Forget ‘The Gates,’ it’s time for ‘The Chess Pieces’


By Divya Watal

Marjorie Kouns and Christo are in the same business — the business of creation, of public creation, that strikes, jolts, awes, evokes passionate responses of love and hate or garners superficial indifference and subconscious curiosity — the business of open, communal art.

Kouns, a Greenwich Village artist who has toiled, fretted, shredded and created art in the same Bleecker St. studio since 1980, may not be a brand name in the world of public park displays, but her latest work, “Well-lit Chess Pieces,” will soon adorn Washington Sq. Park.

Apart from the fact that Kouns, like the rest of us, has a first and a last name, the difference between Kouns and Christo is that her project took five years to realize, whereas his vaunted “Gates” took 25 — and she had no feisty, flaming-red-topped Jeanne-Claude by her side either. Her project’s price tag, at $55,000, was also considerably more affordable; Christo’s river of plastic poles and saffron fabric running through Central Park reportedly cost a hefty $21 million.

“I’m the queen of public art — Christo can be king,” Kouns said, filling her small, art-cluttered studio with self-confident laughter. The tall, lanky brunette, who is 47 but looks at least half a decade younger, acknowledged the tenacity of her fellow “ambassador of culture” but refrained from commenting any further.

“We’re all doing the same thing,” she said. “It’s all about the viewer as participant.” The whole point of public art, she explained, is that it’s free and accessible to everyone — and everyone can become a part of the art. Unlike the theater and art galleries, you don’t need money to get a taste of it.

“Well-lit Chess Pieces” is a two-part project consisting of 11 large-scale chess pieces, which will be clustered in the four corners of Washington Sq. Park, and 26 lampshade covers, which will hang over the park’s lampposts. The entire installation, fiscally sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, will be in place from April 23 to Sept. 23.

“Chess is like life,” Kouns said, elucidating her metaphorical artwork. “There are so many possibilities, but it’s still a game — just like life.”

The chess pieces, which are 3-to-6-ft. high and 2-to-3-ft. wide, will include one king, one queen, one bishop, two knights, two rooks and four pawns. Each will be made of welded iron rods, encased with chicken wire mesh, with thousands of Formica-tiledecorator counter-top chips — and some familiar looking MetroCards — secured to the mesh, Kouns explained.

The 26 colorful lampshades with intricate designs that accompany and complement the chess pieces are made of a flame-retardant canvas, coated with acrylic pigments and glaze sealant. Kouns will secure them to the lampposts with aviation cables and U bolts.

“They’re like huge reading lights — I’m making Washington Sq. Park your living room,” she said. And in this living room, she added, anyone and everyone can play, interact, strategize and plan their next move based on order and chance — “essentially mimicking nature and life.”

Unlike her fellow public artist Christo, who said of his project, “It has no purpose. It is not a symbol. It is not a message. It is only a work of art,” Kouns is keen on disseminating a message — however abstruse or convoluted. But the queen, in a chess game, can move anywhere she wants to on the board, and since she is a self-proclaimed queen of public art, Kouns can impose whatever meaning she chooses.

According to Kouns, the project has been approved by the Parks Department, the Department of Transportaion — since D.O.T. oversees streetlights — and Community Board 2, which gave its unanimous approval, and is also backed by the Friends of Washington Sq. She said she’s gotten a lot of positive community feedback about it.

Elizabeth Butson, a board of directors member of the Washington Sq. Association and publisher emeritus of The Villager, said public artwork like Kouns’s project is something the association would like to see more of in the park.