Geffen Hall commissions new art that honors Black and latino history
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Geffen Hall commissions new art that honors Black and latino history
Nina Chanel Abney, San Juan Heal, 2022. Latex ink and vinyl mounted on glass. Commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem and Public Art Fund. Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and Public Art Fund.

NEW YORK, NY.- Public art commissions are tricky. The creator has to make something that’s accessible but enduring, relevant to the site but also able to stand on its own. Still, Jacolby Satterwhite and Nina Chanel Abney, tapped by Lincoln Center, the Public Art Fund and the Studio Museum in Harlem to celebrate the reopening of David Geffen Hall with a pair of major new installations, make it look easy.

Satterwhite, 36, a Brooklyn-based artist, works in performance, 3D animation and sculpture, often incorporating drawings by his mother, Patricia Satterwhite, into elaborate installations. Abney, 40, best known for painting, also lives in New York and is a public art veteran. (Their pieces will stay up 18 months before giving way to new commissions.) Between them, the artists incorporate the history of the Lincoln Center and its performing companies, and also of San Juan Hill, the largely Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood displaced by the performing arts complex, into deeply thoughtful pieces that are also joyful and welcoming.

“San Juan Heal,” Abney’s contribution, comprises 35 large vinyl squares ornamenting most of the building’s northern facade. Collagelike shapes render an apropos figure, letter or phrase: “Soul at the Center,” “San Juan Hill,” Thelonious Monk in a red cap. (He lived in the area.) The mixture captures the sometimes dissonant vibrancy of this particular patch of Manhattan; several large Xs could stand for multiplying different influences or for the overlooked histories that have been crossed out. But the bold colors and easy legibility, and the way the whole thing makes the building look almost like an educational children’s toy, reach out and grab you across Broadway.

Satterwhite’s “An Eclectic Dance to the Music of Time,” a half-hour video that will play on all 400 square feet of the lobby’s digital wall whenever it’s not simulcasting concerts, offers a kind of simulated timeless Lincoln Center. News tickers share factoids about the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, especially relating to Black musicians and composers (like opera singer Marian Anderson or child prodigy Philippa Schuyler).

Dancers and musicians, choreographed by Satterwhite, silently follow their muses under billboard-size photos of performers from the past in a constantly moving digital landscape. As the views swing gently in and out and the video’s muted colors cycle through four sections, the piece achieves an extraordinary balance between stasis and movement, picture and narrative, the excitement of the present and the grandeur of history.

Commissioning new work for a hall dedicated to orchestral music, a genre desperately in need of younger audiences, seems like an easy call. And work by female artists and artists of color was long overdue, not so much because Lincoln Center was built in San Juan Hill as because it was built in America.

That said, I always find something bittersweet about a changing of the guard. Sadly missing in the shuffle is Richard Lippold’s majestic, 40-foot sculpture “Orpheus and Apollo,” removed from the hall in 2014 and slated to reappear at LaGuardia Airport in 2023. Everything else is here, but has been mostly reinstalled upstairs: On the first tier, you can find Rodin’s bust of Mahler, along with heads of Beethoven and Paul Robeson by Antoine Bourdelle and Sir Jacob Epstein, respectively. Two imposing bronze chunks of 1960s abstraction by Dimitri Hadzi and Seymour Lipton can be seen from the plaza glowing on the outer balcony. David Smith’s welded steel piece of muscular whimsy “Zig IV” sits backed into a corner of the lobby, against a wall.

But none of these longtime fixtures can really compete for your attention with a constantly moving digital wall, or with an entire brightly-colored facade. Video and bronze are equally valid mediums — but video speaks in a louder register.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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