Proposals for a Monument

Public art has the power to show us what we want to see—or reveal what we deserve.

Then

Philip Guston, 1939

Queens, New York

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

Then

Philip Guston, 1939

Queens, New York

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

The artist Philip Guston had a career that spanned much of the 20th century and defied most of its artistic categorizations. A member of the Works Progress Administration’s mural division in the 1930s, he shifted his style from political satire and social realism during that time to abstract expressionism in the ‘50s, then to cartoonish figuration in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even his name changed: Guston was born Philip Goldstein in 1913 to a Russian Jewish immigrant family then living in Montreal.

The Goldsteins later moved to Los Angeles, where Philip met young Jackson Pollock. Both were expelled from their art high school for distributing satirical pamphlets that accused the school, among other things, of promoting sports over the arts. Jackson eventually completed his education; Philip did not. Instead, he made art, putting together his first solo show—at a Hollywood bookstore—in 1931, when he was 18. On the walls of the store, he hung a series of paintings depicting the Ku Klux Klan. In one of the paintings on display, hooded Klansmen assembled before a brick wall, while in the background, a black man was hanged from a tree. The Klan got word of the young artist’s show, and two Klansmen walked into the bookstore, took his paintings from the wall, and slashed them.

Not long after that, Goldstein traveled south to Mexico, where he studied under social realist muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. In 1935, at the age of 22, he moved to New York to work for the WPA and changed his name to Guston. He did sketches and cartoons for murals for Penn Station, the New York City Customs House, and Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital; none of them ever made it on to a wall. Finally, he got a gig that seemed on track to actually be painted: a mural in a New York housing project that was assigned by the New York state director of the WPA mural division, Burgoyne Diller. But by this point, Guston’s work had also come to the attention of Holger Cahill, the head of the Federal Art Project. In 1938, the 25-year-old artist was tapped to create a massive mural that would decorate the facade of the WPA building at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

Philip Guston’s mural at the entrance of the WPA building at New York’s World’s Fair, 1939. David Robins, courtesy of The Smithsonian
Guston’s mural, in progress. David Robins, courtesy of The Smithsonian

The fair was a towering spectacle of human achievement, with elaborate international pavilions designed by participating countries, amusement rides, and halls devoted to the latest in scientific, technological, and cultural advancements. The WPA building would celebrate the organization’s role in creating jobs for the unemployed, with demonstrations of skills such as weaving and woodcarving. Guston’s mural design reflected this theme, depicting four heroic, muscled laborers: a scientist, a surveyor, a mason, and a construction worker, arrayed against a backdrop of a building-in-progress.

Even with the help of assistants, it took Guston around five months to complete the 500-square-foot piece, which he applied to the curved, cement exterior of the building with a newly developed rubber-based paint formulated for use outdoors. All around him, similar work was underway; it was customary for World Fairs’ towering facades to be decorated with massive artworks devoted to the history and future of the building’s theme. His effort paid off; a New York Times critic declared the composition “magnificent,” and fairgoers voted it the best of all the outdoor murals at the fair.

After this success, Guston went on to be a bit of artistic chameleon in the following decades, trying on cartoon-inspired figures in the late 1960s after a bout of abstract expressionism. But he never forgot his time as a muralist for the working man. In a 1965 interview, Guston said that his time with the WPA was crucial to his development as an artist. The government funded art program “kept me alive and working,” he said. “It was my education.”

Then

Philip Guston, 1939

Queens, New York

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

Now

Balint Zsako, 2018

San Francisco, California

Now

Balint Zsako, 2018

San Francisco, California

There’s a photograph of the artist Philip Guston from February 1939 that shows him working on an enormous mural at night. Guided from below by a harsh, bright light, he leans out on precarious scaffolding to sketch the figure of a man standing with a plank of lumber and tools—one of four figures that would eventually include a scientist, a surveyor, a mason, and a construction worker. Guston was working through the night to complete the mural for the exterior of the Works Progress Administration building for the New York World’s Fair, which would open in Flushing Meadows Park in less than two months. This government-funded public art was meant to demonstrate that the country was being put back to work through large-scale public projects.

Guston’s mural, titled Maintaining America’s Skills, is genuinely optimistic about the United States’ hopes and strengths. Looking at images of it led me to consider what large-scale public art would look like today if it directly addressed the conflicts at the heart of American society. What public art do we have, and what public art do we deserve?

I began a series of paintings titled Proposals for a New American Public Art that would take the language of public art—the wall, the plinth, concrete, scaffolding—and combine it with contemporary social issues in a way that would encourage the viewer to puzzle out what they mean.

In these proposals, I want to convey the mood of how one might feel if they encountered these sculptures in a public space: a hoodie propped up like a scarecrow, the interior of a police car cast entirely of glass, an American flag that lets you see through to the sky beyond. Some only show the back of the structure, revealing how it might be made, to suggest that the viewer would be able to walk around it and see it from many sides.

The paintings are self-contained artworks that are very precise in their color, composition, and references to art history, but I think it would be fantastic to produce them as public installations. Some of the ideas may seem bewildering or very difficult to fabricate in the real world, but I believe most would be structurally possible. I would want them to be installed where no one would expect them—where people could find them without too much of an explanation and come to their own conclusions about the stories, problems, and ideas they represent.

Maintaining America’s Skills. A replica of Philip Guston’s mural made out of steel, enamel paint, concrete, and screws.
Color-by-Numbers Flag (20-Foot-Tall Cast-Iron Version).
Untitled. A black hoodie as crucifix, scarecrow, or memorial.
Stephon Clark in Sacramento on a March Evening. A tragedy for those who know; a description of an ordinary moment for those who don’t.
All of the Air in a Police Car Cast As Blue Glass. The officers and the criminals breathe the same air in a police car. It could smell like sweat, lunch, gunpowder, fear, or anger.
Stick Man. A monument made from sticks and twine that stays erect as long as there is someone to take care of it, but which would quickly crumble and decompose if ignored.
Untitled. A structure that isn’t dangerous until you climb it.
One Allegory for Two Kinds of News Media.
Speaking Made the Wall Crumble.
Rorschach.
Monument to a Drone (Before Restoration). A stone sculpture, often defaced, in honor of the hardworking drone.
A Monument to the Necessities and Abilities of Lungs, Carved in White Marble.
Plastic Surgery As Limestone Sculpture (A Celebration). Construct your identity with the help of technology, much like the midcentury American idealism of building highways and dams, and triumphing over nature.
A Light Bulb Is Not Like the Moon, Sorry.
The Tent. A strong symbol to some, but ultimately a weak structure.
How to Hang a Man.
His Skin Was Like the Color of the Sky (After Kerry James Marshall).
Fountain (Gunshot Wound). A metal sculpture with a small pump, producing a delicate stream of red. In memoriam of those who have lost their lives to a person with a gun.
The Entire Area That a Person Is Able to See When Their Eyes Are Fixed in One Position. The space between what you’re looking at and your brain, in concrete.
Sixteen Americans.

Balint Zsako is a Hungary-born collagist and painter whose work has been shown around the world. He was on the long list for the 2014 Sobey Art Award for young Canadian artists, and his work has been featured in the drawing anthology Vitamin D2 (2013). He lives and works in San Francisco.

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