New York City’s Greatest Art Museum is a Killer Workout
There’s an art collection in New York that includes pieces by Albers, Dubuffet, Léger, Murakami, and Bertoia. It has some of the largest Frank Stellas in existence, and (possibly) the largest Lichtenstein. You’ve probably overlooked it. It’s entirely free, just requires a bit of legwork. The museum is Manhattan, and the galleries are lobbies that you’ve likely passed without a second thought.
Is it strange to go into a lobby with no intention of going anywhere else in a building? It is not when that’s the means to see all sorts of art—and the benefit is that your boss isn’t waiting a few floors away. A few of these lobbies are famous, most are not.
These are generally places of business with art. They are not museums, but I won’t steer you into places where you’re actively unwanted. Some encourage photographs, some forbid them: ask at the desk. A few lobby attendants were loquacious about their building art.
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Most of this art was made somewhere else and moved in, and some of that is great. The most exhilarating pieces, in this age of limitless portability, are site-specific, items that will not be coming to a gallery near you but that require a trip to a specific place, and were conceived with that exact setting in mind, not just a white wall somewhere. A number of architects and developers who worked in Manhattan were very keen on incorporating art into their works from the drawing board: the Rockefellers were enthusiastic, and architects as famed as Wallace Harrison, Gordon Bunshaft, and Edward Larrabee Barnes all built multiple Manhattan projects that sought to accomplish that. This is real immersive art, not some Van Gogh video game; it aims to elevate space just as that space elevates it.
Manhattan’s prime example of this—the art inside of Rockefeller Center—is hardly unsung but it always deserves more praise. It becomes a bit grating to hear, when it comes to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, so much about what isn’t there—Rivera—when what actually is—Sert—is so marvelous. Rivera is a king among muralists for sure, but the Sert murals are nothing short of breathtaking, and cause for stopping in as often as you can.
Sert’s main mural, American Progress, is a 16-feet by 41-feet grisaille work of joyous excess featuring the labors of relatively normal-sized brawny men, Brobdingnagian worker giants, Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson working on, well, that very complex, with the center rising in the backdrop beyond layers of scaffolding.
Sert’s other murals are tremendous, Time on the ceiling makes exultant trompe l’oeil use of the building’s architecture, with colossal workmen standing atop the lobby’s columns amidst swirling skies. His murals lining the building’s north elevator bay are also excellent, concerning Communications, the Abolition of War, the Abolition of Bondage, and more. They’re all chiaroscuro triumphs which make assertive use of the space on hand (and winningly slip around the edges of the elevator bay volumes). There’s also a specious notion that Sert represented a choice of simple capitalist boosterism after Rivera; close examination reveals some vaguely uncomfortable themes; titans kick around the globe like a football in the Abolition of War, and illustrations of industrial progress are more than slightly unnerving. It’s all a treasure. (There are somewhat more muted Frank Bragwyn murals lining the south elevator bay but these pale only in comparison to the Serts, and also must be seen.)
One block away is a piece that is overlooked even by those familiar with the main lobby, Dean Cornwell’s History of Transportation mural in 10 Rockefeller Plaza. It’s a wonderful gold and silver leaf mural, conceived with more than an eye on then-tenant Eastern Airlines. Cornwall’s is one of those countless murals whose approach to a topic is to depict every conceivable mythological and technological antecedent to a thing imaginable, so you have Da Vinci’s flying machine, hot air balloons, gods and goddesses, locomotives, wagons, and more. It’s Richard Scarry’s Busytown for the early postwar and it’s fantastic.
Finish your Rockefeller Center excursion by taking in Noguchi and Hildreth Miere’s bas-reliefs and the Barry Faulkner mosaic Intelligence Awakening Mankind (with robed religion, art, drama, and poetry figures all helping out) inside the loggia at 1250 6th Avenue. There’s also a later interpolation, a Sol Le Witt mural at the 20 Rockefeller Plaza lobby.
Slightly west along 6th Avenue you’ll begin to find art that doesn’t make the tourist itineraries.
1258 Avenue of the Americas features a great site-specific wall painting by Sarah Morris and a number of pieces from the UBS art collection, an acrylic and aluminum piece Transmuro UBS by Venezeulan artist Carlos Cruz-Diaz, a large late-stage Howard Hodgkin print, and a swirling Frank Stella emanation on magnesium and aluminum, The Blanket.
1266 Avenue of the Americas has a Kusama, a rather nice Harmony Korine painting, and two hand-woven wool Lichtenstein tapestries from the late 1970s, Amerind Landscape and Modern Tapestry. The latter have an interesting past, drawn from limited runs but designed specifically as tapestries, not derived from other painted works.
Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz’s 1271 6th Avenue (originally the Time-Life Building) features two great pieces. Fritz Glarner’s Relational Painting #88 (1959) faces one end of elevator bays. Swiss-American Glarner was an avowed practitioner of Concrete Art of the Mondrian spirit but shook up the routine of strict geometry and stark lines, introducing diagonals and a bit of fun into his work—and this lobby.
The wall on the opposite end of the building features another homage to the square, Josef Albers’ installation Portals. This work is of unusual composition, with the reliefs composed of nickel and bronze plates surrounded by tan and white carrera glass. There’s also a bronze relief work depicting typefaces by Francis Brennan, Fortune’s former art director. Note the flooring as well, which is deliberately Burle-Marx-like.
Nearby, a can’t-miss item is Lichtenstein’s (possibly) largest work, Mural with Blue Brushstroke, completed in 1986 at the AXA Equitable Building at 787 7th Avenue. It’s pure Pop Art fun with a sort of waterfall, a beachball-and-sun figuration, a letter, a marbled notebook, a drawing triangle, a random column, window blinds, a cornice (and features of the lobby itself, joints on the stone backdrop continue as lines across the piece). There are nods within to Léger, Matisse, De Kooning, Kelly, and more.
Outside, on the undiscovered semi-lobby of 6 1/2th Avenue (a forgotten and fascinating series of pedestrian passages), there’s a large Sol Le Witt piece, Bands Of Lines In Four Colors And Four Directions, Separated By Gray Bands, which also requires a look. Unfortunately a Scott Burton piece, Atrium Furnishment, was recently removed without explanation.
A stroll north can bring you to The Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street and its infamously inaccessible museum, (although finally to open next year!). At the moment you can catch glimpses through the windows of Giacometti, Miro, Henri Matisse, Calder. Outside, a bit more accessible, there’s a great brawny sort of rhinoceros-harpy, Moonbird by Miro and the large 9 sculpture by graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff.
Now it will cost you, but no lobby art account is complete without mention of Maxfield Parrish’s King Cole Bar mural at the St Regis Hotel (2 East 55th Street), favorite of Dali and Hemingway, featuring John Jacob Astor IV as the merry old soul himself. You can check into the flatulence rumors yourself.
Edward Larabee Barnes’ IBM Building at 590 Madison Avenue features a very appealing atrium but don’t neglect the art in the building’s actual lobby. There’s a Noguchi Octetra piece, designed originally as playground content, but subsequently appreciated as art (don’t play on it, for God’s sake). There’s a Murakami and a great Richard Prince painting and more..
Wallace Harrison’s midblock 717 5th Avenue contains a 61-by-16 feet Josef Albers white marble relief, Two Constellations, a work of impressive serenity. Harrison was so taken with the piece that he offered to pay for it himself should they fail to find funding for it.
535 Madison, another Larrabee Barnes building, features one of the most impressive duos of Midtown art. There’s a Dubuffet triptych composed of painted fiberglass and canvas, consisting of pieces titled The Illogical Unfolding, The Taciturn One and Flying Hen, frenetic and engrossing clouds in trademark tricolore shades floating on the wall. It’s great!
Its partner is a tapestry copy of Léger’s Les Trapézistes. Léger was a longtime circus fan, along with a number of Parisian peers, and kept up his habits over here at Ringling Brothers, and Barnum and Bailey.
The General Electric Building lobby does not contain art; it is art. John Walter Cross’s lobby is one of the city’s most impressive art deco spaces, and comparatively overlooked (and hopefully empty for you). There’s terrazzo, mosaic frieze, ornamental metal work including globes and flashes of electricity.
Another Barnes building, 599 Park Avenue features Frank Stella’s Salto nel Mio Sacco, a painted aluminum relief featuring a riot of shapes hoisted high atop the lobby. The title is borrowed from one of Calvino’s Italian folktales (translated, the title is roughly Jump in my Sack, which is not what it might sound like; a crippled boy acquires a magic sack in which he traps death, for a while). The work was one of Stella’s largest at the time.
Nearby, you’ve likely seen it, but don’t forget the reconstruction of Josef Albers’ Manhattan (54 by 28 feet) in the MetLife Building. The original was removed in 2000, and its panels’ asbestos content militated against any safe return, and if the lighting on the reinstallation is a little suspect, the work is not. There’s also Richard Lippold’s splendid Flight sculpture.
Don’t forget Gordon Bunshaft’s Manufacturer’s Trust Building (510 5th Avenue), still in excellent shape even as home to North Face (and pretending to browse parkas is much easier than pretending to have a meeting somewhere). Go upstairs to admire the space, the luminous ceiling and the 70-feet Bertoia screen sculpture consisting of 800 steel plates covered in a mix of brass, copper, and nickel. The surface is mottled and textured, with an air of a molten past. There’s another untitled wire cloud Bertoia sculpture on the second floor.
The Fred R. French building lobby at 551 5th Avenue is another art deco (literal) landmark. Take a look.
There’s a more recent very impressive Sarah Morris mural in Harrison and Abramowitz’s 104 West 40th Street. Across the street, around the entrance to 5 Bryant Park is a mural by Max Spivak consisting of 250,000 glass tiles depicting abstractions of garment industry tools.
Kevin Roche’s Edenic Ford Foundation atrium at 321 East 42nd Street keeps an abundant garden going in the middle of Manhattan, which is an art of its own.
A coherent itinerary becomes more difficult to offer after this. Eastward there are a number of things to see. There’s a Hans Hoffman mosaic mural surrounding an elevator bay at 711 3rd Avenue. The United Nations is its own art museum, and demands a trip.
Ely Jacques Kahn’s Film Center Building lobby at 630 9th Avenue is a pre-Columbian art deco delight.
The Bemmelmans Bar, by Monsieur Madeleine himself at 5 E 76th St is one of the most charming spaces in the city (also check out the Marcel Vertes murals in the hotel lobby itself). There’s a Constantino Nivola sculpture in a residential lobby courtyard at 1025 5th Avenue very near the Met. A gregarious doorman was happy to let me gawk.
Other attractions are scattered around. The AT&T Long Distance lobby at 32 6th Avenue is superb, thanks in large part to its Hildreth Meière mosaics. Golden lines link a robed female, eagle and condor to stylized figures of each (well most) continents on the ceiling, and the world from 1932 persists on a large mosaic map. Does this feature the only kangaroo mosaic in New York? Probably.
101 Avenue of the Americas features a number of pieces, one of Oldenberg’s many toothpaste reveries, Tube Supported by its Contents, a light-hearted Jiang Shuo Red Guards piece, a Harmony Korine painting and more.
In the Financial District, you won’t get inside to see to Julie Mehretu’s mural at the Goldman Sachs building but it’s worth walking by, the view through the windows is still good. See Kevin Roche’s 60 Wall Street Postmodern-Sword-and-Sandals Epic atrium while you can (miserable renovation plans are in the works). 199 Water Street’s lobby was built around three Frank Stella pieces, Basra Gate II, Sinjerli Variation I, and Damascus Gate Variation II, works from his “protractor series” deriving inspiration from the obvious tool and Middle Eastern cities with circular plans. 189 Maiden Lane just nearby features a capacious atrium featuring revolving art displays. The current offering on Gian Berto Vanni is worth a look if nearby.
A few locations that have previously been open are still restricting visitors as part of a COVID-19 regimen (do go into the Chrysler Building eventually to see Transport and Human Endeavor, the ceiling mural by Edward Turnbull). Woolworth Building lobby tours are also suspended, but keep watch for resumption. Numerous buildings also offer rotating displays of art. Check up on them.
Now you may wonder, why does this all exist? Well, it’s simple. Corporations have long been looking to impress. The lobby is the chance to make a grand impression, if not on you, then on some other eminent client. Art Historian Marin Sullivan has just written a book Alloys: American Sculpture and Architecture at Midcentury. In it she quotes the architect Serge Chermayeff, “Functionally the lobby is the building’s valve, receiving, distributing, ejecting; but beyond that it is an architectural experience which on entrance and departure imprints upon the spectator’s mind and eye the character and quality of the building and its organization—if it has either.”
In her book Sullivan praises midcentury sculptures that “encroached into the space and material language of architecture itself, and, as a result, the sculptures enlivened and were enlivened by the built environment in a more physical or structural manner.” This is the dynamic of site-specific art at its best, and it’s reliably a thrill.
Lobby art takes on many forms. Much of it shifts with ownership. Sometimes a tenant owns the art, sometimes a building owner does. Still others have exhibitions which rotate. I’ve sought to verify that the works I mention are actually, well, present after I began to find pieces mentioned as recently as 2020 in other reports that had since departed. We know that the Picasso Tricorne Tapestry at the Seagram Building departed for the New York Historical Society. There used to be a Frank Stella at the Saatchi and Saatchi lobby but not anymore. There’s another Picasso stage curtain (for Mercure) reproduction at 1251 6th Avenue but the portion of the building housing it is under reconstruction. I wrote to ask about its fate but no answer yet.
Lobbies are at frequent risk. A Noguchi installation at 666 5th Avenue was removed in 2020. The McGraw Hill building’s art deco lobby at 330 West 42nd Street was destroyed last year. Kevin Roche’s 60 Wall Street atrium is scheduled to be eviscerated for monotony. See them while you can (and lobby for more interior landmarks).
I cannot presume to offer a comprehensive list of worthy lobby art, nor would it be any fun to eliminate the possibility of new discoveries. Theaters and civic institutions can keep you going for additional weeks, and the United Nations complex is an art museum along with all else. I’ve also neglected plenty of great things in other boroughs: Keith Haring in a Brooklyn Hospital, or the murals at the Marine Air Terminal in Queens, or the art deco lobbies of the Bronx. The imperative is not to go into every lobby, but to remember to look. We know that the sidewalks of New York are great, but be sure to look in the lobbies.
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