President’s Letter: January 2023

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

January 30, 2023

I have always admired the Courthouse as part of the wonderful assemblage of buildings surrounding Madison Square Park. Designed by John Brown Lord, and built in 1900, the Courthouse is now an exterior and interior landmark, added to the rolls in 1966. The formality of the buildings and the art reflects heavy judicial symbolism. Perhaps the court’s Chief Presiding Justice Rolando T. Acosta says it best: “While our existing art is beautiful and meaningful, it has remained static.” “Theories of justice have gradually expanded to include previously marginalized groups, and we want to invite voices from such groups into our courthouse to gather new perspectives on our system of justice.”

So, on one of those cold, dry nights two weeks ago, I was surprised and delighted to accompany Phyllis Cohen, MAS’s Director of Public Art, to the opening of Shahzia Sikander’s collection of works hosted by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, under the title of breathe light and air. The three works are temporary but represent some significant firsts for both artist and institution. Perhaps the most important of the works, though the least accessible, is the one atop that Appellate Division Courthouse, the first Judicial Department of the New York State Supreme Court.

  • Shahzia Sikander's sculpture WITNESS in Madison Square Park in Manhattan. Photo: Elizabeth Goldstein.
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  • Detailed tiles on WITNESS. Photo: Elizabeth Goldstein.
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  • Shahzia Sikander's sculpture NOW, atop the courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Judicial Department of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan's Flatiron District. Photo: Elizabeth Goldstein.
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Sikander created her largest work ever in the aptly named NOW, a gold female figure that stands on a lotus flower. NOW aligns with statues of nine illustrious lawgivers and religious male figures, including Moses, Confucius, and Justinian, and elevates this symbolic woman to the same plane as these historic men for the first time since the Court’s opening over 100 years ago. The new addition to the pantheon presides over 25th Street and there is no question that its artist is a woman. It seems especially fitting that Sikander’s NOW should break the glass sculptural ceiling at the Courthouse. I can only hope that if her fellow sculptors were able to see the building now, they would admire this Pakistani-American’s gutsy artistry.

The transcendent public artworks expose the lack of female representation in monuments. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the brilliant chief curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy described them as such: “Through luminous allegorical female figures, Shahzia’s project asks who is historically represented and who wields power in the justice system, both symbolically and actually.”

Sikander is feminist, in her words, and in her art. It seems profound in its assertiveness. Her work shakes the viewer. Even for those of us who are deeply sympathetic, it is still an eye-opener.

WITNESS, her sculpture in Madison Square Park, is also monumental, with swirling arms and legs suggesting tree roots, wears a hoop skirt decorated with dazzling multicolored glass and gold mosaics, was inspired by the spectacular 1902 Beaux-Arts stained-glass ceiling in the Courthouse. Its skirt is covered in Arabic letters spelling out “havah.” I saw it at night, and I am eager to see it in the daylight. I am sure it will glisten provocatively.

Thanks to the justices for reaching for a transformative moment in the art of the Courthouse. Thanks to Madison Square Conservancy and the Public Art of the University of Houston System for bringing this art to the public. Thanks to our own Phyllis Cohen for her matchmaking between the Court and the Madison Square Conservancy. (And her help on this article!) And finally, thanks to Sikander for bringing a clear-eyed vision of justice we strive for.

The artwork is there through June 4th. Go see it for yourself!

Elizabeth Goldstein Signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President, Municipal Art Society of New York

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