Have you ever noticed how much sculpture exists in public spaces? In places of communal gathering all over the world—from the piazzas of Rome to the beaches of Perth—sculpture is a fixture. And in New York, it can be a challenge to leave your apartment without seeing a public sculpture, let alone murals and wheat paste motifs.
Yet, how much public sculpture can you name? And of those, do you know who the artist behind the work is? This article highlights the pieces you can see all around the island of Manhattan en plein air —no admission fee is required. We will travel from the bottom of Manhattan to Washington Heights, visiting works that call New York home permanently and those that can only be seen for a limited time.
Starting downtown at Battery Park is Hebru Brantley’s (b. 1981) The Great Debate — a 16-foot tall steel and fiberglass sculpture that is part of the artist’s Flyboy series. The series pays homage to the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps. They were instrumental in aerial combat for Allied forces during World War II. Brantley’s goal with his Flyboy character is to create an inspirational figure of a superhero of color. The figure stands tall with his back to the water, arms crossed, staring down the city of skyscrapers, a modern-day David taking on Goliath. Nearby on Wall Street, a fearless girl with hands on her hips confronts an iconic bronze bull, another symbol of strength and resolve in unexpected places. The Great Debate will be on view through November 13, 2022.
Strategically placed between the New York County Family Court and the Criminal Court buildings, Donna Ferrato’s first sculptural creation, “Wall of Silence,” sheds light on the realities of gender-based violence. It recognizes and subsequently gives a voice to those who have been criminalized for defending themselves against their abusers. With its mirrored surface, the location inherently incorporates the onlooker – lawyers, families, judges, individuals, and law enforcement – asserting that actions have consequences we can’t always escape.
Going Uptown, next is Union Square, where you can see sculptures of historic heroes, including Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) by Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886), as well as one piece depicting Mahatma Gandhi. Lincoln became President in March of 1861, and the Civil War broke out the following month, which raged until Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. Lincoln was assassinated five days later, and this statue was sponsored in 1868 by the Union League Club to honor his legacy as an abolitionist and President. Brown strove to create a style of sculpture that was distinctly American and was also responsible for the nearby George Washington sculpture. His design for the Lincoln monument was met initially with criticism that persisted for years— the New York Times reported in September of 1870 that: “A frightful object has been placed in Union-square. It is said to be a statue of a man who deserves to be held in lasting remembrance as a true patriot, a sincere, unselfish, noble-hearted chief in times of great trouble and perplexity—Abraham Lincoln. But it does not resemble Mr. Lincoln.” You can decide for yourself – does the sculpture match the five-dollar bill?
Sentinels of 14th Street preside at the 8th avenue subway station, courtesy of contemporary sculptor Tom Otterness (b. 1952). While this installation technically isn’t free, you can check it out anytime you are traveling through this station. In Life Underground, whimsical characters keep the city’s commuters company and delight tourists just the same. Little figures sit on railings or stand alongside the subway riders around the station, and one group nods to the urban legend of alligators living in the city’s sewer system. Otterness, a New York local, has said about this project: “If I’m feeling depressed, I take a detour over to 14th Street, and there is always somebody doing something with the work there, and I look at that, and feel everything is OK, and think to myself, what’s my problem, and I get back on the subway and go.” (Shwetha Ravishankar, “In conversation with the Sculptor – Tom Otterness,” Elegran, 2013).
At Bryant Park, American novelist and ex-compatriot Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) is commemorated in bronze, one of 5 sculptures in the park. The bust is based on a 1923 cast by sculptor Jo Davidson (1883-1952) that he created in Paris when visiting with her. Stein is situated near the New York City Public Library —the mark of Stein’s literary accomplishments and lasting influence. A hostess of a famous cultural salon in Paris, she was a fervent patron of the arts who influenced the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cezanne. Gertrude Stein is also an icon for the LGBTQ community, as she was always at odds with society’s notions of femininity and challenged gender roles, had female partners, and was involved in polyamorous relationships.
Over at Rockefeller Center, Art Deco sculpture reigns supreme. A collaboration between Lee Lawrie (1877-1963) and Rene Paul Chambellan (1893-1955), Atlas is synonymous with Rockefeller Plaza and can be seen from a taxi on 5th Ave. Mythology was a popular Art Deco subject. In Greek mythology, Atlas worked with the Titans to rebel against the Gods of Olympus, landing him with a sentence to carry the Earth on his back for eternity when the Titans inevitably lost. Paul Manship’s (1885-1966) Prometheus can be found around the corner, presiding over the plaza’s roller rink in the summer and ice skating in the winter.
The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monumentrecent is a recent addition to Central Park’s literary walk. Unveiled in August of 2020, this is the first sculpture in the park to depict real women from history and was constructed to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The monument depicts suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and abolitionist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883). It would seem that this monument accomplishes what many Americans have been demanding: more of a display of inclusivity and gender equality. But the piece has been called into question for the choice of historical figures it celebrates. While Stanton and Anthony were champions of women’s rights, they primarily focused on white women who were at least middle class and educated, even using racist rhetoric to further their cause. Over time, the two asserted that their goal of voting rights for white women took precedence over Black men having the right to vote. The monument only included Stanton and Anthony at its inception, but harsh criticism of this white-washed depiction led to the incorporation of Sojourner Truth. Truth was born as an enslaved person in New York who escaped before the abolition of slavery in the state and won a court case against a white man to regain custody of a son in slavery two years later. She was a preacher and gave speeches on the evils of slavery. Overall, the monument is palatable to any passers-by but fails to adequately represent the struggles and strife that arise in the fight for women’s rights, but visit it and see what you think for yourself.
Over on Riverside Drive, tucked away so that only those who frequent the area could see it, is Joan of Arc by Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973)— the first public monument in New York honoring a female. Huntington transformed Joan’s standard depiction as a demure, saintly young woman into a fearsome warrior. The legendary hero appears formidable on her steed, sword raised high, looking out over the Hudson as if keeping watch over her city. Both the sculpture and the artist are emblems of feminism—although Huntington’s husband was one of the wealthiest men of the day, her commercial success as a sculptor was self-made as she achieved renown before the beginning of their relationship.
Uptown in Harlem, another epic woman of history is commemorated. Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913), one of the architects of the Underground Railroad, is depicted in 1800s-style clothing, her dress smattered with faces, evoking the thousands of people her efforts helped to liberate from the South and the machine of slavery. Placed in 2008, the sculpture, conceived by Alison Saar (b. 1956), was meant to depict Tubman as a locomotive herself, as an unstoppable engine pushing forward to justice, progress, and equality. She is intentionally oriented to face the south, heading out on another trip to liberate the oppressed from their chains. Behind her, roots rise, symbolizing the uprooting of the vile tradition of slavery. This was just the 5th sculpture of a woman out of 150 statues dedicated to historical figures across the city, which prompted the She Built NYC campaign that advocates for public sculpture dedicated to female leaders.
If you make it through all of these and are still hungry for more, check out the Sisyphus Stones in Fort Washington Park, started by Uliks Gryka in 2017 and kept up by community members. While you’re there, it’s also worth visiting the Little Red Lighthouse, which was built in 1889 for use in Sandy Hook, NJ, but was relocated to the Hudson River in 1921 to aid in navigation.