Epic Public Art & Empire State Plaza

Al Loving Empire State Plaza Art Collection.

The architecturally controversial seat of New York State’s government is still one of the world’s great showcases of monumental public art. Yet to this day, most state residents and visitors have no idea it even exists, much less have they taken the time to stop and visit the true wonder which is the Empire State Plaza Art Collection.

Postcard circa 1978, when the final touches of a 15 year project were finished.

On the 50th anniversary of the inaugural cornerstone being laid, the Albany Times-Union’s Paul Grondahl started an article on the plaza’s legacy as follows: On June 21, 1965, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller gathered with state and local officials and other dignitaries and laid the South Mall cornerstone — a 7,500-pound block of white granite quarried near Cortland, N.H. — that sealed a document box containing artifacts in the foundation of a long, low-slung building taking shape along Swan Street near the intersection with State Street.

Rockefeller proclaimed it would be “the most spectacularly beautiful seat of government in the world” and “the greatest thing to happen to this country in a hundred years.” He was not a man given to understatement.

The cornerstone ceremony was pro forma, but it marked both an end to a vibrant ethnic neighborhood that was demolished and the beginning of the largest and most expensive government complex ever built in North America. In its wake, the $2 billion white marble colossus reviled as Fascist architecture writ large and “the City Beautiful’s last erection” (Wolf Von Eckardt in New York magazine) left a clouded legacy as the most controversial and most transformative construction project since the Dongan Charter made Albany a city in 1686. The aggressively Modernist South Mall looked as if it had been dropped from outer space… 

Top photo (building in center) shows the Cultural Education Center housing the state museum, library and archives.
The museum is worth a visit with its timeline-based diorama experiences.

Last week, I made an impromptu visit to the site, just 35 minutes north of Hudson, when the prospect of another day at my desk seemed less intriguing than playing hooky. What follows is a mostly visual essay of a stunningly visual complex. The “above surface” buildings sprout from a gigantic hidden/underground facility which houses, among other things, a mile long walk through epically monumental public art. Yes, I used epically and monumental back-to-back, but I believe doing so is both apt and devoid of hyperbole.

Let’s take a visual stroll and see work by some of the artists, which include masterworks by Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Isamu Noguchi, Lee Bontecou, Robert Motherwell, Morris Louis, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Donald Judd, Kenzo Okada, George Segal, and Franz Kline. This list is by no means comprehensive.

Other artists in the Albany collection – who we currently have (or had) in our gallery’s inventory – include Paul Jenkins, Al Loving, Jr., Richard Anuszkiewicz, Ilya Bolotowsky, Herbert Ferber, Grace Hartigan, Louise Nevelson, Conrad Marca-Relli, Raymond Parker, Ludwig Sander, and Larry Zox.

Walking the underground plaza’s cavernous spaces is actually a pleasure since you can interact with the artworks up close and personal. And usually alone. Try enjoying that in a major museum’s crowded blockbuster exhibition!

Yes…there’s much more. Instead of endeavoring to make this a comprehensive blog post, I’d like to instead make this a teaser which inspires readers to put Albany, NY on their list for a great day trip.

That’s a wrap. I’ve done my best to provide you with a great way to spend a day in your life!

Can you find the public skating rink? They play great tunes!

The Empire State Plaza Art Collection in the concourse is free and open to the public all week from 6am – 11pm.

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