Volume 73, Number 4 | May 26 - June 1, 2004

Visual Art

Sculptor’s ‘Floating’ piece is grounded on 42nd St.


Photo by Maude Aptekar

Soho artist Bernard Aptekar with his sculptural work, “The Opera of the Floating World.”

Bernard Aptekar still doesn’t believe it.

“The Opera of the Floating World” floats not in the vast lobby of the Durst organization’s Conde Nast Building on Times Square. In fact, on installation day, Tuesday, May 18, his 39-foot-high allegorical sculpture — Aptekar’s cross-pollination of Passion and Reason — never got off the ground. It was stopped by men in suits.

Shades of John D. Rockefeller Jr. vs. Diego Rivera in the lobby of the NBC Building, 1932! Art vs. real estate! Except that this would appear to be more a case of a handful of legal Pecksniffs vs. art, with the only inflammatory images in Aptekar’s “Opera” being three little stylized hockey players (“doormen protecting the mast of the aircraft carrier”) and, if you looked very hard, what might be taken as some even more stylized interracial lovemaking. But no Nikolai Lenin. No May Day parade. No red flags.

So let’s go back.

Last December artist Aptekar, who has lived and worked out of a loft on Mercer Street, just below Houston, since the 1970s, heard that the Durst Organization was planning to exhibit art in a number of its buildings, including 4 Times Square Plaza, the Conde Nast structure. He also knew the Durst Organization employed a curator for that purpose, L.L. (Lanny) Powers.

“So,” says Aptekar, “my son and daughter-in-law [architects Alexander and Maude Aptekar] sent them a letter, and we got a response, and I called, and the curator called back and said: ‘This looks interesting, I’ll come look at your work,’ and he did, and seemed very positive about liking it, and said we should meet in his office [at Durst headquarters, 1185 Sixth Avenue].

“I went up, and we walked over to the Conde Nast building, and along the way the curator said: ‘Douglas Durst likes the work and we have approval.’”

Four months later, Lanny Powers called to say: “We have a date. The work should move out of your studio by May 18.” Aptekar, who had already been designing a poster and brochure for the installation, made arrangements for rental of a truck 24 feet long and 7 1/2 feet high to carry the several zigzagging acrylic-on-hollow-core board, floor-to-ceiling-hung elements of “The Opera of the Floating World.”

Came the day. Came the truck. Came at least eight people manipulating — just barely — the pieces of Aptekar’s “Floating World” into the freight elevator from studio to Mercer Street. The truck arrives at 42nd Street. The pieces are unloaded into the lobby, stacked against the wall. “We begin setting it up.” And —

“And people I THINK are from the law firm of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher, one of the two main tenants of the building [the other main tenant is of course Conde Nast], men in suits and some women, are standing around, talking among themselves, and then I think someone talked to the building manager, though no one talked to me.

“Then,” says Bernard Aptekar, a cherub with frizzy white curly hair, and eyeglasses, and a voice so low you have to strain to hear it — “then I see the curator is very disturbed, and he, Lanny, goes and calls Douglas Durst and comes back to me and says: ‘The show has been canceled.’ I asked why. Lanny said: ‘They didn’t talk to me, they talked to Douglas Durst. You have to remove it.’ He also said: ‘I quit. I won’t work in this building any more.’ ”

“Yes,” said curator Powers when The Villager reached him this Monday, “I WAS extremely upset, and still am.” As to who protested against Aptekar’s art, “I’m not at liberty to say, so I can’t cast blame.” But he wanted it known it was “not the fault” of the Durst Organization — “Douglas has been absolutely wonderful. When a major tenant complains over something like this, and it involves millions and millions of dollars, what do you do?”

If he wasn’t at liberty to name the protesting parties, he could and did emphasize that there were only those two major tenants in the building; and then, his voice rising, Lanny Powers said: “It’s hard to understand how people can be so blind. Art is dangerous, we all know that. But whoever complained, wouldn’t talk to us about why.”

For his own part, Powers has decided — “and not just me, but we, Mr. Durst, myself, and the building manager — that it’s inadvisable to continue an arts program in that building.”

Midafternoon Monday a spokesperson for the Durst Organization read the following statement to The Villager:

“Art exhibits are placed in the lobby of 4 Times Square mainly for the private aesthetic appreciation and viewing by the tenants of the building. Since a proposed exhibit is part of our ongoing owner/tenant relationship, we do respect and take seriously any rare suggestion of the inappropriateness of an exhibit whether in regard to quality, subject, space and size.”

As the saying goes, that’s all she wrote.

But the spokesperson added: “Have you talked to the tenant?”

As of press time, repeated attempts to do just that — calls to Skadden Arps — have gone unanswered.

Bernard Aptekar? He scratches his head and says: “I really didn’t believe this was happening when it was happening, and I still don’t.” There was no contract. He’s had many other major shows, often with no contract. His stuff is contorted, hard-hitting, controversial to say the least. Those hockey players and that aircraft carrier they’re guarding — “a beautiful ship,” he says, “except if you look at what they’re doing.”

He thinks of titles before he ever sets pen to drawing board. Here are a few: “The Defeat of the City of Plutonium,” “The King, Einstein, and the Tambourine Man,” “The Martyrdom of Races and Sexes.”

The proud son of a onetime organizer of the New York State Communist Party, 68-year-old Bernard Aptekar has had shows jolted off base before. The last one was “Mephisto: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which opened at a Chelsea gallery.

On September 12, 2001.

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