Manhattan’s Madison Square Park flanks the buzzing intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 23rd Street, the latter a major east-west artery. The park, revitalized over the past two decades, is the magnetic public space for the vibrant Flatiron District, so-called from Daniel Burnham’s great building seated just across the confluence of avenues. Officeworkers and tourists throng the popular Shake Shack located inside the park. Suits ogle sunbathers who ogle each other. Not large enough to vitiate the city’s energies but sufficiently so to provide some insularity, Madison Square’s park seems more central to the city’s vibe than does Central.
Charles Long’s aural sculpture “Pet Sounds” now provides its own vibe in Madison Square. Brightly-colored tubular handrails lead one to a central playground-like zone where the tubes explode into forms that are both exoticly familiar and reassuringly strange. A purple manatee is beached on a bench, as is a disembodied yellow proboscis. A picnic table hosts a battered pink lump of effluvia. Coneless ice cream swirls out of gravel. A blue rail-burl bloats its supports.
Then one reaches out to pet these shapes . . . et voila! Sounds! Angelic chorus-chords, pulsing bleeps, bass guitar riffs, player piano tinkles, syncopated snare taps, theremin tremolos, Ronettes-style background chirps—one could go on. Mr. Long has constructed a Wrecking Crew to rival the original. Pets elicit sounds in clever ways: high rubs on the ice-cream swirl foster chords that float above the pet sounds lower down. Like a cat, the blue burl purrs its appreciatory pulse when its spine is massaged. A menagerie of diligent moms and nannies enchanted toddlers with these charming sounds and vibrations.
Therein lies the rub. Mr. Long’s piece brings a brilliant splash of fun, fun, fun to Madison
Square. But is there resonance beyond the playground? The technical accomplishment provokes wonder, but not the awe of the ambient, of Prospero’s island, like Max Neuhaus’s Times Square moan that wells up through subway ventilation gratings, the realm of alligators and the third rail.
In Madison Square, Mr. Long’s center did not hold: the suits scurried on, the sunbathers now stared into their little screens.
On the way out of the park, I paused a bit to ponder two old statues: the resoluteness of Saint-Gaudens’ David Farragut and the diabolic energy of J. Q. A. Ward’s Roscoe Conkling, one of the New York machine’s most talented sons. Their old tunes, impossible to elicit by pets, remind us that Gotham—even the New York that welcomes happy, playful art in its parks—is still a town full of heroes and villains.
Brooklyn, New York
Roger McDonald, Lecturer in Political Science at John Jay College, is a self described “antiquarian, curmudgeonly academic who only recently came to appreciate Abstract Expressionism.” In addition, Mr. McDonald and his wife enjoy the rarefied – if at heart base – pleasures of opera, and travel great distances in pursuit of this art.