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Revisiting Bolotowsky on Roosevelt Island

Prompted by the future Cornell Campus being built on Roosevelt Island, the New York Times recently profiled MAS’ work in finding and restoring a brilliant Bolotowsky mural in the Goldwater Memorial Hospital on the island. Here, Phyllis Cohen, the Director of the Adopt-a-Monument and Adopt-a-Mural programs, recounts how it was saved.

The mural painted by Bolotowsky at the Hospital for Chronic Diseases on Roosevelt Island, in 1941.

The mural painted by Bolotowsky at the Hospital for Chronic Diseases on Roosevelt Island, in 1941.

The Adopt-A-Mural Program was initiated on January 17, 1991–precisely the night that the Gulf War broke out and the air bombardment of Iraq led by the U.S. coalition began. That evening a panel of WPA scholars and friends assembled in the MAS Urban Center Gallery to discuss the extraordinary artistic achievements of the WPA and the important need to rescue many of those works from the late 1930s and 40s that had been neglected or painted over, such as the mural by the Russian-born Ilya Bolotowsky for the circular day room in Goldwater Hospital (Hospital for Chronic Diseases) on Roosevelt Island painted in 1941. The Gulf War ended four weeks later on Feb 28. But it took ten years, three mayoral administrations, countless bureaucratic changes within city agencies, and the steadfast consistency of our partners at Public Design Commission (formerly Art Commission) to return the Bolotowsky mural to public view in July 2001. It also took the shared generosity of the Judith Rothschild Foundation, Robert W. Wilson and Mike and Janet Slosberg and the Hospital itself to make this restoration possible.

Bolotowsky created four known murals for New York City while on the WPA. This one is the largest. The mural for the Williamsburg Housing Project, 1937, exists but was transferred to the Brooklyn Museum after it was restored in 1989. The mural designed for the Hall Of Medical Science, New York World’s Fair, 1938-39, was destroyed. The small mosaic created for Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, 1940, remains above a water fountain in the school’s hallway. When a mural survives on the original site, it is a happy moment.

None of us who doggedly and devotedly stayed with this project over the years ever anticipated just how marvelous the Bolotowsky mural would be. It is a masterpiece of American Modernism.

For decades the mural lay hidden under seven coats of paint: speckled white, yellow, green, green, pink and a very ugly brown. It is suspected that sometime in the 1950s Bolotowsky’s mural fell victim to changing tastes or zeal to freshen up the hospital. The administration now certainly recognizes the beauty of the mural and was very helpful when we were restoring it seven years ago and remains so.

Luca Bonetti, the Swiss-born, Italian trained conservator skillfully carried out the conservation, with his staff, guided by the knowledgeable Andrew Bolotowsky, Ilya’s son, who had long championed that his father’s mural be preserved.  Jackson Pollack, found a scaled down version of Bolotowsky’s mural with WPA material; Lee Krasner, his wife, saved it and donated it to the Guggenheim. Andrew photographed the scale version to use for an acrylic reproduction which his father was working on before his untimely death in 1981. This was all very lucky because the reproduction enabled Luca to restore the mural exactly as it was created.

Bolotowsky mural during restoration

Hand-chipping off layers of paint with chisels

The conservator, working with 5 assistants chipped off the first 3 layers of paint with chisels, a painstaking process for a 350 square foot mural. For the next 4 layers he applied a paint removing solvent paste with a brush and then peeled off the layers with a special paper. Then they injected an adhesive where the canvas base of the mural was detaching from the wall.

Bolotowsky was founder of the American Abstract Artists in 1936, a group that included Mondrian. They created purely abstract art in a style known as Neo-Plastic. When Bolotowsky wrote his proposal for the WPA commission for the hospital (known as the Hospital for Chronic Diseases in 1939), he said “the most suited design for a hospital mural should contain no definite subject matter but should be generally soothing in its line and color.”  The painting begins at waist height, for the seated patients. He wanted them to feel the universe was bigger as they sat in their wheelchairs. When I went there the year before the hospital closed I asked a patient sitting in the room for lunch what he thought about the mural. He replied “I think it’s very nice; you don’t have to know what it is but it’s something pleasant to look at. Bolotowsky would have been pleased.

Andrew, a professional flutist, would return to the hospital annually to give concerts to the patients and to keep an eye on his father’s wonderful mural.

Phyllis Samitz Cohen
Director, Adopt-A- Monument/Mural program

Bolotowsky's Full Mural