Art in the Open – Harlem
Between the “official” sculptures and memorials found among the parks and the graffiti murals adorning buildings and gates, Harlem can take on the feel of an eclectic open-air museum, where you never know quite what artworks you might see around any given corner. Below we have curated just a few of the public artworks worth seeking out.
East 106th – East 107th Streets and Park Avenue
The original graffiti writers who adorned the walls of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex playground in the 1970s most likely could not have conceived that graffiti would ever be judged worthy of a hall of fame. But in 1980 community activist Ray “Stingray” Rodriguez helped transform the yard into a place where, outside of school hours, graffiti artists and wannabes could safely paint. The walls have since evolved to become a full-fledged institution, complete with an executive director, James Top, who every year picks a theme and invites top graffiti artists to create their interpretation of it. While most of the graffiti appears within the schoolyard gates and is therefore all but inaccessible to the general public, the outer wall along Park Avenue from 106th to 107th Streets is an exuberance of color and swag for all to see.
Harlem Art Park (East 120th Street and Sylvan Place)
Standing amid the paving stones, benches, and greenery of the postage-stamp-size Harlem Art Park, “Growth” is a 15-foot-high steel sculpture painted bright red so that whatever the season, it is impossible to miss. After it was unveiled in 1985, Jorge Luis Rodriguez said of his work, “I have tried to capture the interaction between trees, birds, insects, flowers, and man,” and its fluid shape does seem an amalgam of all of the above. As befits its name, the Harlem Art Park also hosts temporary installations. Kathleen Granados’s “Present Histories: An East Harlem Photo Album,” appears through August 10. This work consists of laser etchings of photos of the neighborhood collected from park archives, community groups, and local residents, with new images continually being added.
Roosevelt Triangle (West 125th Street and Morningside Avenue)
“Harlem Hybrid” in the Roosevelt Triangle. Image: NYC Department of Parks & Recreation
One of the first artists to serve on the governing board of the National Endowment of the Arts, sculptor Richard Hunt was commissioned to create “Harlem Hybrid” in 1972 by arts patron Peter Putnam, who later commissioned George Segal’s landmark Gay Liberation Monument for Christopher Square Park. Cast in bronze, “Harlem Hybrid” stands more than 10 feet high and weighs 5,500 pounds; even if it were not set among low-lying shrubs it would dominate the tiny park in which it sits. Its geometric form, a medley of straight lines, irregular angles, and unexpected curves, takes inspiration from the shapes and silhouettes of the urban landscape.
Jackie Robinson Park (West 147th Street and Bradhurst Avenue)
In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball. In 1978, six years after his death, the nearly 13-acre Colonial Park was renamed in his honor. With its baseball fields, swimming pool, playgrounds, and basketball and volleyball courts, the park is a tribute to Robinson in and of itself, but the bronze bust of Robinson installed at the park’s recreation center in 1981 further commemorates the barrier-breaking athlete and community leader. Ruth Inge Hardison was perhaps best-known for “Negro Giants of History,” a series of sculptures of notable African Americans including Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, and Sojourner Truth, when she was commissioned to create the Robinson bust.
Locations throughout Harlem
Journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari launched the Education Is Not a Crime campaign in 2014 to draw global attention to the Iranian government’s refusal to allow practitioners of the Baha’i religion attend universities. To further raise awareness, street artists were commissioned to create murals throughout Harlem, a nod to the neighborhood’s history of fighting discrimination. One of the more visible of the 20 murals is “Little Girl and Not-Hobbes,” a four-story-high work by Swiss artist Bustart at East 126th Street and Park Avenue. Painted on a wall of the Association to Benefit Children (ABC) school, it is visible not only to residents but also to Metro-North riders, as it is just a block from the 125th Street station. The painting includes replications of drawings by actual ABC students. Other standouts include two portraits of legendary jazz trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie (229 West 135th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards), himself a Baha’i, painted by Brandan “B Mike” Odums and Marthalicia Matarrita to commemorate his 100th birthday; Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s eloquent “Learning to Read” on a wall of PS92 (222 West 134th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards); and the trompe l’oeil “The Gate of Tehran University” (305 West 123rd Street, between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas Avenue).
Riverside Park (150th Street and Riverside Drive)
This 15-foot-high bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett pays homage not just to Ralph Ellison but also to his best-known work, the novel “Invisible Man.” It is a 5,000-pound panel with a cutout of a male silhouette striding forward, though which the trees behind it are visible. Also part of the memorial are two granite panels engraved with Ellison quotes.
St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard
The sheer height may be the first thing you notice about this bronze depiction of Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman; atop a plinth of Chinese granite, the sculpture stands 13 feet high amid a formerly desolate traffic triangle. But once you take that in, along with the look of determination on Tubman’s face, you will also notice that the back of the figure’s skirt is attached to bronze “roots” symbolizing efforts to hold her back. What’s more, along the front of the skirt, sculptor Alison Saar integrated depictions of locks and faces representing slaves Tubman helped transport to freedom. The plot of land surrounding the statue features plants native to New York and to Tubman’s home state of Maryland, symbolizing the woods and fields that the Underground Railroad traveled.
Thomas Jefferson Park (First Avenue between East 111th and East 114th Streets)
Majestic at any time, “Tomorrow’s Wind” by Melvin Edwards is perhaps best viewed on a sunny day: The sculptor tilted the stainless-steel disc that makes up much of the work so that it would reflect sunlight throughout the day. The other major component of the sculpture is a 13.5-feet-high curved steel plate reminiscent of a wing. Thomas Jefferson Park is also home to \“El Arbol de Esperanza.” The work by L. Brower Hatcher, whose title translates to “The Tree of Hope,” consists of a stylized stainless-steel tree trunk supporting a globe of steel, brass, and bronze that incorporates models of animals and toys made by local children.