On ViewFrieze Sculpture, Rockefeller Center
September 1 – October 2, 2020
“I would like to salute
The ashes of American flags
And all the fallen leaves
Filling up shopping bags.”
Jeff Tweedy’s closing lines of post-9/11 lament from “Ashes of American Flags” on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came to mind the first time I saw Andy Goldsworthy’s installation at Rockefeller Center. The English sculptor has unfurled 109 hand-painted flags on the poles around the sunken square in front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.1 As Tweedy did with his anti-war, anti-materialist song and album of 2002, the artist has delivered a richly autumnal and eloquent commentary on our present, on the parlous state of our nation, a country that the English-born, Scottish-resident Goldsworthy has seen more of than most of its citizens.2
Goldsworthy’s flags are not obviously American. Nor are they uniform in tone, ranging from a burnt umber to dull ochre to buff peach to pale pink. They do not bear heraldry, or text, or more than one shade. They are all the same size—four by eight feet—and they mesh well with the buff Indiana limestone, slate-colored aluminum spandrels, and pink and gray speckled Deer Island granite that make up the original 14 buildings of this peerless Art Deco complex, a Depression-era city within a city. Normally, the flag poles support a chromatic pageantry that distracts from the complex’s fine architecture and harmonious sculpture by the likes of Lee Lawrie and Isamu Noguchi. The usual panoply of either the flags of the 50 states, or 191 nations of the world, or the Stars and Stripes repeated on every pole is closer to the boldness of Paul Manship’s gilded and gargantuan Prometheus (1934) below the plaza level. But the waving, near monochromatic earthen ribbon formed by Goldsworthy’s flags denies such spectacle.
Their cumulative effect is subtle—far less assertive than the artist’s most recent project in the United States, the celebrated Walking Wall (2019) at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. That nearly 300-foot long wall snaked in five stages through the institution’s campus: it blocked traffic across a public road, went in front of buildings making passage difficult to the café and museum entrance, proceeded down stairs and around plantings, and then finally, and thrillingly, plunged into one of the pavilions where a segment of it came to rest, there to remain in perpetuity.3 It was a truly public work: citizens of Kansas and Missouri followed the artist and the team of dry stonewallers who accompanied him from Britain in its making; stopped by from dawn to night to see the progress and interact with the laborers; and from early on felt a sense of ownership in the project. By contrast, Red Flags was installed overnight on August 31 with little fanfare, quietly welcoming the smattering of visitors who turned up the next day, in a midtown drained of 90 percent of its normal workforce and almost all of its tourists.4
The seeming simplicity of Red Flags belies the extensively collaborative nature of its gestation, complex odyssey of the materials involved, and the challenges of its production. Goldsworthy’s works are often misaligned with a kind of puerile beauty. Though his touch is innately and distinctively aesthetic, the works’ appearance often belies the grit that goes into their making: the arduousness, the importance of labor, the respect for and learned understanding of the innate qualities of raw materials, and the hands-on, tactile quality of the process. There is nothing sweet or twee about his hard-won and suggestive art. And it is rarely polemical, although over the past year, in the shadow of impending Brexit, he has been making ephemeral work and body-based films on the border between England and Scotland. Goldsworthy first conceived Red Flags in November 2019 while working in Kansas City at the Nelson-Atkins, at a time when Frieze Sculpture was meant to open on April 22, Earth Day. Consulting Google Earth to find areas of red soil, he drove to places in Kansas and Arkansas where the ground was not frozen and collected samples. Eventually, back in Scotland, he had to enlist friends, and contacts given to him by friends, to send soil samples to him from his selected locations in the remaining states. He experimented—in his studio and a barn on his property—with working the pigments into blank canvas flags that he procured from the person who makes the flags for Rockefeller Center. He painted/dyed each one literally by hand, without brushes, and hung them to set. It was laborious, resulting in 3,488 square feet of canvas, tinted on both sides by him alone. Then he flew them singly on a flagpole at his home and made multiple films of each one blowing in a stiff Dumfriesshire wind.
Constructed by the wealthiest man in America, John D. Rockefeller Jr., on the backs of both his family’s petrochemical dollars and laborers craving work in the Depression, and on the land of the Munsee Lenape peoples, later owned by Columbia University, the Center bore an art program from early in the architectural plan. Its theme was “humanity's progress towards new frontiers.” New frontiers implied technological and social advances, but also by implication the continued expansion of America’s economic reach post-World War I, symbolized by this cathedral complex of capitalist commerce. Goldsworthy’s project asks us to consider America’s existing frontiers, to look inward at ourselves, at our status as a unified nation. As the artist noted in July, “Red Flags may not have been conceived as a response to recent events, but it is now bound up with the pandemic, lockdown, division and unrest. However, I hope the flags will be received in the same spirit with which all the red earths were collected—as a gesture of solidarity and support.”5
In a sense, the flags represent the ultimate American road trip, a crisscrossing of all 50 states, but an experience conveyed via mundane soil, not in postcards of soaring skyscrapers or spectacular natural sights. In 1940, the year Rockefeller Center was completed, Henry Miller journeyed across America, and the resulting travelogue was published in 1945 as The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Miller bemoaned his wealth-obsessed nation: “We have two American flags always: one for the rich and one for the poor. When the rich fly it it means that things are under control; when the poor fly it it means danger, revolution, anarchy.” How freighted such words were in the early years of the World War II, in a period of great economic deprivation not seen again in the United States until this year! Goldsworthy’s banners wave in our fraught national winds, in the midst of controversies over symbols in cloth and bronze: 109 clodden canvas paintings easily whipped into a frenzy, but amalgamating in their tonal harmony. Like Tweedy’s plaintive song, with its mournful yet dutifully hopeful salute to imperfect human endeavor and cyclical natural decay, the appearance of Red Flags in this annus horribilis in the capitalist heart of this country, that Grand Experiment looking brittle at 244 years old, forms a palimpsest of hope in our recovering city.
- Brett Littman, Director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, curated Frieze Sculpture, which was presented in partnership with Tishman Speyer and Frieze New York under its Director of Programming, Loring Randolph. For Goldsworthy’s fullest description of the project see my interview with him on the Rail’s “New Social Environment” #124 of September 7, 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9qplh8keeE.
- Goldsworthy has made works that he terms “projects” in at least 16 states and the District of Columbia, and had exhibitions in a number of other states.
- See https://nelson-atkins.org/andy-goldsworthy-walking-wall/ and https://walkingwall.org.
- It was removed for one day, on September 11, and replaced by a single American flag flying at half-mast on the central pole.
- Artist’s statement from July 2020, Galerie Lelong & Co. Press Release, September 2020.