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Coming across public art often feels like stumbling upon unburied treasure. Never before have I had a chance to see it planted.

I commute through Madison Square Park. For months, I’ve watched the installation of contemporary artist Diana Al-Hadid’s Delirious Matter.

Like an artist sketch made public, the construction began last April. The first of her six sculptures began to take form. Webby steel cables rose from the park’s dry, reflection pool, covered in construction tarps and CAUTION tape.

WIP, mid-installation. Delirious Matter by Diana Al-Hadid

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“Citadel” slowly emerged. The site-specific sculpture, a bust of a female figure, took shape from Al-Hadid’s materials of delicately dripped polymer modified gypsum and fiberglass, a plaster mixture that resembles a blown open beehive.

“Citadel” by Diana Al-Hadid

One of three “Synonym”

Each day, I walked a different route through the park to observe the progress. Three reclining female figures, titled “Synonym,” were erected, headless, and elevated on their own lawns in peripheral gardens.

For a week of mornings, I left early to ogle at a grounds crew plowing trenches.

“They’re actually digging up Madison Square Park,” I told my colleague who was also interested in art.

“We usually can’t even sit on the grass,” he said, impressed. “I’m gonna have to check this out.”

We looked up the New York Times review by journalist Hilarie Sheets.

“I was educated by Modernist instructors in the Midwest,” said Al-Hadid, who was born in Aleppo, Syria and emigrated to Ohio as a child, “but also was raised in an Islamic household with a culture that very much prizes narrative and folklore.”

“If you look back at old masters, you can extract a lot about the role of women, either encased in a giant pile of fabric or lounging horizontally — dead or fainting or sleeping,” Al-Hadid told the Times.

“Tracing how women have been depicted in art history as objects of purity or desire,” Sheets wrote, “Diana Al-Hadid will exhibit new architecturally scaled sculptures riffing off timeworn female types.”

“The Grotto” and “Gradiva”

The trenches were planted with what Madison Square Park Conservancy refers to as “plant material,” first, undulating at all different heights, and then trimmed into line. The shrubbery rows united two 14-foot wall sculptures, “Gradiva” and “The Grotto,” into a rectangular hedge room in the middle of the Oval Lawn.

The sculptures were inspired by the “Allegory of Chastity” (circa 1475) and a bas-relief of a woman named Gradiva, Latin for “she who walks,” that Sheets reported was a fixation of Sigmund Freud, amongst others.

“These figurative fragments,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, of Mad. Sq. Art, “pivot between ruin and regeneration.”

Like the female experience. Like Spring. Like community life in a public park, turned gallery, for an outdoor exhibition.

Since Delirious Matter launched in May, here are a few the moments I’ve observed swirling around Al-Hadid’s art:

Pre-school Graduation and “Citadel”

  • A pre-school graduation
  • Countless coffees
  • Thunderstorms with lightening
  • A dead squirrel being fished out of the watery gown of “Citadel
  • Piano players
  • Dogs peeing
  • Someone barking into his smartphone that a co-worker was a “cunt, bitch”
  • Another that someone was a “pussy”
  • A game of tag running around the base of a “Synonym
  • Nanny meetups
  • Solo lunch breaks, people in office clothes silently eating salads with company badges clipped to their belt loops

A “Synonym” and the Hedge Room

Once every so often, the fences were rolled back. My partner and I happened upon the such an opening one strangely quiet Friday evening at dusk. Up close, we observed Al-Hadid’s sculptures and were surprised by their durability. From afar, they appeared ephemeral, willowy but tenacious, as spider webs or maybe more accurately described as their nests.

A toddler climbed on “Gradiva.

“Whose kid is this?” I shouted (likely including an expletive).

As Spring warmed to record-breaking Summer heatwaves:

  • A sunbather in a bikini, reading a book, dipped her toes in “Citadel
  • Daydreamers
  • Picnics beneath “The Grotto”
  • A man learning to play the harmonica
  • Female colleagues plotting
  • A kids’ concert, strollers parked near one of the “Synonym” like taxis idling at JFK
  • Pride
  • That steam pipe explosion, blowing clouds uptown over the entirety of the park and its Delirious Matter.
  • And finally, this blog.

I wrote a draft, sitting on the Oval Lawn, my back against a tree, alternating my gaze from the page to Al-Hadid’s hedge room.

My commute changes on Monday, but Delirious Matter shows through September 3, 2018.

The Betsy Hotel in South Beach, Miami is a bookish place. They have a library. Each room holds unique stacks. Bookshelves line the hallways.

On my way to the pool, a paperback, the color of a sand dune, caught my eye: O’Keeffe: The Life of an American Legend by Jeffrey Hogrefe. On the cover of this 1993 edition, Georgia O’Keeffe appears as ancient as the desert. She’s nearly blind, I’d learn.

Flipping, I discovered O’Keeffe made pottery. Late in life, when her eyesight failed and she could no longer paint, she worked in clay.

OK PotteryAt age 71, O’Keeffe learned to throw pottery from her assistant and companion, Juan Hamilton.

“O’Keeffe loved holding wet clay in her hands and then running her fingers over the walls of the finished products” the biographer wrote.

Ever the perfectionist, O’Keeffe was disappointed that her work was not as “fine as Hamilton’s smooth-walled vessels.”

Hamilton could make the clay “speak” O’Keeffe said and called him “one of our great talents,” Hogrefe shared.

I was taken with the story of these two artists. She followed his hands in clay; he created ceramics and sculpture inspired by shapes from her paintings.


Georgia O’Keeffe with pots by Juan Hamilton by Dan Budnik

While I’m prone to picking up books in hotels, I rarely finished them. But this one was different. I needed to read the full story of art being passed along. I offered to buy the book — the hotel has a partnership with the local, independently-owned Books & Books — but the concierge gifted it to me.

“We believe in supporting writing,” he said and mentioned their residency program.

The Betsy Hotel hosts a dedicated Writer’s Room for authors to come and write for a few days. Applications were opening soon.

“Did you know the owner’s father was writer?” he continued. His desk is in the Writing Room.

“Take a look at our website,” he encouraged. “Apply.”

My art crush is showing in Bust: Artist Ghada Amer Makes a Feminist Statement with Ceramics and Embroidery.

For over 20 years, contemporary artist, Ghada Amer, has challenged the oppression of female agency through sexually explicit paintings. With a global perspective, whether resisting oppression in the East’s Muslim-majority countries, where she was born, or in the West’s Christian-majority countries, where she has since made her home, Amer’s oeuvre has continually expanded into bodies of work committed to the message of freeing women — an idea that often takes the form of parted legs, open lips, loose threads, and dripping strands of unveiled hair.

We met in the atrium of Cheim & Read Gallery to discuss her exhibition. Most of the artwork was created around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I was curious to see how the political context might have influenced Amer.

Portrait of the Revolutionary Woman (2017) greeted me in the entryway by way of an answer and inspired our conversation to interweave the tertiary threads of art technique, cultural critique, and pleasure.

Ghada Amer, Red, Black, and Gold Sculpture (2017); Women in White (2016) at Cheim & Read Gallery

Amer’s embroidered paintings and ceramic plates covered the walls, while the floor held a handful of podiums showcasing ceramic sculptures, Amer called her boxes.   

“Paintings are flat,” Amer said, “but on ceramic boxes you can see them in space. This for me is the pleasure. Making the painting into a sculpture.”

In front of Women in White (2016), she said, “I am always very critical about painting and about the history of art,” and gestured toward the painting embroidered with figures of women in poses appropriated from pornography. “Who writes the history?” Amer remarked. “What do you show?”

“We are fed this history of art with no women painters,” Amer continued. “We are fed that if abstract art is in the Muslim world, it is decoration, but if it belongs to the Western world, it is Abstraction. This is very problematic.”


Ghada Amer, Glimpse into a New Painting, 2018

We concluded our conversation before Glimpse into a New Painting (2018). From afar the colors swirl into abstract blocks of purple, indigo, black, and red, conjuring Cy Twombly. Yet to compare her work to the canon master felt similar to drawing connections to pornography. Both ends of the visual high-low spectrum prioritized the predominantly male gaze of approval.

Upon closer inspection, the figure of a woman—just beginning to disrobe—came into shape. She appeared intent on something yet undone. 

“All the time I am thinking,” Amer said, “how can I make a painting with my technique?”


Ghada Amer’s exhibition of paintings and ceramic sculptures is now showing at Cheim & Read Gallery through May 12, 2018. The complete exhibition catalog is viewable online.



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