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“Rockefeller Center is a symbol for everything America stands for—big visions and hard work,” said Ugo Rondinone, standing at the center of the New York City landmark. The two traits can also function as subtitles for the Swiss-born artist’s latest sculptures – rough-cut blocks of bluestone stacked into Stonehenge-meets-Disneyland figures that are staggered in a primordial parade on the plaza of Rockefeller Center (through July 7) and arrayed on poured concrete pedestals in an exhibition at Gladstone Gallery (through July 3).
The stone forms in Midtown are scaled to commune with skyscrapers as well as pedestrians. “Human Nature,” organized by the Public Art Fund with real estate developer Tishman Speyer, consists of nine stone figures that stand between 16 and 20 feet tall and weigh in at up to 30,000 pounds each.
“A public sculpture is a challenge, because it should reach as much of the public as possible, either by alienating people or embracing people,” said Rondinone after his lecture earlier this month at The New School. “I like to embrace the public. The important point for me was to come in with something basic yet very developed, and to remind us of our basic values. I wanted to bring two forces together, the human figure and nature.”
Powerful juxtapositions—of themes, materials, and styles—unite Rondinone’s diverse body of work, which has ranged from sound and video installations to painting and photography. “I want to keep the work in a certain stage of ‘disbalance,’ or of alertness,” he explained of his shape-shifting practice. “It’s more to keep dynamism within the work.”
Achieving such vibrancy from craggy stone stacks was a matter of getting to know the material and the site. “Midtown is paved with bluestones, so I wanted to bring the same material…[but] have a contrast to the very smooth surface of the surroundings,” said Rondinone. “The space is very narrow—long but narrow—and I wanted more of a horizontal force instead of a vertical force, not to compete with the vertical energy of Rockefeller Center.” He turned to a Pennsylvania quarry for the giant slabs, but only after spending about a year working with small figures and getting a feel for proportions.
At smaller scales and displayed in greater density atop concrete blocks, as they are at Gladstone Gallery in an exhibition called “soul,” the stone figures lose their lovable gentle giant quality and trigger an entirely different set of emotions. Paradoxically, it’s these more diminutive figures—surrounded by walls of raw concrete and all facing the same direction—that feel monumental, imbued with memory rather than magic.
“Ugo is an extraordinarily versatile artist, and that’s one reason why it’s so rewarding to work with him,” said Nicholas Baume, director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund, who invited the artist to propose a project for Rockefeller Center just over two years ago. “Despite the striking diversity of his work, there’s also a very strong continuity and singularity of his vision—a way of creating a powerful atmosphere that opens us to new possibilities of thought and feeling.”