Manhattan’s Bronze Guy

Playground, a Tom Otterness sculpture cum anthropomorphic architecture, cum dreamy play area is a reclining behemoth. The gentle giant is a whirl of fun and fancy, an open invitation for children to play and for adults to rekindle a spark of childlike wonderment. The New York City iteration of the limited edition series is nestled between One River Place and Silver Towers on West 42nd St. between 11th and 12th Avenues, not too far from the Hudson River in Manhattan. The park where it is located is scheduled to open in the spring of 2010 as reported in this New York Times article where a photo shows it in situ.

For scale, think of Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Otterness’ creation is of such gargantuan proportions that kids can slide down its lower legs and one of its arms. A swing hangs from its flexed knees and the figure’s head is hollow allowing for a pint-sized observation deck looking out on the world below from an elevation of nearly 20 feet. There are also numerous tiny size people interspersed throughout the installation that will endear themselves to the toddler set.

For imaginative élan, dream if you will of a fourth adventurer for Dorothy and Toto on their way to Oz. The Bronze Guy, heart bursting with the echoing laughter of children, could be The Tin Man’s long lost cousin. I can see him rising up and imparting his gentle, rough and tumble wisdom, a boon companion as they progress along the yellow brick road.

Manhattan developer Larry Silverstein purchased the sculpture as a unique signature piece for his West 42nd St. properties. He stumbled across an image through a Marlborough Gallery catalogue. He made some inquiries and discovered that the installation was conceived as a series of six editions. Three are owned by private collectors. One collector has two, one each for houses in Florida and Cape Cod. The third calls Aspen, Colorado home. Silverstein travelled to Cape Cod to view that edition up close and personal. He loved it and wasted no time in purchasing the fourth edition of Playground for a Manhattan installation.

I loved it too when I first saw a photo of the sculpture in The New York Times in early January. Being a man of much more modest means than Mr. Silverstein, acquisition of the 5th or 6th editions is not an option. I have no doubt though that it would spice up the backyard and make our kids giddy with disbelief, overcome with excitement.

I settled for contacting Otterness’ studio and asked if an image of the sculpture could be used for the masthead of PlayGroundology. I also requested an interview for PlayGroundology’s inaugural post. I got an affirmative on both.

Tom’s voice was immediately warm and inviting as he explained that Playground’s origins could be traced back to a public art competition sponsored by the City of Milwaukee. He didn’t get the nod for the commission but kept the computer boards because he liked the project and a significant amount of work had already been completed in the concept, design and modelling stages.

A private collector came through Otterness’ studio accompanied by his pregnant wife. He saw the drawings for the project and looking over at the mother-to-be said, “Well, we’ve got to buy a swing set anyway.” As Otterness explains, this got the ball rolling again. “Having the collectors come in all of a sudden brought this back to life. Now with Silverstein it’s kind of a dream come true. It’s come back through this private commission, what was meant to be a public commission and made the full circle to a park that’s open to the public. I still have a couple more to do and I hope they find public homes. I’d like that a lot.”

Playground creator Tom Otterness comments on -

Playground’s scale

“As is my way I typically like to mess with the scale especially to the way the kids would think. You know a lot of it is not just physical play but it’s sort of mental play too. I wanted to do this kind of Alice In Wonderland kind of approach to how does the scale of the sculpture effect the kids’ perception of their own size. They come to this huge figure and then feel really small and then go to the little tiny figures that are all over it and feel really enormous. You can climb up inside of the head and look out of the eyes. All of a sudden you’ve got a 35 ft. body in front of you. It’s like Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.”

“I make these enormous things and for a work like ‘Playground’ I can imagine little kids running up to it and locking in on a little tiny figure and kind of ignoring the whole big thing you know. Sometimes you get surprised. At different installations, I find kids talking to the little figures, or running back and forth and pouring water into the ear of a figure on the ground. They just get really engaged in the little tiny guys and sometimes the bigger thing doesn’t matter to them as much.”

Sculpture as play

“Almost all my sculptures are meant to be play pieces. The first really major public one was down in Battery Park, down by Stuyvesant High School. It’s been 15 almost 20 years and it’s getting much used down there. There’s maybe a 100 small figures – a very complicated project an kind of a Wall St. thing. In another playground down south from that in the same park I’ve got a dodo bird. A world that’s a dodo bird and a fountain. Kids climb and play on that all the time. The idea is that the work’s off the pedestal that it’s sitting by a bench next to you. It’s meant to be climbed on and handled.”

Kids’ reactions

“I haven’t got to see them on this piece. I’ll get to watch that in the spring. But close to my house on East Houston and Essex Streets is Public School PS 20. I donated a big frog there that the kids climb on all the time. I often go to the school to give lectures. When ‘Playground’ flashed up during a slide show you should’ve heard them. There was a loud WHOAAAH that moved through the auditorium. I wish I had a recording.”

Coqui, the big frog, is PS 20’s mascot. She looks like a great addition to the standard playground equipment.

On childhood playgrounds

“I’ll tell you the truth I didn’t spend much time in playgrounds. I went to the creek you know. We had a creek behind our house. I caught frogs and snakes, crawdads, whatever we could get our hands on back there and that was the adventure. Sometimes I try to bring that feeling, it’s like a little tiny world. You know kids get into that. You’re looking really carefully for really small things and I try and bring that experience into my pieces for the kids growing up in New York City. We did have playgrounds where I grew up in Kansas and I spent some time at them. I remember really hot slides. We cranked around on the swings and stuff. The playgrounds were pretty basic.”

Note – Safety experts were consulted during Playground’s design phase. Their recommendations were incorporated into the final work.

As we wrapped our conversation, Tom invited my family to visit his Brooklyn studio whenever we’re in New York City. I’m looking forward to taking him up on this and to seeing the West 42nd St. edition of Playground. I can just imagine Noah (4) and Nellie (2) discovering Playground – pure pandemonium, followed by entrancement, total engagement.

Putting this post together, I thought the West 42nd St. installation would make an excellent location for a TV show or film shoot. Playground’s structural and design ingenuity in combination with its visual magnetism are such that it’s probably only a matter of time before it’s on a small, or big screen somehwere near you. The Seinfeld gang could have had some fun with it. Imagine Kramer’s careening slapstick antics on the apparatus and George’s scheming for some kind of personal benefit. Below is the opening to a Seinfeld show that never was.

Costanza – Jerry, I’d really like you to meet this bronze guy. He’s made a real impression on me.

Seinfeld -Yeah, yeah George. You’re easily impressed. What’s this guy got that’s got you going on like his agent?

Costanza – Jerry, you wouldn’t believe the size of this guy. I’ve never seen anything like it, a colossus. And the job he’s got, it’s like a dream. Outdoors all day not moving around too much, relaxed, unbelievable.

Seinfeld – George, George, George. Don’t get carried away.

Costanza – I’m telling you, you’re going to love this guy. Let’s get Kramer and Elaine and go on up to West 42nd St. You won’t regret it…….

Not sure where it would have gone from there but this Playground has got something that the show about nothing could have woven into a modern urban parable.

So, can an inanimate object have charisma? Watch the kids on West 42nd St. this spring to get an answer.

Playgroundology will bring occasional updates of Tom’s work as it links to the world of playgrounds. Coming up in the spring is a San José installation at Happy Hollow Park.

Photo Credits in order of appearance

  1. Dick Jackson
  2. Kat Sterck
  3. Kat Sterck
  4. Vogon Poet

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

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11 responses to “Manhattan’s Bronze Guy

  1. Great post and interview!!!! Looking forward to reading more, Playground on 42nd is now on my list to visit. My boys will love it. Now I want to check out all his sculptures.

  2. Pingback: PlayGroundology « Welcome to PlayGround Chronicles

  3. Pingback: Tour of Otterness’ 42nd Street Playground | PlayGroundology

  4. Pingback: Meet the Playgrounding Expert, Alex Smith {Playful Dialogues} | The Playful ParentsThe Playful Parents

  5. Took my four children here today. Made a special visit to see him on our itinery, all the way from Australia on holiday. It was amazing, just as I had dreamed it would be. An inspiration to grown up and young minds alike.

    • Thanks so much for your note. If you have any photos you’d like to share, I’d be pleased to post them on PlayGroundology FB. I’m so pleased it was a memorable visit for you and your kids. I’m looking forward to the day, I get to bring our kids there too. Safe travels, Alex

  6. I had the sheer joy of interviewing Tom Otterness this summer. He is such a great artist and an amazingly warm human being. I was lucky to be given a little pendant of one of his sculptures from the Armory Show. Here is the article

    http://www.elegran.com/news/2013/06/in-conversation-with-the-sculptor-tom-otterness

  7. You are no doubt unaware of Mr. Otterness’ past. His subject matter and supposed love of children is ironic considering he once adopted a dog from a shelter for the sole purpose of making a film of killing it. He tied it to a tree and as it wagged its tail, he shot it in the head. He made an “art film” out of this. It was a long time ago, but I think that anyone who could ever do that is a sadist. It reveals what sort of person he really is, no matter how he appears. I love his work, but not enough to forget the sort of person he obviously is, in spite of his facade. http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/tom-otterness-dog-killer-cute-sculptures-disguise-artist-cruel-article-1.144249

    • I don’t know how you atone for an animal’s life but I’m not sure it’s measured in dollars. Otterness has admitted the error of his ways and apologized. His work, from what I have seen, brings joy to people, myself included. Why not just focus on the joy aspect and move on?

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