Outdoor sculpture has a significant role in mediating visual arts in the public space, especially if it defies the traditional representational modes. Alongside the form and the conceptual work-frame according to which certain work is produced, the interaction with the same is also conditioned by the location on which it stands.
It is not rare for an outdoor sculpture to become a signature meeting point in a specific neighborhood, needless to say – a place where people interact and express different behaviors. Such is the case with the iconic Astor Place Cube, also known as The Cube, or simply Alamo, an outdoor sculpture located in Astor Place, in the East Village, New York City.
The impressive geometrical structure that defies gravity was made by Bernard (Tony) Rosenthal in 1967, at the height of Minimal art. It was produced as part of the Sculpture and the Environment program established by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, according to which each work should be displayed for six months; however, The Cube became cherished by the residents to such an extent that they even petitioned and managed to suspend Alamo’s removal from its initial location.
Tony Rosenthal's black cube (2.4 meters long on each side) was made of CorTen steel and weighs about 820 kg. It stands across the street from the entrance to the Astor Place subway station and the famous Cooper Union Foundation Building. The sides of the Alamo are fissured, and its name selected by the artist’s wife (who saw it as reminiscent of scale and mass of the Alamo Mission) is inscribed on a small plate on the base. The cube manually rotates around a pole hidden in its center.
This particular sculpture seems to belong to a series, since it is one of five cubes made by Rosenthal around the same time. Titled Endover, a cube identical to Alamo, is located on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan; this cube was donated in 1965 and installed in 1968.
The intersection where The Alamo Cube stands is historically intriguing as this piece of land was the border dividing three nations, known as Kintecoying, 500 years ago - it is thus the crossroads of three nations or the territories of three Native American tribes (the Canarsie, the Sapohannikan, and the Manhattan), who lived on this part of New York in the 16th Century. They spoke different languages; however, the future Cube site was used by the tribes for trade, but also for playing games such as bagettaway, or lacrosse as we know it today.
For that reason, Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo was installed at the intersection to underline the similar role of a public space where different communities interact, talk, trade, or play games. Related to that is the game spin the cube that is another relevant reference for the artist, and for that reason, the sculpture moves.
In 2005, The Astor Place Cube was removed by the Parks Department for maintenance. With the crew of technicians, the artist made several repairs, and Alamo was returned with a fresh coat of black paint. Ten years later, due to the redevelopment of Astor Place, the sculpture was protected by the wooden box, but eventually, it was removed for another restoration and repainting by the New York City Parks Department. In 2016 it was reinstalled, and the following year the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the sculpture’s installation.
Ever since 2003, the sculpture was a site of different artistic interventions and pranks. In 2011, the visual artist Olek (Agata Oleksiak) covered the cube with her signature camouflage pattern crochet, and later that year CalTech students covered it with a fitted cloth reminiscent of Weighted Companion Cube from the video game Portal. In 2013, a fake documentary about the man living inside the cube went viral, while in 2015 a man dressed as Alamo stood in its place when the sculpture was temporarily shipped for reconstruction.
Five decades after the sculpture was erected, the surrounding landscape changed: a nearby parking lot where flea markets were organized in the 1970s and ’80s was replaced in 2005 by Charles Gwathemy’s Sculpture for Living tower, and the black glass office tower at 51 Astor Place replaced a six-story brick Cooper Union building.
The Astor Place Cube apparently never ceases to amaze the locals and tourists alike, whether because of its grandeur or interpretational openness. It continues to defy the flow of time and the inevitable urban changes this neighborhood has been experiencing throughout the years.
Tony Rosenthal is probably best known for his landmark, fifteen-foot high CorTen cube, poised on its tip, which stands permanently on Astor Place in downtown Manhattan. Yet at the time it was installed, in 1967, and soon after accepted as the first permanent contemporary outdoor public sculpture by the City of New York, he had received many other public commissions, and had also been producing smaller-scale studio sculpture of distinction for nearly two decades, first in Los Angeles and then in New York. Since the late fifties he has been experimenting in a rather wide range of abstraction, from monolithic structures to more open geometric forms, often with elegant surface detailing concerned with effects of light and movement. The book contains 69 color plates, an extensive chronology, a list of the sculptor's major commissions and public sculptures and a bibliography.
Featured image: The Astor Place Cube in New York City. Image by Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons.