Artist figures it’s all about engaging the public


By Bonnie Rosenstock

Tom Otterness has got to be the most relaxed artist in New York. It was the afternoon before the evening gala opening of his exhibition at the Marlborough Chelsea, and he was leisurely conversing over a multi-course Japanese lunch at Japonica on University Pl., his favorite restaurant.

“Two weeks before, I would have been panicked,” he confessed, “because I wasn’t sure if the bronzes would actually be ready. Now that they are sitting in the gallery, I’m all right.”

The show that Otterness was preparing for is “Tom Otterness: The Public Unconscious,” his first major exhibition in five years, which is also inaugurating the first-floor gallery of the latest Marlborough, at 545 W. 25th St. (“Steven Charles: “Thirteen Monsters for Lightning Bolt” occupies the second floor.) Otterness’s exhibit runs through Nov. 3.

The works cover the last three years (especially the last eight months) and consist of approximately 20 bronzes, including five monumental-sized pieces. He considers “Large Immigrant Family” the “emotional center” of the exhibit. It is a 10-foot high, 10-foot-long, 9-foot-wide bronze that depicts a newly arrived father, holding suitcases, and mother, holding baby, both gazing affectionately at the child, who is looking outward, toward the future. For Otterness, it epitomizes the immigrant experience to which everyone can relate.

With the exception of this sculpture — which is installed in front of a development in Toronto — and two others, “Millipede” and “Walking Stick,” in Phoenix — all of the pieces were created for the show. Otterness does “the quiet work” — drawing, sculpting with water-based clay, computer modeling, several molding processes — in an airy studio in a warehouse-sized, one-story brick building in Gowanus, which he moved into just last year after being priced out of DUMBO. The final bronzing process is done at a variety of foundries. “The bronzes are so touchable because they are first formed [in clay] by hand,” he said.

Otterness usually produces several editions of a work, many in a smaller size, which he will sell to private galleries or individuals.

“That allows me to spend every nickel or even more that I get in the commission to make the best possible work for the public,” he said. “I think of the public as my main client.”

Otterness, 55, came to New York in 1970, right out of high school in Wichita, Kansas, where he won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York. He headed straight for the Lower East Side, where he still lives with his filmmaker/producer wife, Coleen Fitzgibbon, and 15-year-old daughter, Kelly. In 1977, he was a member of the seminal Collaborative Projects, Inc., composed of then-unknown mainly Downtown artists, which included Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, John Ahearn, Fitzgibbon and Becky Howland, among others.

“Fifty of us would meet weekly,” he recalled, “more often in people’s houses. It was a completely anarchistic structure. We would yell and fight over what we were going to do together and how we were going to spend what money we could get our hands on.”

The collective, which was outside the mainstream of the reigning art establishment, informed his thinking. Otterness had started out as an abstract painter, but switched to doing two-dimensional work on the street, like sign painting or international signs. He made 6-inch-high, 3-D plaster versions of the sign figures at Artists Space in Soho and in the Bronx, and sold them for $4.99 in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1980, the Colab, as it came to be known, took over an abandoned Times Square massage parlor and filled all four floors with art, performances and film, open 24 hours a day for a month. About 150 artists participated; artists outside the group who needed an avenue of expression were also brought in, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was a resounding hit, and the art world took notice.

“Dealers started picking people from the group,” recounted Otterness. “Great success led to great problems within the group. It was the beginning of the end for the collective,” he said. But 30 years later, he still counts former members as friends.

Otterness was picked up by Brooke Alexander, who became his dealer for about 15 years, and for a long time, he exhibited in gallery shows. In 1987, Otterness’s show at MoMA led to public commissions. His large piece “The Tables” featured hundreds of little figures similar to what he does now. On the tables was an end-of-the-world narrative.

“That sort of proved that I wasn’t going to run off to Mexico with all the money,” he laughed.

That same year, he won commissions for sculptures at a federal courthouse in Los Angeles and in Battery Park City’s Rockefeller Park, the latter which was installed in 1992. He created about 100 figures, typically 6 inches high, many reflecting the world of money, a recurring theme in his work. Because of the park’s proximity to the Financial District, the students at nearby Stuyvesant High School on Chambers St. have dubbed it “Penny Park.”

“My title is ‘The Real World,’ ” said Otterness. “I like theirs better.”

His most popular Big Apple work is viewed by thousands of harried New Yorkers every day. “Life Underground,” installed in 2002, is a series of roughly 180 1-foot-high figures scattered throughout the serpentine subway station at 14th St. and Eighth Ave. It’s a veritable treasure trove of whimsy (an alligator coming out of a manhole cover, biting the behind of a person with a moneybag head); social commentary (a sleeping homeless person being watched over by a police officer); and everyday life (a couple walking arm and arm, workers sweeping up subway tokens).

“The commission was great for me and my work. I can’t think of a more ideal place,” he said.

It took Otterness 10 years to complete the project.

“I kept throwing in more and more work, probably four or five times what the [M.T.A.’s] Arts for Transit Program actually paid me for, until my wife stopped me. She said, ‘You’re giving away our daughter’s whole inheritance down in the subway. You’ve got to stop now.’ ”

Otterness acknowledges that his style has been greatly influenced by the work of Thomas Nash, the late-19th-century caricaturist and political cartoonist.

“Moneybag-head guys, New York City corruption — none of it seems to have changed all that much,” he said.

Sometimes he goes underground to hang out with his creations, “especially if I’m feeling bummed out,” he said. “I look around and think, what’s my problem, everything’s O.K. The real payoff for me is that through my public work, I am able to do that.”

Because of his anonymity, he can eavesdrop undetected on people’s comments and may even talk to them.

“I overhear a conversation — it’s like research,” he said. “I think I’m making something that means one thing, and when I put it out in public, I find out maybe it means something else. What it means in public is what it means.”

The purpose of his work, which he considers subject specific, not site specific, is to engage the public.

“Sometimes it’s very eccentric and personal. Sometimes it’s political, sexual, racial or social,” he said. “That’s part of the reason it’s successful. Those are all subjects that people like to talk about. It’s the idea of the town square. I think public art in general, when it’s successful, functions that way.”

His use of “simple language” also contributes to the popularity of his sculptures.

“It speaks a comic or cartoon language that people don’t have to have an art history degree to understand,” he explained. “I don’t think people are intimidated by it. They can look at it and understand that it’s a joke or a simple meaning.”

The ubiquitous Otterness’s latest contribution to his adopted city is a 6-foot-long, 3-foot-high coqui. The bird-sounding frog, which is only native to Puerto Rico, was recently placed in the ABC Playground. (The original was installed in Camuy, Puerto Rico, in 2005.) The unveiling will take place at P.S. 20, at the corner of E. Houston and Essex Sts., next to the playground, on Oct. 17 at 11 a.m. The community is invited.

“It seemed like a good place to donate this statue,” declared Otterness. “Many of the students are Puerto Rican and Dominican, so they would identify with it. I’ve been in the neighborhood for 30 years, and I pass by the school every morning. Now I can imagine that I own a corner of Houston St.”