Every day, thousands of people walk by a series of stickers on the wall of the Union Square subway station in Manhattan. It’s easy to pass them hundreds of times and still have no idea why they’re there. Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at Eugene Lang College, knows only too well: the stickers list the name of everyone killed in the September 11th attacks. Goldfarb thinks of it as Mike’s Memorial, as it includes the name of his friend, Michael Asher. Over the years, Goldfarb has performed a little guerrilla art restoration, touching up his friend’s fading name with a ballpoint pen.
The story of Mike’s Memorial is one of several dozen pieces that straddle the lines between objects, stories, and personal memory and city history collected in this summer’s show at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons School of Design, Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story. The exhibit explores the intimate, personal worlds of several New Yorkers who are also faculty members here at The New School.
The exhibition looks at New York’s curious dichotomy; how such a diverse city, with millions of people, gleaming skyscrapers, and some of the largest cultural, ethnic, and income diversity in the world can, at times, feel like a one’s own small town. It’s possible to go for months or years at a stretch seeing only the same tiny fraction of the city, over and over: always getting your morning coffee at the same place, always buying the same cheap umbrellas that break and end up in the trash, or thinking of your friend every time you get out of the subway to go to work. For most people, these daily totems are the real things that make up their experience of living in New York.
The professors, artists, and writers who participated in the exhibit selected a single object that represents their private city life. Sixty-two objects are on display, including an almost hundred-year-old hand grenade savings bank, the ubiquitous sidewalk chewing gum dot, iconic subway maps, and impromptu memorials. Each object is accompanied by a short essay, explaining the personal significance of the piece.
“We were interested in how everyday life in this city is snagged by objects, and in how stories grant luster to the mundane,” said Radhika Subramaniam, director and chief curator of the SJDC and Assistant Professor of Art and Design History and Theory. “Our objects are handheld, mobile, monumental, and even immaterial. Whether well-designed or just well used, they live and survive with us, creating a ripple of small meanings.”
The show, co-curated by Subramaniam and Margot Bouman, Assistant Professor of Visual Culture, was inspired by a new undergraduate curriculum that Parsons will launch this fall. Taking a more contemporary approach to art and design education, “the new curriculum gives professors an opportunity to really rethink the way the art history survey is taught to first-year art and design students,” says Bouman. “We’ve done away with the survey textbook, and will instead use New York’s world-class collections as our classroom. We want our students to understand objects as expressions and embodiments of particular places and times, and prepare them to connect their practice to New York City, and to the world.”
Professors from around the university contributed to the show. Maura Jurgrau, an Assistant Professor of Fashion Design, talks about one of her “favorite pastimes and guilty pleasures,” playing pool. To represent this, she has on display her vintage 1970s Adam Custom pool cue, which she thinks of more or less like a musical instrument. Jamer Hunt, Director of the MFA Transdisciplinary Design program selected the MTA’s Electronic Annunicator signs (a strange name for a simple object: the digital screens that indicate the length of the wait between subway trains). These are a surprisingly recent addition to the NYC subways, and Hunt at once celebrates how they “turn the black hole of anxious anticipation into the warm glow of confident knowledge,” while acknowledging that they arrived at least 20 years too late to be a true innovation. There are many, many more: Andrea Geyer, artist and Assistant Professor in MFA Fine Arts program at Parsons The New School for Design, writes about Audrey Munson, the model for many New York municipal statues, including a 1926 dime; Julia Foulkes, Associate Professor of History at The New School for Public Engagement selected a sailor suit, both a latter-day symbol of homosexuality and evocative of the ballet Fancy Free, which eventually became the musical On the Town, famous for its song, “New York, New York;” Victoria Hattam, Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research looks at Brooklyn’s storefront churches; Peter Asaro, Director of Graduate Programs for Media Studies, picked the classic New York black umbrella, to which he jokingly gives the scientific name umbella furvus ubiquitous.
Each object on display at the SJDC reflects the public and the personal. “I feel like I know my colleagues in a more meaningful way through their choice of object and their writing,” says Simone Douglas, Director of Master’s program in Fine Arts whose contribution was an oyster midden. Subramaniam agrees, “It’s a pleasant reminder that we share this city as much as this institution.”
Masterpieces of Everyday New York runs through September 4 in the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery; a reception is scheduled for Thursday, August 29 at 6 p.m. All are welcome.