Hidden below the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan's Financial District lies a distinctive exhibition of American public art—one that nearly ceased to exist.
Late last month, the city's Department of Design and Construction reinstalled an ensemble of abstract modern sculpture titled "Shadows and Flags" in the very spot where its creator, the late Louise Nevelson, had placed it when the park opened 32 years ago. It was the final phase of a $2 million project to restore Louise Nevelson Plaza, a triangular patch of land framed by Williams Street, Liberty Street and Maiden Lane that had fallen into disrepair.
Nevelson (1899-1988), known in her time as the "Grande Dame of Contemporary Sculpture," designed the park in 1978. It was the first plaza in New York City dedicated to an artist. "She picked the trees, she designed the benches, picked the pavings, she placed the sculptures," said Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz, a former director of commissions at the Pace Gallery who worked with Nevelson on the original site. Ms. Schwartz added that Nevelson boasted a strong architectural sensibility, and in an area of congestion and shadows cast by skyscrapers, "she wanted to create an oasis for people to enjoy."
In the decades that followed, though, the plaza, like much of the city around it, deteriorated. All seven of Nevelson's black, Core-Ten steel sculptures—referred to as "Trees"—faded. One piece was hit by a truck, removed and never replaced. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Federal Reserve Bank, which is located next door, installed a makeshift checkpoint on the plaza. Soon after, structural engineers learned the park was sinking beneath the weight of debris left from the previously demolished building that hadn't been properly removed.
Now, more than three decades after it was dedicated, the park—and its oft-overlooked namesake—is being resurrected. Two years ago, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation began renovations on the Plaza as part of the Liberty Street Reconstruction Project. Most of the sculptures were taken to a restorer. The largest piece (at nearly 40 feet) had to remain and be refurbished on-site during summer months. Now the sculptures have been restored and resituated, and the rest of Nevelson's park has been modernized with new landscaping, benches, and ground covering.
The restoration has drawn a lot of attention among local residents, according to the sculpture conservator, Jaqueline Wilson. "People have come out to take a new look at their neighborhood," she said, adding that the whole plaza "will create a new attraction for downtown" when it officially reopens next month.
Nevelson's abstract, steel sculptures were part of what she called a "Seventh Decade Garden"—a series of environmental sculptures evoking botanical shapes. Other works in this series are currently sprinkled across the country, from Baltimore to Kansas to San Francisco.
While urban settings were to become her canvas, Nevelson grew up in bucolic Rockland, Me. Born Leah Berliawsky, she emigrated with her Orthodox Jewish family from Ukraine in 1905. She had a difficult childhood and few friends, but she thrived in her art studies. At 21, she moved to New York and married Charles Nevelson, a successful ship merchant. The life of a society wife, however, did not fit her, and after having a son she left the marriage to become an artist.
In numerous interviews, Nevelson described her predestined path. As she told a biographer, "I had a blueprint all my life, from childhood, and I knew exactly what I demanded from this world."
In the male-dominated art world, Nevelson suffered many lean years as she developed her signature style. But, said her granddaughter, artist Maria Nevelson, she was uncompromising. "She always stayed fast and true to her work," Ms. Nevelson said.
Nevelson became a pioneer of "assemblage" art. She took found objects (mostly wood) from the street or construction sites, and configured them into unique sculptural boxes and walls. As the years passed, her work grew in size and scale to include installations and immense modern steel sculptures like those at the Plaza named for her. With her signature dark, mink eyelashes, headscarves and multi-layered clothing, she was hard to miss in her Little Italy neighborhood, where she lived and worked for more than three decades until her death at 89.
Through the 1960s, Nevelson's fame grew, but only gradually. She was 60 when the Museum of Modern Art invited her to participate in the seminal 1959 show "Sixteen Americans," which also featured such artists as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg—all of whom were in their 20s at the time. "My whole life's been late," she remarked to an interviewer at the time.
Now, more than two decades after Nevelson's death, the restoration of her plaza is better late than never. It will look different from its original design, but this is not something that Maria Nevelson thinks would have bothered her grandmother in the least. She was not someone who held on to the past, Ms. Nevelson said. "She was all about the 'now.'"