Philadelphia is an art city.
When I first encountered Philadelphia’s City Hall on a bright sunny day in early October, I was enchanted by the extent and excellence of the installations and sculptures I encountered, beginning with bronze statues of historical figures that included John Wanamaker, President William McKinley, General McClellan and William Penn. Penn’s statue, created by Scotsman Alexander Milne Calder and installed in 1894, graces the top of the tower of Philadelphia’s City Hall. The city’s website claims it is the largest, at 37 feet tall and heaviest, at 53,000 pounds of any statue worldwide.
Challenging the size of Penn in the same plaza is Claes Oldenburg’s “Clothespin,” which is joined by Robert Indiana’s “Love” sculpture, with red letters, and blue sides mimicking his 1976 painting. Jacque Lipshitz’s “Government of the People” (1976) looks like a tangle of human arms and legs, arms and torsos, but on closer inspection, figures emerge. Best of all is the new installation of Janet Echelman.
In front of City Hall, on the plaza at Dilworth Park, is Echelman’s “Pulse,” a field of evenly spaced water jets on the ground, tracing the path of Philadelphia’s subway system, the artist said, during a Ted Talk, “like an x-ray of the city’s circulatory system unfolding.” Gently bubbling up during the day, amid signs prohibiting running, children joyously ran and jumped. At night, the water jets created mist, colored with uplights making rainbows of misty water high above the spectators’ heads, all of us in awe of the display.
Watching a video of artist Echelman’s 2011 Ted Talk, I realized I had seen her work before at the Renwick Museum in Washington, D.C. At the newly opened museum exhibit in 2016, called “Wonder,” Echelman created a network of spider-web like colored nets hanging from the ceiling. Spectators of all ages stretched out on the floor below to stare up at the fragile rainbow above. Echelman explained at the Ted Talk that she originally worked with a metal armature holding fisherman’s nets to create her lace-like sculptures.
Planning for her Philadelphia installation, there was nowhere to suspend threads or fisherman’s nets, so she came up with the idea of water creating mist shaped by the wind, acting as the unifying element. It works. It is beautiful. During the day the children, and at night the adults were dancing with joy. Down the block, still at Dilworth Park, it was time for adults to play. Adult size seesaws and garden swings lined the circumference of the sidewalk, free for the public to enjoy, and walking a bit further, “Your Move,” Daniel Martinez, Renee Petropoulis and Roger White’s 1996 installation of giant checkers, chess pieces, dominoes, bingo chips and board game pieces scattered over the plaza in front of the Municipal Services Building on JFK Boulevard. What a fun city!
Somewhat more serious, I walked a few blocks to Gross McLeaf Gallery, to see David Brewster’s new series of paintings, “Rogue Waves,” that are on view until October 26. The new paintings include many views of bridges and natural and manmade landscapes in his home state, Vermont, and paintings of people. The work addresses current issues; “Subsistence Farming Collapse” and “Salmon Falls Power and Stemmed Powercut,” both 2018 oil paintings on Mi Teintes paper, use heavy impasto often applied with a straight edge and paint rollers to create heavily layered, brightly colored scenes of impending industrialization. His portraits, “Syrian Father and Son” and “Freemason” (both 2018) present people in poses and against backgrounds not usually portrayed. His lushly applied, bright colors are gorgeous, while his homage in memory of David A. Lang, “Stag Horns Through Windshield” (2018), reflect the chaotic scene that Lang experienced and did not survive.
Philadelphia, I get it. You deserve that “Love” sculpture. There is more art than one can see in a single day, so I will have to make a repeat visit, knowing that there will be new and old, exciting and enthralling work now, and in the future.