Gabriel Koren's Frederick Douglass
On September 20th at 11:00 a.m., various notables will gather to finally unveil and inaugurate a new public space, the Frederick Douglass Circle, located at the northwest corner of New York’s Central Park. They need not bother.
Not that Frederick Douglass is not eminently worthy of celebration -- he is. It is just a pity that this $15.5 million travesty is the vehicle. The whole sorry spectacle started a little over four years ago. When the initial public space was planned, the eight-foot statue of Douglass was to stand above a huge granite quilt, forming an array of squares loaded with symbols, supposedly part of a secret code sewn into family quilts and used to aid slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. The only problem was, the whole code-in-a-quilt story was a myth, and a rather poor one at that, and the original design had to be scrapped. Now the statue is near a bronze wall studded with stars, which, I imagine, can only lead the more credulous children playing in the Circle to believe that Douglass worked for NASA.
Work on the Circle began in 2004, with a projected completion date of 2005. That was then pushed back to 2008. It was not finished, however, until 2010 – with its dedication now a year later. Insert your own “New York minute” joke here.
The square was designed by Algernon Miller, and, all things considered, it is relatively innocuous. He managed to work some of the quilt mythology into the paving stones themselves, though the overarching effect is still somewhat underwhelming. It is certainly a better, more fitting, and more aesthetically pleasing refuge than the appalling Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial defacing Washington, DC, designed (if that’s the word) by Lawrence Halprin.
Miller worked with the Studio Museum in Harlem to find a sculptor for the figure of Douglass and, here, in a nutshell, is where the project completely degrades into farce. Out of a field of six artists, they selected Gabriel Koren, and the figure he crafted is one of nearly unparalleled horror. The arms and legs of the venerable Douglass seem completely and utterly out of proportion – one thinks he could scratch his ankles without bending over. The details of his hands, shoes and trousers seem sketchy, at best, and one is not sure if he is ready to address an audience, or needs to steady himself after a night out on the town. The face and hair are amateurishly delineated – indeed, Koren makes the famed orator and abolitionist look like a dyspeptic smurf.
Though the city and state footed the bill for this $15.5 million amateur art project, the Circle and statue itself were commissioned for a mere $750,000. (That figure may have increased once the original plans including the granite quilts were scrapped, but I have not been able to confirm that yet.) It is currently a haven for skateboarders, tired nannies and drunks, so the investment has not been a complete waste.