John Newman
The Genie of the Station
By Elizabeth King and Carlton Newton

In Public View
A Newsletter of the Public Art Commission of the City of Richmond
Volume Five, Autumn 2003

In early 2000, as plans for the renovation of the historic Main Street Passenger Railroad Station in downtown Richmond unfolded, the Richmond Public Art Commission was charged with the task of organizing an international call for proposals for artworks for the new site. Selected works would be eligible for funding under allocation from the Federal Transit Administration. The Public Art Commission (itself founded in 1991 by City Council), through it’s Coordinator, Sally Bowring, formed a Site Selection Team consisting of Commission members, city administrators, the city architect and the project manager for the renovation, representatives from the neighborhood, from CSX, and from Amtrak. The diversity of interests and views within this dedicated citizen group brought together an unusual range of community, professional, political, economic, and artistic values. The team ultimately reviewed 129 entries from an international array of artists. Six outstanding finalists, all from the U.S., were invited to present finished models and complete plans for sites both inside and outside the station: Sam Gilliam, Jun Kaneko, John Newman, Stephen Fox, Red Grooms, and a collaborative proposal from Camden Whitehead, Burt Pinnock, and Chris Chase. Richmond-born painter Stephen Fox’s proposal was selected for the interior site and New York sculptor John Newman’s was chosen for the exterior site. Both decisions were the unanimous choices of a diverse and demanding selection team.

The outdoor site itself presents a formidable challenge for a sculptor. The aggressive swirl of branching Interstate and train overpasses dwarfs and obscures the delicate architectural detailing of the station’s French Renaissance-style architecture. Massive sixty foot high concrete support columns and multi-leveled roadways loom over the site casting it in perennial shadow. The gut rumbling and steel screeching of mile-long coal trains, and the 24-hour overhead thunder of 18-wheeled tractor-trailers of I-95, together with non-stop Main Street traffic create an overwhelming tapestry of speed, power, noise, and motion. When Newman first traveled to Richmond to see the site in the spring of 2001, he was stunned. As he describes it, he stood again and again on the front steps of the old station and found his gaze drawn upward by the inexorable geometry of the environment (“I kept looking up! I kept looking up! It was a cross between Blade Runner and an industrial wasteland…”). How, given the practical limitations of the budget, could a sculpture hold its own in such a cross-fire?

In his subsequent explorations of the city at large – a search for the strongest signals of Richmond’s relationship to river, landscape, history, and monument – he was particularly struck by the footbridge to Belle Island suspended under the Robert E. Lee Bridge at Belvidere Street. Here was something that made a virtue out of an unlikely site. The suspended footbridge had transformed the unwelcome space beneath the overpass into an elegant, bounding flight over the river, affording intimate access to water, island, and woods for the traveler on foot. IT resonated with Newman’s own interest in suspended elements in the sculptures he had made over the past two decades, and like much of the inspiration for his work, it was about travel, motion, and transitional space. And it put him in mind of one of his heroes, Alexander Calder, whose light, floating, colorful, and exuberant sculptures have become emblematic of a distinctly American spirit.

Newman’s sculpture for Richmond’s Main Street Station, entitled “SKYRIDER” is now in its final stages of completion at the Johnson Atelier in New Jersey, one of the premier art foundries and fabricators in the U.S. The piece is an ambitious topological structure to be suspended in front of the station from cables beneath the canopy of overhead train tracks and expressways. Like a tightrope walker, it will appear balanced 20 to 40 feet in the air, and will float over the site, visible from all approaches to the station, and from passing cars and trains as well. In Newman’s model for the piece, a fluid mobius ribbon, formed from perforated aluminum that is enameled a luminous sky blue, appears to unfurl and pour from one cupped form to disappear into another. In transit, it takes a flight “round the world” that marshals a rich span of references, from magician’s cape to cosmologist’s mandala.

With the wealth of planning and engineering that goes into a work of this scale – and this one passed rigorous tests to win the approval of the Virginia Department of Transportation – one nonetheless cannot know precisely how any sculpture will look until it is finished and in place. How will we perceive its size in the vaulted theater of Main Street’s urban infrastructure? Will it appear as pageant or as a jewel? At what angle will we glimpse it from the arcing off-ramp that connects the Downtown Expressway to northbound I-95? What will be the nature of the optical illusion arising from the moiré pattern of its perforated aluminum, shifting as we move through space at foot or car speed? Will its brilliant colors alter through the changing light of dawn, noon, and dusk? How will it look lit up at night from below? And behind all of this, how will the sculpture operate on our imaginations, with its aerial metaphors of flight and transit, of arrival and departure, of sky and space, of ebullience and welcome, and with its antic and gallant spirit (as Newman puts it, “part-Fellini, part Buck Rogers…”)? IT promises to engage a wide range of sensibilities and demands. The mathematician’s interest in topological systems; the acrobat’s interest in spatial rotation and angular momentum; the sculptor’s interest in elastic volumes, surface tension, and the representation of forces and phenomena; anyone, for that matter, who has flown a kite, or seen Fantasia’s transformation of music into image; the child who balances a spoon on a glass’s rim or wonders how the word “balloon’ came to refer to cartoon speech – all of us are waiting with anticipation to see what kind of a thing this sculpture will be. Across its repertoire of references, it will surely echo the conduit spin of simultaneous human trajectories within the city, and yet offer sculpture’s buoyant solace from the oppression of urban hard-edge geometry.

Newman vigorously pursues sculpture’s traditional defining engagements with space, gravity, matter, light, and dynamic gesture. But a clue to his particular genius can be found in a passage from the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, who Newman often quotes. Calvino wrote about his own work: “after forty years of writing fiction, after exploring various roads and making diverse experiments, the time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: my working method has more often that not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities: above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.” Newman’s own great contribution to the earthbound language of sculpture is his hallmark accomplishment of material and perceptual buoyancy. The critic Nancy Princenthal humanizes this impulse, in contrast to much late to much late 20th century sculpture:

…a second, larger group of [Newman’s] sculptures shares a
configuration that is, roughly speaking, an interrupted
it could be described as two arms reaching for each other,
often doubly- and triply-joined and sinuously curved.
This configuration, which goes back in Newman’s work to 1990,
has a connection to the body language of offering, catching,
and embracing. Not coincidentally, this welcoming
gesture is a counter-movement to the formal language
(associated with Minimalism, even by name) of reduction,
exclusion, essentializing.

Yet the work is neither strictly figurative nor strictly abstract; that dualism no longer helps us define sculpture in our burgeoning age of technological imaging. Princenthal addresses this too, describing one of Newman’s smaller works: “AS goofy and improbable as a good-news dream, the whole is offhandedly gorgeous in a way that is nearly impossible to bring into focus – a resistance that contributes significantly to its appeal.” Of Newman’s most recent show at the Von Lintel Gallery in New York this past May, New York Times senior critic Roberta Smith wrote: “When Mr. Newman’s pieces work [they] have an outrageous, ebullient, disorienting energy.” Such energy, such provocation of the imagination, such a gesture of welcome, released from the weight of irony, and with such lightness, promise to greet the viewer of Newman’s work in Richmond.

John Newman has completed a number of important outdoor commissions over the past 25 years. In the United States, works can be seen in Los Angeles (for Northrop Industries), and Minneapolis (for the General Mills Outdoor Sculpture Park). In 1984 he was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation to make a piece for the Stamford Railroad Station in Stamford, Connecticut. His 1989 work, “Wit’s End,” is part of the permanent collection on display at the prestigious sculpture park Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York. He installed “SKYHOOK” at Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, New Jersey, in 1998; and in 2001 the Public Sculpture Placement Program at Grounds for Sculpture sponsored a work, “On a Yellow Box,” for the New Jersey Transit system, in proximity to the Hamilton train station between Princeton and Trenton. Outside the U.S., he has installed two works in Japan, one in Tokyo for the great book printing firm Dai Nippon, and one in Fukushima for the Center of the Contemporary Graphic Art/Tyler Graphics Archive Collection.

Newman’s sculpture and graphic works are in public collections worldwide: The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, the St. Louis Art Museum, Yale Art Gallery, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, the List Center for the Visual Arts at MIT, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and the National Gallery of Berlin, to name only a few. Chase Manhattan Bank, Prudential Insurance, the Dannheiser Foundation, and Southwestern Bell own his work. He has mounted solo shows in Dusseldorf, Munich, Berlin, Stockholm, and India in Ahmedabad, as well as in major cities across the United States, and exhibited worldwide in high-profile venues in the United States, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Great Britain, Malaysia, and Japan. Newman was the Director of Graduate Studies at the Yale School of Art Sculpture Department from 1992 to 1998. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1992 and a Senior Research Fulbright to India in 1998. He has just received the Rome Prize in sculpture, and will be in residence as a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome from September 2003 to August 2004.

The Site Selection Team of the Richmond Public Art Commission chose an innovative project in John Newman’s proposal. Provocative, courageous, and unprecedented, it will put Richmond on the map for an original and daring sculptural installation. Within art’s vanguard, this will be a benchmark piece for the history of public sculpture. The budget for the work is modest by national standards; the funding pledged in 2001 comes through the Federal Transit Administration (80%), the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (19.6%) and local funds (.4%). The sculpture is scheduled to be installed in early November, 2003, although final lighting and landscaping will not be complete until May 2004. Also in November, a one-person show of sculpture and works on paper by John Newman will open at the Hand Workshop Art Center at 1812 West Main St. Newman will travel to Richmond from Rome for the installation of both commission and exhibition, and he will give a gallery talk at the Hand Workshop at 5:30 p.m. on the opening night of the show: Friday, November 14, 2003. The public is invited and will be welcome.