Beginning on Sept. 18, New York City will be seeing all new “Walks of Life.” Madison Square Park, formed by the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway at 23rd Street, provides a comforting patch of green in the midst of the bustling Flatiron district on which Mad. Sq. Art, the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s free contemporary art program has displayed thirty installations by various contemporary artists over the past 10 years.
This fall, the lively 6.2-acre plot is home to British sculptor Tony Cragg’s “Walks of Life,” three monumental bronze sculptures scattered across the park’s three lawns. Cragg, a self-described “absolute materialist,” is fascinated by an artist’s ability to challenge materials and push them beyond their conventional uses. Most of his works distort and bend heavy bronze to form dynamic, winding sculptures.
“Caldera,” the widest of the three installations, finds its home in the Western gravel section of the park. The sculpture’s name likens it to both the natural, as the term is used to describe the cauldron-like depression formed by the collapse of land after volcanic eruption, and the domestic, as caldera is the Spanish word for a cooking pot. By its volcanic definition, a caldera oscillates between demolition and attraction. A destructive explosion creates a beautiful formation that draws admiration and even provides artistic inspiration. By titling his sculpture “Caldera,” Cragg comments on the power of transformation in nature and art, including his own, which aims at transforming bulky bronze material into sculptural formations that are both malleable and graceful. From ugliness or crass material emerges pulchritude, Cragg’s “Caldera” claims.
The sculpture’s deep bronze coloring and rippled texture reflect the heat associated with the title’s volcanic and kitchenware etymologies. “Caldera” is also an impressive betrayal of its bronze material as its three elements balance on small points, the heaviest parts of the sculpture resting on top.
If “Caldera”’s three sculptural components appear on the verge of merging, “Mixed Feelings,” located on the northern lawn, looks like the product of a recent tumultuous fusion. This second work, bearing a blue color resulting from oxidization, undulates and spirals upwards, resembling both a precarious rock formation and a mechanical byproduct.
In “Mixed Feelings,” Cragg has provided the greatest conquering of his bronze material: Upon closer examination, the sculpture looks almost immaterial, a tornado-like gust of wind climbing eternally upwards towards the sky beyond what the sculpture itself presents. The work’s title injects this windy dynamism with emotional significance — viewers bare witness to a sculptural incarnation of a whirlwind of emotion.
The final three sculptures, collectively titled “Points of View,” are located on the Park’s Oval Lawn. The towers twist and turn their way upwards, both futuristic and organic.
Another version of “Points of View” is currently on display at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg, Austria through Sept. 29. Our visual understanding of the three towers, far more than the other two sculptural installations of “Walks of Life,” is deeply shaped by their geographic setting. At the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, the “Points of View” statue blends into the pastoral backdrop of green trees and tall mountains, making them seem like natural formations. Darkened to a deep brown, they almost entirely lose their industrial twist. By contrast, in their Flatiron district context, their mechanized material overtakes their earthiness. They look like distortions of the skyscrapers of New York that have, on 23rd Street, replaced the mountains of Salzburg.
“Caldera,” “Mixed Feelings,” and “Points of View” stand as individual works of art, but also engage in a greater conversation regarding the artist’s ability to conquer his materials and the multiplicity of meanings that viewers can subsequently assign. Cragg’s sculptures celebrate not only the walks of life he has generated, but also those that walk between them, each adding their own perspective and value to his sculptures.