Public sculpture: Red, Yellow and Blue; Lightness of Being, New York – review

It’s a rite of summer in New York: as reliably as ice cream trucks pipe their ditties through the damp air and fire hydrants release their cataracts into the street, public sculpture sprouts outdoors. For civic groups and business improvement districts, these incursions are an effective way to give their neighbourhoods some startling glamour. To locals, tourists and passers-by, they offer casual encounters with contemporary art, outside the strictures of a museum. This year, two splendidly assertive installations have moved into separate Manhattan oases, splashing green lawns with bursts of colour.

Orly Genger has draped three bright, deceptively floppy sculptures across genteel Madison Square Park. Technically “Red, Yellow, and Blue” is a gargantuan work of crochet, but the word suggests a set of oversized tea cosies and doesn’t do justice to its mass, or to the muscular labour it required. Genger procured 1.4m feet of hand-knotted nautical rope from the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, which recycles fishing gear. Before she could begin to work with the derelict stuff, she and her assistants had to pluck out heaps of bones and lobster claws. Then they coated it with 500 gallons of primary-coloured paint. The final product covers 4,500 square feet and weighs in at 100,000 pounds, making it one of the heaviest art projects ever launched. Even so, it soars.

Each of the three sections forms an artificial box hedge that encloses a portion of parkland and gives it a distinct character and mood. Tall, forbidding and fortress-like, “Blue” snakes around one edge of the park, turning a public space into a secret garden. Snuggling couples or lunchtime nappers stake out this isolated corner. “Yellow” is the inviting opposite of “Blue”, an undulating wave that rolls around a permeable, sun-dappled expanse. Dynamic, friendly and open, it suits cheery and receptive people just looking for a good time. “Red”, the most interesting and complex of the three, winds in and out of trees, dipping and rising to shield picnickers from observation without cutting them off entirely from the urban buzz.

The piece’s three expressive limbs seem to be chatting among themselves about how to manage city life – how to find peaceful sanctuary without isolation, social space without a frantic free-for-all, vibrancy without chaos. The walls’ height, bulk and enfolding curve recall Richard Serra’s brawny steel structures. But Genger uses an old-time handicraft to give those macho provocations a feminine twist. She has stitched one kind of urban fabric into another, softening the rigid grid of streets and invoking New York’s nautical past with her marine mesh.

A few miles downtown, at City Hall Park, the Public Art Fund has organised Lightness of Being, a feast of works sprinkled gaily across the grass. At one end of the park, Sarah Lucas has positioned two colossal concrete squashes, one dubbed “Florian” and the other “Kevin”. These great phallic forms stretched on the ground beg to be scaled, sat on and leapt from. Just across the path, Franz West’s knobby blobs mimic the shape of Lucas’s marrows, but instead of lying there pale and supine, they stand tall and glow in bright pastels, protecting their corner of the park like a battalion of melting soldiers. Gary Webb applies the same ice-cream colours to the woozy totem pole that towers over the central pathway and tempts us to walk right up and take a lick. Beneath it teeters Alicja Kwade’s useless bicycle, twisted around like a dog chasing its tail or an urban wreck promoted into an objet.

At the opposite end of the park, the atmosphere gets almost cloying. Olaf Breuning’s circle of cartoonish creatures recapitulates human evolution in marble and bronze. The first rotund figure is still caught in primordial ooze, its limbs barely differentiated. Another swishes a mermaid’s tail, and a third, pierced by an arrow, wields a sword. Children cannot resist these cute critters and right away start climbing, petting and cosying up to their adorably ugly bodies. Ugo Rondinone has also contributed a chubby body to this show, but his creation is a real person, decked out in a clown suit and sprawled across a bench. The sad clown is a fixture of popular kitsch, but Rondinone’s performance brings it creepily to life.

It’s lazy to dismiss these public works as light entertainments, or bits of artistic glitter meant to tempt the eye for a second or two from the smartphone’s fascinating screen. But only a strong idea, expressed in a tough object, can succeed on the streets of a big city. Public art is a demanding genre, one that doesn’t tolerate preciousness or hermetic conceits. A minimalist black cube in a museum enjoys the silence and space (and the explanatory wall label) it needs to impart its cryptic message. Genger’s weaves and Lucas’s imposing vegetables, on the other hand, have to compete in an environment that bristles with distractions. They provide an experience that no exhibit in a white-walled, perfectly lit temple can: the delightful shock of seeing a strange object on familiar terrain, a perfectly useless interloper in a utilitarian world.

‘Red, Yellow and Blue’ will be at Madison Square Park until September 8; ‘Lightness of Being’ continues at City Hall Park until December 14

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