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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with Tom Otterness

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-11

To say that Tom Otterness of Brooklyn is one of the most popular sculptors in the world would be acknowledging only part of his story.

He???s also a highly successful businessman, whose negotiations with municipal authorities, corporations, and institutions such as the New York Botanical Garden have brought him wealth, and also enriched public spaces in cities across America and other countries.

???After more than 30 years of being an artist ??? including 26 years making bronzes ??? you get hundreds of crazy ideas ??? and they add up,??? Mr. Otterness said. ???I don???t do this only for the money, but it???s nice to know that one???s work is appreciated and that it carries value.???

His bronze sculptures ??? some of which rise more than 20 feet -- can sometimes cost hundreds of thousands each to produce. But they also fetch anywhere between $50,000 and several million dollars, depending on the size of the art. His latest exhibit will be formally unveiled at the New York Botanical Garden today: it called ???Amorphophallus Titanium,??? and it consists of four flowers in various stages of, well, arousal.

The 52-year-old Mr. Otterness talked about his new work with his trademark humor. When asked about the sculpture???s obvious sexual suggestion, he said: ???Let???s just say it???s the world???s largest bronze flower.??? It will be the 90,564th specimen of vascular plant types at the 250-acre facility in the Bronx, although the only one cast in bronze.

And ???Amorphophallus Titanium??? will be a permanent exhibit, joining nine others that Mr. Otterness has created specially for New York City, including ???Life Underground??? on the A, C and E subway platforms at Eighth Avenue and West 14th Street, which depicts a manhole-domiciled alligator gobbling a man carrying a sack of cash; and ???The Real World??? in Battery Park City, which features canines, felines, birds, worms, and a scattering of pennies.

???My work is really social commentary,??? Mr. Otterness said. ???I want people to touch these sculptures, to discuss them, to argue about them, to find in them whatever meaning they might draw from my work. Not everything in my work is explainable, of course. But that???s good, too. It???s sometimes good to leave people somewhat puzzled. The important thing is that they touch my sculptures, and talk about them.???

And touch and talk people most certainly do. Some 25 of his bronzes are currently on display in downtown Indianapolis. These whimsical exhibits are valued at more than $5 million, and range in size from 30 inches to 20 feet.

Most of them were moved to Indianapolis from New York, where Mr. Otterness had installed them on a five-mile stretch of Broadway, starting 64th Street and ending at 168th Street.

According to Indianapolis officials, the Otterness exhibits represent the first time that the city has taken contemporary art and installed it in public spaces. ???The very fact that the city has taken art work out an institution says something about the importance of making a connection between people and those who govern them,??? Mr. Otterness said.

But it???s not always that officialdom agrees with Mr. Otterness???s aims. Not long ago, a judge in Sacramento said that he wasn???t going to allow the Kansas-born sculptor to arrange a chess set ??? each piece was six feet high ??? on the steps of the bankruptcy court. The 32 chess pieces were in the shape of money bags.

???The judge said, ???Forget it ??? the last thing that anyone wants to see outside a bankruptcy court is a radical economic critique,?????? Mr. Otterness said.

So he undertook a sculpture that showed salmon jumping through gold hoops. The salmon were holding money bags, and they were being caught by eagles. The work was intended to allude to the California gold rush of the 19th century.

???This was a kind of surrealistic collaboration with a very conservative judge,??? Mr. Otterness said. ???And I acknowledge his idea. I would never have dreamed of this on my own.???

And the lesson he drew from the Sacramento project?

???Two lessons,??? Mr. Otterness said. ???One, that when it comes to public art, you need to work closely with local officials and others who understand the environment, the local culture. Second, that you???ve got to stick with a project and see it through to its natural end.???

No matter where his sculptures are exhibited ??? whether in Canada, Germany or the Netherlands, among other places ??? all his work is done at an enormous studio in Brooklyn???s DUMBO, the section between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Mr. Otterness is soon going to have to move his studio, however, because the building is being put to other uses. He expects to find space elsewhere in Brooklyn.

And where does he get those ???hundreds of crazy ideas????

???I walk around a lot, I explore neighborhoods, I see the way people live ??? and I read a lot of newspapers,??? Mr. Otterness said. ???Since my work addresses social, political and sexual issues, since the idea is to instigate conversation among people, to produce social sculpture, I need to be well informed.???

In his conversation with the reporter, Mr. Otterness kept returning to his desire to generate interaction among people.

???It???s seldom that most people get an excuse to talk to perfect strangers,??? he said. ???I think that???s what my art achieves. And the interesting thing is, it???s difficult to predict what a conversation with a stranger will result in.???

His work, in fact, has generated conversation among people since his childhood in Wichita, Kan. In the third grade, for example, he created lions out of plaster. And even back then, Mr. Otterness said, he was available for commissioned work. ???My classmates hired me to draw a nude picture of a disliked teacher,??? he said.

He drifted to New York after high school, and worked as a night watchman at the American Museum of Natural History. A series of menial jobs followed, and it was only in his late 20s that Mr. Otterness started to produce sculptures. One set of plaster figurines, six inches high, sold on the sidewalk in front of the Museum of Modern Art for $4.99 a piece.

He became part of a grouping called Collaborative Projects, or Colab. Some of its other members, such as Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, and John Ahearn, became successful artists in their own right. One member, Coleen Fitzgibbon, became Mr. Otterness???s wife. (They have a 12-year-old daughter, Kelly, who aspires to be a painter.)

These days, Mr. Otterness builds his sculptures with the assistance of 20 young men and women. Most of his works are completed within two years; some have taken him as long as a decade. He said his style was influenced by what he learned in the Italian community of Pietrasanta, renowned for its bronze ateliers since Renaissance times.

And what lies ahead, especially in view of his international success?

???The necessity of keeping the momentum of business going forward still drives me,??? Mr. Otterness said. ???I see my art as serving the public. My work isn???t something where you need to understand a high-end language. It speaks a common language.???

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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