Across the street from the MOMA’s big, new, blue home is The Factory, a mall/office space building unremarkable for its commerce—but more than remarkable for its sculpture. The 5,000 square feet of floor, wall, and ceiling were, until recently, covered in a dense and quirky collage, made from fifty tons of recycled industrial garbage: bathtubs, water pipes, rebar, boilers, cogs and springs, Much of which, after a brief and colorful career as fish, astronauts, car gods, a giant mouse trap, and Neptune is on its way back to being just trash.
A couple of day ago, the artist John Carter and the Building Manager, Barney, talked on the loading dock of The Factory.
“Barney, do you know what they’ve done with the Space Shuttle?”
“No,” he said. “I know it’s not in the dumpster.”
Back in 1991, three artists, J.J. Veronis, Johnny Swing, and John Carter, collaborated with the then owners of the old Macy’s factory to see how long folks trying to make art and folks trying to make a buck could share the ground floor of a building. The answer seems to be: about ten years.
In 1994, new owners of The Factory, Helmsley-Spear, decided to take the installation down—a safety hazard, dangerous to the customers. The artists battled in court, won the first round, lost the second, and everything had to go.
“Well,” Barney said. “I love the artwork. We’re not taking down everything. We’re going to move some things around.”
“What are you going to do with the school bus?” John asked, waving in a Suburban SUV as it backed into the loading dock. “That school bus has been in every art magazine in the country.”
“Is this the van they sent?” John said to the driver of the Suburban. “I told them it was for moving sculptures.” The driver looked at the long twisted forms of rebar and welded steel and then at the carpeted interior of the Suburban.
They moved the sculptures back inside from the loading dock. John pointed to the one piece left on the floor of the bay, a thick metal arm wrapped in strips of red-painted leather, with a giant lobster claw at the end instead of a hand. “That lobster claw is probably the oldest thing here,” he said. “Thomas Jefferson could have eaten that lobster.”
It wasn’t Mr. Jefferson, however, but Mr. R. W. Emerson who set the groundwork for much of this legal battle, observing that a country is not all-the-way civilized “where the arts, such as they have, are all imported, having no indigenous life.” Meaning, American Laws should protect American artists and their art or we might end up having to import all our new art from Britain—hard to imagine. The Three Johns fought their expulsion from The Factory with a new tool, the Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA), enacted in 1991—with an Emersonian spirit to protect the moral rights of visual artists—but never tested. It turned out not to be the right tool for the job.
John Carter put the lobster claw arm into the back of the Suburban. “Nothing lasts forever,” he said. “We got some mileage out of it. I was voted Most Likely to Change Culture by the New York Times Magazine and got to go on stage with Gwyneth Paltrow and Moby. We got some attention.”
If you go to the factory now, you can see the new paint color the building management has chosen for the walls, a bright mall blue, perhaps bought at surplus prices from the new blue art show across the street. Long poles of rebar still poke out from the walls, even after they’ve been cleared: the J’s weren’t building with ease of disassembly in mind.
One of the guards, taking a break said, “I really liked it at first. It was just fun and cool to look at, but then it got too much to clean, metal polisher, dusting; it took forever. I like some parts of it more than others. I remember I stood in front of the aquarium part one day and just stared at it for twenty minutes until I figured out what all the different fish were and what they’d made them out of. Pretty amazing.”
In the final legal round, the installation was declared a work for hire and, therefore, ineligible for protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act. Two of the three Johns volunteered to disassemble the web of recycled parts and welded joints. In return they got to keep some of their sculpture.
“Otherwise,” said John Carter, “a builder comes in and just strips the place and everything ends up in the dumpster:” The astronaut made from a dented trash can, the blowfish from thrown-out jewelers stamps, the huge robotic arm from an abandoned school bus, the moon from a satellite dish that the owner replaced with a newer model.
Back inside the loading dock, a giant metal shark sat on two wooden pallets. It was the size of a VW bug and probably made from one—headlights for eyes, car-door sides, and a gaping fender jaw. It was in a corner back against the wall. John Carter threw a tarp over it, fastened down the corners, said he would take it home but it was too big, hoped no one cleaning up would mistake it for trash.