ELIZABETH KING & CARLTON NEWTON
The Genie of the Station: John Newman's Skyrider
This is an excerpted essay first published by In Public View: A newsletter of the Public Art Commission of the City of Richmond, Volume Five, Autumn 2003. The commentary anticpates the installation and subsequent November 8th, 2003 unveiling of Skyrider.
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. New York sculptor John Newman‘s was chosen for the exterior site.
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 on 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 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 only 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 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:
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 20th century sculpture:
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:
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:
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.