Reflections on “Monument” in Madison Square Park

January 30, 2020

This month, a captivating new art installation debuted in Madison Square Park in conjunction with the Admiral Farragut Monument that MAS has proudly conserved and maintained for many years. The installation, Monument, by Krzysztof Wodiczko, transforms the silent bronze figure of sea-faring fame into a host for the poignant stories of twelve refugees who have been resettled in the United States. By projecting video onto Farragut’s face and arms, the artist brings the 19th century naval officer into conversation with these courageous individuals.

Courage was a particularly important characteristic of Farragut himself. A child of the frontier, he went to sea at the age of ten and became a revered Civil War hero who won fame by wresting New Orleans from confederate control. Against all odds, his troops captured Mobile Bay where Farragut uttered the famous directive, “Dam the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

Admiral Farragut Monument at night
Krzysztof Wodiczko (American, b. Poland 1943); Monument, 2020; Digital color video, sound, 25 minutes; Collection the artist, courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo: Andy Romer Photography.

The prominent sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, depicted the venerated Admiral in full regalia. The memorial, dedicated in 1891, was Saint-Gaudens’ first major public sculpture and established him as our country’s foremost sculptor. The elaborate pedestal with allegorical low-reliefs by the esteemed architect Stanford White inaugurated a lifelong collaboration between these two great men.

It was endearing to hear Krzysztof call our Farragut the most beautiful statue in the city. Gazing at the magnificent bronze figure by Saint–Gaudens, I recalled Madison Square Park and the monument in 2000. As the city launched a much-needed park renovation, the MAS recognized the timing was perfect to restore the neglected statue to its original artistic significance. Farragut had surrendered the luminous gilding ornamenting his uniform, belt, and sword hilt to age and the elements; the bronze surface was disfigured and black; and, the sword itself, missing since 1993, had to be replicated.

While the MAS was a catalyst for this restoration, it was the generosity of the Paul and Klara Porzelt Foundation that made the restoration possible and their maintenance endowment now ensures the statue’s longevity. It was an honor for me to lead the conservation in 2002-03 through the Adopt-A-Monument program, with our partners in NYC Parks and the Public Design Commission. That privilege continues with our stewardship of the revered monument, working with the outstanding conservators, Jackie and Cameron Wilson.

The backdrop of Krzysztof’s visionary public art project heightens our awareness of what a monument is meant to be–derived from Greek, the word comes from “menmosynon,” meaning to remind, to warn, or to tell. This visual masterwork conveys the crisis and courage of refugees.

The debut of Monument on the frigid evening of January 16 was immersive and inspiring; for all of us who care deeply about public statues and their impact on citizens of the world, it was an exhilarating experience that stirred hearts. We hope you will stop by to bear witness to it yourself. Monument is on view from 5:00–8:00 PM every day except Sundays, now through May 10, 2020.

Phyllis Cohen
Director of Public Art

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