The Art of Diplomacy?: On Robert Storr's New Vanilla Installation for the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

The art collection inside the new United States Mission to the United Nations, as curated by Yale art school dean Robert Storr, is American art at its least provocative. The decorative mix of mainly abstract prints by well-known U.S. artists is unadventurous and uniformly anodyne — about what one would expect for a government building: nothing to ruffle the American eagle's feathers. In a year when Allora & Calzadilla are bringing politically-charged, challenging art to the U.S. pavilion at the Venice Biennale, this reticence on the part of Storr — who was a controversial Biennale's director in 2007 — suggests that the nature of the U.N. work requires a decorator's eye and a Rolodex, rather than a scholar or critic.

The building, among the last designed by the late Charles Gwathmey, sits on the corner of First Avenue and East 45th Street, facing the U.N. Secretariat. It's an undistinguished 26-story tower clad in light-colored cement with a curvilinear glazed entry pavilion around its fortress-like base. The mission dearly needs art, and it gets some courtesy of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE), a private nonprofit that since 1986 has fitted out U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world.


Storr, meanwhile, is chairman of FAPE's advisory committee, as well as a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Ensconced now at Yale, he is one of the most brilliant historians of modern art around, and an expert on contemporary art as well. Under his direction, FAPE contributed 207 artworks to the U.S. Mission, including 52 donated by the artists, according to a FAPE spokesperson. The rest were paid for with $1.4 million in donations, of which $1.2 million was for site-specific works. The spokesperson says none of the artists' galleries helped fund gifts or installation.
It must be said that FAPE does good work. Many bland government buildings would be even blander were it not for the organization, which claims to have raised $56 million toward art and logistical costs to decorate U.S. facilities in more than 140 countries. But their art programs are dictated by their official setting and function, which is to say that they tend to be serviceable and dull.

The U.S. Mission is a case in point. The job calls for easy-on-the-eyes color accents to enliven the gray-and-white interiors, and care seems to have been taken to avoid stimulating much thought, particularly about social issues or international affairs.

The utility of abstraction in this context is not new. Where would our federal courthouses and consulates be without the likes of Ellsworth Kelly and Joel Shapiro? They are the go-to guys called upon to apply decorative flourishes to empty walls and vacant plazas. What does their work mean? Well, nothing specific. And that's its virtue in these situations — providing tasteful design elements that are as much part of the architecture as fluorescent lighting.

It works best on an architectural scale, such as a double-height meeting space whose dome-like rotunda features a site-specific work by Sol Lewitt that is without a doubt the piece de resistance. "Wall Drawing #832: A Red Spiral Line on Blue" turns the beehive-shaped space into a deep blue glimpse of firmament. The work was donated by the estate, but its installation cost FAPE more than half a million dollars.

Windows provide sweeping vistas of Roosevelt Island and Queens, and adjacent walls include another site-specific commission, a column of overlapping colored panels by Ron Gorchov, and a round red relief by Linda Benglis that looks like it's made of molten lava.

The public spaces on the ground floor include a Calder stabile and an Alan Houser statue of an Indian offering a peace pipe — both of which have belonged to the State Department for years — and a Odila Donald Odita wall drawing whose pattern of colorful triangles suggests a deconstructed modernist flag.

Distributed about the cramped offices, meeting rooms, and corridors of the upper floors, which house the U.S. Mission and other Department of State personnel, are benign abstractions, mainly prints and multiples by Robert Mangold, Martin Puryear, Josef Albers, Kenneth Noland, Peter Halley, Jennifer Bartlett, and several dozen others, including the obligatory Kelly and Shapiro.

There are also some faces, horses, cityscapes, and still lifes by Chuck Close, Alex Katz, Laurie Simmons, Joe Andoe, Yvonne Jacquette, and Janet Fish, and a large seascape by photographer Clifford Ross. Collectively they furnish a décor that's as slick as Teflon. If the installation were an exhibition, it might be titled "American Wall Candy."


No one expects a diplomatic facility to present a visual debate on American supremacy, class warfare, feminism, racism, religious intolerance, and overt critiques of U.S. politics and foreign policy. This is not the place for a Warhol "Electric Chair," an Andres Serrano Klansman, a Hans Haacke treatise on slum lords, or a Martha Rosler living room with the Viet Nam war unfolding out the window. Sexuality would be way out of bounds.

FAPE chairman Jo Carole Lauder — the wife of billionaire Ronald Lauder, former chairman of MoMA — led a recent tour of the building, and says the collection "captures the diversity and richness of our country's unique culture." But the selection represents a thin slice of the American pie, one that suggests the country's culture is acritical and concerned mainly with aesthetics as decoration.

Which is not to question the value of FAPE's activities. The State Department's Art in Embassies program obtains temporary loans for ambassadorial residences, but FAPE donates permanent site-specific works to embassies and consulates. They are currently funding site-specific installations for the U.S. consulates in Mumbai, India, and Guangzhou, China, as well as the embassies in Beijing and Kingston, Jamaica. Those facilities would be far less inviting without the private patronage of the FAPE benefactors.


For more news and opinion by Jason Edward Kaufman, visit his IN VIEW blog on ARTINFO.