girls

By that time in May, Mr. Katz, who has long talked about the strong influence of billboard advertising and movies on his painting, had already settled on an image for the project.
He first considered a large female head, a kind of homage to 1977, but then changed his mind. He had just returned from London, where he was in a show at the Whitechapel Gallery, along with the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, among others. Mr. Gordon’s work included negative-image photographs of the artist kissing people (as it turned out, with sodium pentothal smeared on his lips), and Mr. Katz was struck by the visual possibilities of people kissing and, even more, of people about to kiss. So when he returned to New York, he asked two friends, both men, to pose for him, and made a small study of their faces in a tightly framed, prekiss approach, one looking up with closed eyes in a kind of memento mori pose and the other looming above. Mr. Katz said he felt that even now, and even in socially liberal New York, the sight of kissing men “was still one of those cultural no-nos.”

“This really seemed like a much more interesting subject,” he said, eyes flashing mischievously. “A pretty girl would be nice, but kind of decorative, you know?”

Krista J. Pilot, who helped create the project for United Technologies as its director of community affairs, said that when company officials in Hartford first saw the image, “there was definitely a moment of silence” in the room. One senior official held her breath for a moment, Ms. Pilot recalled, “and said, ‘Well, we’re not going to be squeamish about this, are we?’ ” 

“And there hasn’t been anything said about it since then,” she said, adding, as if to prove the company’s patronly resolve, that Damien Hirst had also been on the short list for the project and was rejected not because of fears about billboard-size images of pharmaceuticals or viscera but because “we just decided that he was probably too busy.”

About the same time that Mr. Katz was priming his canvas, Mr. Hume – along with Mr. Hirst a founding member of the so-called Young British Artists movement that shook up the art world in the early 1990’s – was also working on plans for his billboard, in a converted barn on the grounds of a former chicken farm in the Catskills.

Mr. Hume, 43, who works both there and in London, greeted a visitor and showed him inside his studio, which was painted a creamy white and looked almost suburban, like an oversized pool house. But hanging by a chain from the ceiling of the barn was a life-size skeleton that Mr. Hume was using as a model for paintings that look like X-rays. And the subject of his billboard painting – while not as overtly macabre – was in the same slightly wicked spirit.

Mr. Hume, who first became known for near-abstract geometric paintings of hospital doors, explained that his billboard painting began with a sudden, hard-to-explain obsession with the image of cheerleaders.

“I never would have made a cheerleader painting in London,” he said. “It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. It would have seemed so alien.”

But while working in the United States, he said, the idea of the resolutely upbeat cheerleader – her charms alternately infectious and annoying – appealed to him as something quintessentially American. “You as a nation are the cheerleaders,” he said.
So he started picking up copies of American Cheerleader magazine – “I thought I’d be arrested when I was buying it,” he said – and using photographs for paintings. At the same time, he was struck by how much cheerleaders’ contorted poses, in tight focus, can seem to be images of people being tortured. Later, a friend in Britain sent him a copy of a painting, probably a Flemish work from the 15th century, of a man being crucified, most likely one of the thieves executed alongside Jesus. The man’s arms are lashed atop the horizontal bar of the cross, and his body is bent backward, with one leg extended back almost delicately. Finally, the last element was in place: Mr. Hume decided to paint a crucified cheerleader.

In truth, it is not easy to tell that the painting shows a cheerleader being tortured or killed or even bothered. It seems simply to show the torso of a blond woman, her back bent in a dancer’s pose. But closer inspection shows that something is clearly not right. In the place where her face should be, a brown vertical column extends upward, and her arms seem to be not simply lifted but stretched. (Mr. Hume mentioned as another inspiration Francis Bacon’s screaming transformation of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. “He decided to go in and make it dangerous,” he said. “I hope that’s what this is doing.”) 

Mr. Hume, laconic with a sleepy, hangdog face, does not convey enthusiasm easily, but he said he was thrilled to create a work that would tower over New York and maybe cause people to look up from their cab windows, expecting to see an ad, and “wonder ‘What in the hell is going on up there?’ “

In the midst of all this painterly transgression, it would seem that the work of the project’s third painter, Ms. Sanditz, 32, is almost tame by comparison. Ms. Sanditz, who also works in a studio in the Catskills and in another she shares in the garment district in Manhattan, is best known for explosively colorful, primitive-looking landscapes that sometimes refer to Hudson River School painters.
But in her work the natural world is overlaid with the visual detritus – electric lines, strip-mall architecture, factory smoke, rivers of red brake lights – of the modern world. And in the painting for the billboard, as in some of her recent work, she has made the sky a hallucinogenic swirl that resembles tie-dye, which she sees as performing a dual function.

“In a way, I think it is sort of a romanticizing of what landscape is about,” she said one day in June in her Manhattan studio, comparing the painting to Frederic Edwin Church’s “Twilight in the Wilderness,” in which the sky, streaked with blue, red and orange, is similarly almost psychedelic. (The title of Ms. Sanditz’s painting is “Tie-Dye in the Wilderness.”) But while celebratory, she said, the tie-dye – a symbol of nature-loving, now a cliché – also suggests something unnatural in the air, like chemicals or smog. “It’s beautiful,” she said, smiling, “but also possibly toxic.”
And as such, it can be blown up into a 64-by-79-foot superlandscape in few more appropriate places than along Canal Street, Manhattan’s tributary of endless truck traffic. The painting, which includes the van of a traveling tie-dye merchant parked at the base of a mountain, is also a reference to Canal Street’s sidewalk merchants.

“The thought is that if you kept on driving for another seven miles on Canal Street, if it just kept on going, eventually you’d come to a place like this and somebody selling something like that,” she said.

By the end of June, all three painters had finished their works and the project – which will end up costing United Technologies about $300,000 for billboard rental, sign painting and nominal fees to the artists – began to move into its final phase, the supersizing, to be done by a young group of traditional billboard painters based in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Painter Meets Artist

The group, Colossal Media, will put Mr. Katz’s and Ms. Sanditz’s paintings directly onto the brick of the buildings, and they began last week, on the roof of a warehouse, to paint Mr. Hume’s onto a huge piece of vinyl that will be stretched onto the wall on West Houston Street.

Paul Lindahl, an owner of Colossal Media, said that for a small company trying to keep alive the dying art of manual sign painting, the project was a godsend. “In this business everybody wants everything done yesterday, and they don’t care how it gets done,” he said during a visit in June to Mr. Katz’s studio. “This is great – you actually get to meet the artist. And then you’re going to get to make his work monumental.”

The artist himself, at work that day on a winter landscape that loomed almost as large as a billboard in the back of his studio, said he always questioned impulses toward monumentality.
“It always starts out with me asking myself, ‘Does the world really need another 40 feet of painting?’ ” Mr. Katz said, grinning. “And the answer is always no, but then I paint it anyway, just to see what it’s going to look like.”