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
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
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
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
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.
is not the place for a Warhol "Electric Chair," an Andres
Klansman, a Hans Haacke treatise on slum lords, or a Martha
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.