Sculpture in Environment and Tony Rosenthal's Alamo
Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo, more familiarly known as The Cube, turns 50 years old this October. The sculpture arrived at Astor Place in 1967, as part of Sculpture in Environment. This show brought art out of the museum setting and into the public spaces around Manhattan, with large-scale sculptures installed all around the city, and gave New Yorkers their first look at the new work built at a public scale. The show included twenty-nine works by twenty-four sculptors, and was sponsored by the Office of Cultural Affairs, as part of the Cultural Showcase Festival. Doris Freedman is credited in the catalog with conceiving the show, and she went on to be a major promoter of public art in New York. She was the city’s first Director of Cultural Affairs, and founded the Public Art Fund. Sculpture in Environment followed the tremendously successful sculpture show, Primary Structures, held at the Jewish Museum in the spring of 1966, and the two exhibitions did a great deal to stir up excitement about the new sculpture of the era.
     Sculpture in Environment was the first citywide exhibition of large-scale sculpture, and marked the start of a major public art movement. Over the next decade, Detroit, Newport, Cincinnati, Toronto, Grand Rapids, and many other cities hosted such exhibitions. These shows tied in with the attempts at urban renewal at that time, and were a way to get people to visit the cities and develop a greater feeling of connection and civic pride. They were also part of a very democratic ideal of making art available to everyone. With the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, and the 1% for Art programs, that allotted one percent of the budget for new buildings go to purchasing artwork, there was an unprecedented amount of money available for commissioning and purchasing artwork.
     While painting in the United States had made enormous strides in the 1940s and 50s, sculpture had largely lagged behind. The 1960s saw an efflorescence of new work, with artists embracing the techniques of industrial fabrication to create works that could hold their own in the urban environment. This led to a new kind of public art—no longer military figures on horseback, these shows introduced and promoted truly modern abstract public sculpture.
     In addition to Rosenthal, artists the exhibition included Alexander Calder, Alexander Liberman, Robert Murray, Marisol, Louise Nevelson, Barnett Newman, George Rickey, Tony Smith, David Smith, and David von Schlegell. Each of these artists showed works made of metal. Others explored alternate materials: Stephen Antonakos and Chryssa both created sculptures that incorporated neon, shown at the NYU Loeb Student Center and Grand Central Terminal, respectively. Forrest Myers installed searchlights in the four corners of Tomkins Square Park—the beams met high overhead, creating a work of art truly at the scale of the skyscrapers of New York.

     Only Alamo remains on the streets of the city today. At the conclusion of Sculpture in Environment, Rosenthal and the collector Susan Morse Hilles gave the sculpture to New York, and in the decades since it’s become one of the landmarks of Manhattan. Fifty years later, Alamo remains a rendez-vous point for locals and tourists alike. Walk through Astor Place any time of the day or night, and you’ll see someone trying to make the sculpture spin around. The aspirations of the artists and curators of Sculpture in Environment have been realized in the city’s embrace of this work of art.
September 2017