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Seen from the streets: Tara Donovan’s plastic construction at Lever House (Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

Outdoor art isn’t what it used to be. Once it honored heroic individuals and upheld values that whole populations could embrace. Today, excepting memorials like the Vietnam veterans wall, outdoor art serves rather to divert, amuse and comfort.

A striking illustration of that old-new dichotomy straddles East 60th Street and the southeastern corner of Central Park. On the north side, temporarily installed in Doris C. Freedman Plaza by the Public Art Fund, is “The Ego and the Id,” a big, brightly colored sculpture by the Austrian artist Franz West. Its two parts, made of roughly welded-together pieces of aluminum, form lumpy, spindly loops rising 20 feet in the air. One is painted glossy bubblegum pink, while the other sports a coat of yellow, green, blue and orange patches. In places near the ground, the loops morph into round stools on which people can sit. Judging by the reactions of passers-by and their clambering children, this infectiously cheerful work is a popular attraction.

Meanwhile, on the south side of the street, on an elevated, neo-Classical stone pedestal, is a bigger-than-life gilded-bronze sculpture of the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. Riding on horseback, he follows a female figure in billowing robes, an allegory of Victory. The monument has been here since 1903. On a recent sunny day there were lots of people on the plaza in front of the sculpture, but most were watching a group of athletic young men performing gymnastic dance feats to loud hip-hop music. It seemed a safe bet that no one there knew or cared who the man on the horse was or who made the sculpture that honors him.

The creator of the Sherman monument, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), was the pre-eminent American sculptor of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His career is the subject of an indoor show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Including miniature cameo portraits, exquisitely sensitive relief portraits of upper-class women and children in marble and bronze and a monumental marble figure of Hiawatha, the exhibition of almost four dozen works from the museum’s collection displays a kind of traditional skill and idealism that practically no one possesses anymore.

The big problem for outdoor art is the absence of any consensus of values in our pluralistic, multicultural society. It’s hard to imagine a public sculpture of a hero today that would not be regarded by one faction or another as partisan. As an unscientific sampling of art in the public realm this summer confirms, contemporary outdoor art tends to offer unobjectionable, mildly decorative or entertaining and relatively empty experiences.

A few blocks south of the Sherman monument, placed by the New York City Parks Public Art Program on the Park Avenue median strip between 57th and 51st Streets, are seven bronze and stainless-steel sculptures by James Surls of giant, semi-abstract, fantasy flowers. Mr. Surls, who is based in Carbondale, Colo., is known for funky wooden indoor sculptures resembling the works of an eccentric backwoods visionary.

With petals inscribed with eyes and other petals in the form of crystals, the Park Avenue works hint at psychedelic experience. But that aspect is neutralized by the colorless metal and a stylistic decorum that turns them into innocuous garden sculptures.

In the same neighborhood is a more eye-grabbing sculpture by Tara Donovan, the artist known for spectacular accumulations of ordinary objects like plastic straws and disposable cups. Presented in the window of the Lever House Lobby, where it may be viewed from indoors as well as out, Ms. Donovan’s untitled piece consists of 2,500 pounds of plastic sheeting loosely folded into a wide box that is glassed in on the front and back and built into a freestanding white wall.

At first you notice the serpentine pattern formed by the edges of the plastic material. Then a remarkable optical effect kicks in. Light pouring through from either side reflects on the shiny surfaces of the plastic folds, producing a shimmering, kaleidoscopic effect. The transformation is magical and more hallucinogenic than anything suggested by Mr. Surls’s works.

(By the way, some art lovers will be relieved to discover that Damien Hirst’s colossal bronze sculpture of a partly dissected pregnant woman has been removed from the outdoor Lever House plaza. It has been replaced by a giant, white Hello Kitty figure by Tom Sachs. A painted bronze that looks as if it were patched together from pieces of foam core, it is not a great improvement, but it is at least not nearly as hideous.)

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Ken Johnson
New York Times

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