With limited museum admissions and an escalated amount of time outdoors, public art has never been more essential. While New York City is an open museum of modern and contemporary art, some gems are tucked inside for curious eyes to discover. However, bygone are generic landscapes and abstractions behind lobby desks. Property developers today commit to museum-quality displays from institutionally-celebrated artists. Brookfield Properties recently tapped Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Rashid Johnson for a mural at the 200 Liberty Street atrium inside their multipurpose complex, Brookfield Place.
“The opportunity to have my work in public spaces is something I’ve never taken for granted,” Johnson tells Interior Design. Reaching 14 by 33 feet in scale, Untitled Broken Crowd is the largest work to come out of the artist’s kiln at his Williamsburg studio. Across its massive scale, the mural is entrenched in oyster shells, handmade ceramics, wax, brass, wood, soap, spray paint, and most strikingly broken mirrors. “Passersby are pulled inside to this focal point,” explains Sabrina Kanner, EVP and head of development, design and construction at Brookfield Properties, about the work’s presence, which extends outside. Kanner adds the mural’s dialogue with the public creates an immersive experience through the complexity of its intricate close-up offerings.
Over the surface, a hallucinatory concert of organic and industrial textures occasionally yields a host of faces that typically appear in Johnson’s multimedia oeuvre. The rendition of two dots conveying the eyes and a straight line for the mouth echoes, while the splashes of reds and yellows in alarming hues signal a reference to our tumultuous times. In this vein, the mural’s political energy recalls Picasso’s Guernica. Brookfield Properties’ art advisor Jacob King, however, points out a neighboring 1959-dated mosaic mural by Lee Krasner in another downtown Manhattan building as their inspiration in pursuit of the material.
King and Kanner first encountered Johnson’s ceramic tile paintings at his solo exhibition with his Los Angeles gallery, David Kordansky, in 2018. “Since Rashid entered his studio to produce the work for us in late 2019, the series has kept developing,” King says. He and Kanner have witnessed the work’s evolution through Johnson’s incorporation of new materials, such as shells.
Aside from a six-week delay in installation, the project remained immune to pandemic-related complications. Producing the work entirely at Johnson’s studio was a crucial advantage, one that required the artist to pause all his other projects to accommodate the 15-panel mural. Despite its massive scale, Untitled Broken Crowd arrived to the property lobby as one unit and was placed to its permanent site in a single day.
Whether grids of tiles painted with semi-abstract faces or steel-cage installations dotted with neon tubes and plants, architectural geometry has been a crucial element in Johnson’s two-decade long practice. After challenging precision of such rigidness in painting and sculpture, the artist finds the opportunity to amplify his intent in corporate lobby architecture, in mural scale. For the developers, the project has been another step in “enlarging the idea of public art in real estate environments,” concludes Kanner. Prior to Johnson, they installed public works by globally-renowned sculptors Isa Genzken and Thomas Schütte in and outside of their properties.