Art on and off the High Line

Detail of 5 sculptures of The Evolution of God, a site-specific installation by Adrián Villar Roja

Detail of 5 sculptures of The Evolution of God, a site-specific installation by Adrián Villar Roja

As an artist, I’m inspired by the natural world but I’m also inspired by the art other artists create and how that work is displayed. In this blog post I explore the different types of art I observed on and near the High Line.

The thoughtfully curated art on the High Line is primarily sculpture, with the temporary art exhibits largely sited within the planting beds. Of the current works on display my favorite is Adrián Villar Rojas’ The Evolution of God, which is located on the Interim Walkway. The series of distressed and crumbling cubes of concrete and clay is a site-specific installation set amongst the railroad tracks and self-seeded plants. They are conceptually rich, evoking layers of landscape and objects (shoes, shells, etc.). They are meant to transform and disintegrate over time. I’m not sure many visitors realized that the sculptures were intentional additions; they blended into the scene seamlessly.

The High Line is a park with art, not a sculpture park. Sculpture parks tend to create vistas and clear spaces for visitors to experience art (see previous blog post about Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle). Instead, some High Line visitors discover the works as they walk along the walkway, and some visitors never discover them at all. In addition to curated public art, there are many other visual inputs that compete for visitors’ attention, including plants, railroad rails, benches, other visitors, cityscape views, architecture, and billboards.

High Line walkway and nearby billboard

High Line walkway and nearby billboard

Commercial art like billboards commands a lot of visual real estate. Huge and sometimes humorous, these message boards can overwhelm even the largest sculptures and murals on the High Line. One example is the current bright yellow billboard (measuring approximately 20’x40’) at 18th Street, so close to the High Line that it almost touches the railing. Billboards garner a lot of attention. Visitors can often be seen stopping and looking at the large photo billboard ¼ mile away on the Chelsea Piers and reading the advertisement covering a storage company’s building adjacent to the walkway. These billboards are a constant reminder that the High Line is not a white cube gallery space or a sculpture park. The cityscape can be seen everywhere along the High Line.

Sign marking Kim Beck’s Space Available sculptures

Sign marking Kim Beck’s Space Available sculptures

At times the High Line itself has used nearby billboards and roofs to display art. In 2011 Kim Beck’s Space Available, sculptures that echoed billboards (they were hollow outlines of billboards), were sited on roofs in the Chelsea neighborhood. Claiming space for art from the surrounding commercial area is a nice way to extend the High Line’s visual influence.

26th Street Viewing Spur frame

26th Street Viewing Spur frame

There is also one area of the walkway with a permanent shout out to billboards, and it is very popular with visitors. The 26th Street “Viewing Spur frame is meant to recall the billboards that were once attached to the High Line . . .(the) platform with wood benches invites visitors to sit and enjoy views of 10th Avenue and Chelsea” (High Line Map Guide). While the frame creates a curated view for visitors up on the High Line, from the street the same frame looks like a billboard with live people whose movements create a changing still life composition.

There is other art, not on the High Line, but visible from the High Line, that also vies for visitors’ attention. It is art displayed to the public by individual artists and for-profit and non-profit entities; some of these pieces are very well received and popular with visitors—it is not unusual to see several people photographing the art works at the same time as both objects and backgrounds for selfies.

Visitors photographing VJ Day mural by Kobra

Visitors photographing VJ Day mural by Kobra

Kobra’s off-site VJ Day mural (at 25th Street and 10 Avenue) is by far the most photographed artwork visible from, or on, the High Line. I walked the High Line back and forth at least two times a day (at different times) for 9 days; every time I passed the mural visitors were queued up to photograph it and several people were jostling to photograph it at the same time. It was also photographed from the street below. Why is it so popular? Perhaps because it is big, bright, involves a kiss, and it is similar to an iconic photograph (VJ Day in Times Square). There may be other reasons as well, but this was by far the most popular and attention-grabbing artwork of the High Line area.

Urban Rattle by Charlie Hewitt

Urban Rattle by Charlie Hewitt

Another work that was photographed often is Charlie Hewitt’s Urban Rattle sculpture, sited slightly below the High Line on the Ten23 Apartments’ patio deck. According to the plaque affixed to the base of the sculpture, Equity Residential commissioned the work, it was “inspired by the 1980’s graffiti art culture,” and it was “the first permanent sculpture installed along the High Line for public viewing.” This is a case of an entity other than the High Line commissioning a work to be viewed from the High Line.

Lady Luck paintings by Jordan Betten

Lady Luck paintings by Jordan Betten

By placing un-commissioned public art within view of the High Line walkway, individual artists are able to get their work in front of thousands of people per day; putting the public back into “public art.” One example of this is Lady Luck by Jordan Betten on a roof and wall between 27th and 28th streets. This work is also often photograph by High Line visitors.

Foreground: Urban Rattle by Charlie Hewitt, background: spray art and Ed Ruscha’s mural Honey I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today

Foreground: Urban Rattle by Charlie Hewitt, background: spray art and Ed Ruscha’s mural Honey I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today

There is also spray art on buildings overlooking the High Line. It appears in several places, but I found the most provocative placement occuring on a building’s wall between the Urban Rattle sculpture and the Ed Ruscha mural Honey I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today. There the spray art is in conversion with two commissioned pieces. It is a great comment on commissioned and non-commissioned artwork.

Physical Graffiti by Damián Ortega

Physical Graffiti by Damián Ortega

There is spay art visible from other vistas on the High Line and some of the commissioned art responds to it. Three of the curated pieces currently on exhibit are Damián Ortega’s Physical Graffiti #1 – 3, a set of metal sculptures, attached to the park’s railings, that look like 3-D graffiti tags. These were being installed during my visit to New York and, just like graffiti, one day it wasn’t there and then overnight it appeared.

The High Line is a place that is always evolving—e.g., plants are blooming or going dormant, nearby buildings are being demolished or erected, visitors are coming and going—and the art on and off the High Line is also evolving. The curated temporary art exhibits, nearby billboards, and un-commissioned public art are an ever-changing exhibition that provokes and inspires, and makes the High Line a place where change is always visible.

For more information about this research project read the Project Overview.

2011 billboard with photo by Joel Sternfeld showing the self-seeded landscape of the High Line

2011 billboard with photo by Joel Sternfeld showing the self-seeded landscape of the High Line

Click here to see Joel Sterling’s 2011 photo billboard in context

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Holly A. Senn

Holly A. Senn

Artist & Librarian at Pacific Lutheran University
In her sculptures and installations Holly A. Senn explores how ideas are generated, dispersed, remembered or forgotten. Her work is inspired by nature. She also takes photographs for this website.
Holly A. Senn

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