The Color of There Seen From Here

I took a little walk in the middle of the afternoon today to get lunch from the new fancy cafeteria, The Pennsy, at Penn Plaza. My intention was to grab a vegan Thai BBQ sandwich from Cinnamon Snail and head back to my screens at the office, but once I got there I was inspired to stretch the moment a bit. I ate there instead, heeding my ophthalmologist’s advice to “look at things that are far away every once in a while.”

After devouring some tempeh and focusing on things in the distance, I continued my afternoon retreat away from screens and strolled at tourist pace through Penn Plaza, a welcome pedestrian plaza right next to Madison Square Garden that opened last August. A few steps out of The Pennsy I noticed for the first time Roy Lichtenstein’s 33-foot tall Brushstroke Group. 33 feet is quite tall, so I stepped back a bit to look at the whole thing with the backdrop of the city and realized that I’d caught this tremendous sculpture at a perfect moment when the sky exactly reflected the color of the horizontal brushstroke that connects the vertical ones at the top of the sculpture.

I had seen Lichtenstein’s sculptures in a gallery. I had seen them in a sculpture park. I had, with 100% certainty, walked past this exact sculpture before without paying attention. But I hadn’t before been able to “get” a Lichtenstein sculpture in this way. At that moment I felt it in real time. It was as if, from the heavens, a giant halftone paintbrush had been dipped in primary colors and lowered down into Penn Plaza, leaving gargantuan strokes of “paint” that float above every surface between the buildings, the streets, the cars, the halal trucks, the traffic conductors, the tourists, the midtown lunchers, the air we all share, and the sky.

It was the sky, in its perfect reflection of that top brushstroke, that showed me the sculpture in this spatially transcendent way. The overlap in color anchored the sculpture to the sky in the same way gravity anchored it to the concrete surface of the plaza. The pieces of midtown surrounding the sculpture became flattened behind it and time seemed to be flattened with it. I was viewing — or part of — a living painting. My afternoon outing to eat a fancy vegan sandwich with only one screen instead of several had truly taken an unexpected turn.

The meeting of the brushstroke’s blue and the sky’s blue, divided flatly by the shadows of the three dimensional form became the thing in the distance I focused on. The blues made the sculpture look a million miles away and the sky within arms reach. Space was removed to create a great distance or none at all. In her 2005 book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes about the “blue of distance.” She says blue is “the color of solitude and desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.” The paint/sky blue was all of these things. The flattening effect that this combination of blues created made the giant sculpture float weightlessly, timelessly, on top of our heavy city.

Solnit goes on to describe the historical use of blue in painting as a device for showing distance. She says Leonardo was experimenting with this technique in the 15th century:

He wrote that when painting buildings, ‘to make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building… of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.’ The painters seemed to have become smitten with the blue of distance, and when you look at these paintings you can imagine a world where you could walk through an expanse of green grass, brown tree trunks, of whitewashed houses, and then at some point arrive in the blue country: grass, trees, houses become blue, and perhaps if you look down at yourself, you too would be as blue as the Hindu god Krishna.

Solnit’s observation on the blue of distance as a painting technique speaks to Brushstroke Group in a unique way because the immense aluminum sculpture represents paint strokes, turning whatever happens to be behind the sculpture into the canvas. The part of the sculpture that is farthest away from the viewer is the top horizontal brushstroke, the blue brushstroke. Whether intentional or not, Lichtenstein followed Leonardo’s steps for showing distance by making the most distant thing the most blue thing. He took it a step further by putting the most distant thing against the actual sky, whose shade of blue is always shifting.

Had Lichtenstein chosen this particular blue for this top-most part of his sculpture because he knew it would align with the sky? Did he anticipate the viewer’s possible position and foresee this confusion of distance, this flattening sensation? Given that the installation of this sculpture in Penn Plaza is recent, it’s safe to assume he didn’t predict my abduction from a midtown lunch spot into a world of giant aluminum paint strokes. He also probably didn’t anticipate the delightful skyline created by the combination of the brushstrokes and the buildings lining the intersection of 33rd and 7th. But that is one of the many powerful things about public works of art. As an artist, you are releasing a work into the chaos of non-art life, results may vary.

In this moment, I took a picture and felt more like a tourist than I ever have in midtown. Not just because I was taking a picture of something in this tourist area, in a place I have been speed-walking through with my earbuds in multiple times a day for nearly 6 years. It was because I felt a genuine sense of discovery and foreignness and excitement and wonder and exploration that I have never felt in in that place even when I was an actual tourist on a school trip when I was 13.

Moments passed and a cloud moved behind the blue brushstroke, snapping Penn Plaza back into 3 dimensions, back to real time. The brushstrokes were re-materialized from liquid lines of paint applied onto time’s surface, to heavy aluminum forms solidly planted on the concrete. I immediately felt compelled to fast-forward, to catch up with the time I’d lost wandering around the world this sculpture pulled me into.

Brushstroke Group returned to what it had been before (all along?), a static work of art, not movable but moving, a colorful group of forms offering itself as something far away for me to look at instead of a screen, a visual break from the landscape and the emotion of the city. A reason to stop and think and be transformed.

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