Wall Street’s Neglected Masterpiece    

by

11/28/2021

Neighborhood: Financial District

Group of Four Trees by Jean Dubuffet/photo by Elizabeth Benedict

Near the southern tip of Manhattan are a modern masterpiece and a trove of public sculptures by major 20th century artists that are hiding in plain sight. The first one that came to my attention – and the one that has my heart – is 43 feet high and painted black and white with a childlike whimsy. It’s in need of some TLC, and like so many stories these days, my connection to it springs from the contortions of COVID-19. 

During the early days of the pandemic, I did not ride my bike because a woman I know got a bad case of the virus after doing nothing more than that. Medically sound or not, the fact was lodged in my reptilian brain, and it was not until late May 2020 that I hopped back on mine. Early one Sunday morning, I guessed the Hudson River bike path would be deserted. 

A bright, blissful ride downtown along the river led me to the gleaming new World Trade Center and, within blocks, to Battery Park, whose spring foliage and emptiness took my breath away. A handful of people. No vendors, no carts, no traffic in any direction – a ghost town. It was time to cut loose. I took a sharp left at Battery Place, usually four lanes of buses and trucks, and set out to explore the empty roadways of the Financial District.  

I cycled through the city’s oldest streets, narrow and canyon-like, some of them still paved with cobblestone, all shaded by skyscrapers, shuttered restaurants, and corporate offices that had been closed for months. This was one of the only areas of Manhattan I did not know, and I loved not knowing where I was and where I might end up. In front of the Corinthian-columned New York Stock Exchange, a man in shorts wearing a suit jacket and tie was holding a microphone and talking into a video camera on a tripod – presumably reporting on the state of the economy that morning. 

On Pine Street, I idly looked up a short flight of stairs — and there it was, rising from the plaza beside a skyscraper. The dazzling sculpture I had seen exactly once, on a rare Sunday walk with my mother and sister that I can date to 1978 from snapshots of them posing against it. We were certain we’d come upon a treasure – and we had. 

photo by Elizabeth Benedict

I knew it was a Dubuffet and that it sat on Chase Manhattan Plaza, and soon found out that David Rockefeller, who, I believed, more or less controlled the bank, had something to do with it being there. Coming upon the sculpture that COVID Sunday was like finding a long, lost friend, and we had much catching up to do. 

I whipped out my iPhone and began shooting what I did not know then was called Group of Four Trees. When I aimed my camera through the leaves of these fanciful flora, the sky was that saturated, unpolluted COVID blue. I circled the plaza looking for information. No longer Chase Manhattan, it’s now called Fosun Plaza at 28 Liberty Street. A few feet from the sculpture, a plaque embedded into the ground, dated 2008, honors David Rockefeller but makes no reference to the sculpture. Nowhere on the several prominent signs listing rules and regulations is there a mention of the fiberglass wonder, its serpentine white columns and huge, tilting white leaves outlined with black lines like a gigantic 3-D coloring book. It looks nothing like its vertical surroundings, severe brick buildings and skyscrapers that create a box around the plaza. It’s entirely too whimsical for Wall Street – and that is part of its allure. 

So began my crazy crush on this sculpture, which turned into something of an international mystery. I stalked the work on bike rides, took dozens of photographs, and wondered why there was no information about it on the plaza or with the guards I asked in the office building. I learned in an ancient Times article that in 1969, David Rockefeller, then chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, commissioned Jean Dubuffet to make something for the austere plaza adjacent to the austere skyscraper that housed some 8000 Chase employees, until the bank headquarters moved uptown in 1997. Dubuffet created the work in France, disassembled it for shipping, and had five assistants put it back together on the plaza. It was unveiled in October 1972 – almost 50 years ago. The more pictures I took, the more I noticed chips and nicks on its surface and that what had once been white was now shades of gray. Who, I wondered, was responsible for taking care of this aging beauty?

 It was not easy to find out, and I soon learned that the principal parties with an interest in the sculpture seem not to have been in touch for decades. During that time, key events had taken place, notably the sale, in 2013, of One Chase Manhattan Plaza to the Fosun Corporation, a multi-billion dollar Chinese conglomerate based in Shanghai. In May 2020, with office buildings still closed, I did not think to contact Fosun first. When I called Dubuffet’s gallery in New York, Pace, they had no idea who is responsible.

When I emailed the Dubuffet Foundation in Paris, the director wrote back that the Museum of Modern Art owns the work and is responsible for it. She said it was last painted and restored in 2001 and gave me the name of MoMA’s Chief Conservator, James Coddington, who had been in charge of the project. In one of her emails, she made a simple request that startled me. If I found out more information from MoMA, would I let her know? How was it, I wondered, that the director of the artist’s own foundation needed me, a bicycling freelance journalist,to pass on information from MoMA? 

photo by Elizabeth Benedict

 I soon learned Mr. Coddington had just retired. When I reached him, he said he’d last been involved around the 2001 restoration and believed Chase Bank owned the work. He did not know who at MoMA might know more. With no other moves left, I found someone at Fosun in New York. It took several emails to learn that according to gifting documents, MoMA does own the sculpture, but Fosun is responsible for its upkeep. In a Fosun executive’s words, “Building ownership acknowledges that assumption of the maintenance of the sculpture and has maintained such since the purchase of the property.” He said Fosun had recently power-washed it, but had nothing to say about its overall condition or the fact that, as I pointed out, its identity is a mystery to everyone who comes upon it. A month later, Mr. Coddington sent me the name of MoMA’s Director of Public Affairs and Communication, Amanda Hicks, who tracked down and confirmed ownership and responsibility questions.  

Months later, I happened on another mystery, not 30 feet from the Dubuffet. Riding across Fosun Plaza many times, I’d passed what I thought was just an empty fountain embedded into the ground about ten feet below the plaza level and circled above by a sleek modern- inflected glass, marble and steel chest-high barrier. Reading more about the history of the building, I learned the empty fountain, dotted with rocks, is a Noguchi sculpture, Sunken Garden, and was part of the building’s original design from 1961. It was intended to be filled with water in warm weather and emptied out in winter. 

On yet another bike ride, another cache of art. Approaching Fosun Plaza from William Street, I discovered what must be the smallest, most art-filled park-plaza in the city, diagonally across from the northeast corner of 28 Liberty Street. On this slender, triangular patch of land sit five glorious Nevelson sculptures and a small sign that says only: Louise Nevelson Plaza. Landscaped with a few benches, shrubs, and delicate, young trees, the wondrous little spot took me entirely by surprise. 

photo by Elizabeth Benedict

Although the Dubuffet and its companions are three short blocks from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and four blocks from Wall Street’s most famous sculpture, the brute, bronze Charging Bull, they are not a destination for the millions of tourists who visit lower Manhattan. Among artist friends of mine and those who travel great distances to look at art, many who love the work of these artists did not know about these treasures until I showed them my stash of photos. 

Last week, I went downtown again. Group of Four Trees was still gray, and there were no obvious markers to identify it. I went into the office building and asked a guard if she knew anything about the sculpture. “It was done by Jean Dubuffet,” she said. “There’s a sign about it on Cedar Street.” She pointed to the right. “All the way down the street.” 

I walked. And walked. And walked. I took a short flight of steps down, leaving the plaza, and onto the bustling sidewalk of Nassau Street at Cedar. I looked and looked. Near the curb, I finally noticed a freestanding sign about three feet wide and six feet high. It described the history of a nearby office building. On the other side was what I’d been looking for all this time – a history of 28 Liberty Street in its many incarnations, including photos of Rockefeller and. Dubuffet on the plaza. The sign, courtesy of the Alliance for Downtown New York, is one of a series about neighborhood landmarks. It had clearly been there for a while but it had taken me 18 months of searching to find it because it was — I walked back up the stairs to the sculpture, counting my steps – 170 feet from the closest of the four trees.  

 Next October is the sculpture’s 50th birthday, and I think it’s high time to hold a party. Cake, ice cream, and champagne, of course, from France. Time for this beauty to get dressed up again and properly tagged. Time for the others within feet of it to get the love and admiration they deserve. 

Who wants to join me?

***

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including National Book Award finalist Slow Dancing, a classic book on writing fiction, The Joy of Writing Sex, and hundreds of articles, reviews, and essays that have appeared in major publications. Her memoir, The Thing About Illness, is forthcoming.

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§ 2 Responses to “Wall Street’s Neglected Masterpiece    ”

  • Claudine says:

    I worked in that area for many years and I remember once a group of tourists asking me where the artwork was. They were French and holding a book for tourists visiting NYC. That was 20+ years ago.
    Very interesting read both about how the piece was created and it’s fate with so much uncertainty and confusion about what institution is responsible for it.

  • Michelle Fiordaliso says:

    What a great piece about a hidden treasure. Can’t wait to go see the sculpture in person.

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