Casey Fremont worried about Hurricane Earl. Not because of the Labor Day anxieties that plagued so many beach-bound New Yorkers, but because she had pledged that Saturday to oversee the erection of two large statues on Park Avenue. Thankfully Earl skirted the city, allowing Fremont, director of The Art Production Fund, to conduct her dozen crewmembers under the brilliant light of a 78-degree sun. A hurricane would have threatened their crane, and without the crane there would have been no lifting Yoshitomo Nara's 5,000-pound White Ghost: twin figures that resemble a cross between a puppy and an anime girl. For the next two months they will haunt the flower beds on 67th and 70th Streets, glaring at each other like children playing cowboys.
One guards the Park Avenue Armory, which just wrapped up a Nara show, and the other the Asia Society, which just opened one. "Nara is best known for his paintings," said Asia Society director Melissa Chiu, "but he has also been doing these wonderful large sculptures that have a consistency in referencing childhood images with a slight edge." “Slight” is the right word. These are cute ghosts, more Casper than Jacob Marley, and this is public art at its least radical.
The APF's financing, however, is complex. Although the Nara sculptures were underwritten by The Cosmopolitan, a Las Vegas hotel that has recently exhibited work organized by the APF, the day-to-day operations of the non-profit are supported by the sale of beach towels,a crafty tactic that, rather than horrifying the art world, has been embraced as either cleverly adorable or adorably clever.
"We do these [towels] because we realize that just like our public art mission, it brings the art message to a very large audience," said APF co-founder Yvonne Force Villareal.
Has salesmanship been elevated to an art? This month marks the first birthday of the Gagosian Shop, an expensive gift store-cum-gallery which is treated with as much respect as the traditional exhibition space upstairs. Rather than cheapening the already thinly stretched brand, the Shop has been celebrated for its beauty and the quality of the knicknacks on the shelves. On September 13 it hosted an event celebrating—and vending—works by Marc Newson, as a prelude to an exhibition at the 21st Street Gagosian of his decades of work designing luxury speedboats. The only venue more appropriate than the shop would be the Riva showroom itself.
Since 2005, Villareal and her partner, Doreen Remen, have harnessed extensive art world connections in building their line of limited edition towels, called Works on Whatever, or WOW. Among the contributors are such marquee names as Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and, last year, Yoshitomo Nara, whose painting of a pale young girl, eyes screwed shut, quickly calls to mind the Park Avenue ghosts. They choose artists whose work they expect will look nice on a towel—or plate or, soon, water bottle—and ask them either to create something original or to make available an iconic piece of work. Most of them enjoy the work.
"You can buy a $95, very large towel that's a ubiquitous Jasper Johns image. This is Johns saying please, anybody who would like to have this—it's yours for the taking."
"You'd be surprised—so many artists that we speak to actually have desire to produce functional objects and carpets and towels and plates," said Remen. "They've actually thought about it, they actually have design and ideas in mind. It's great, because you're offering the artist an opportunity to do something outside of their body of work."
For this year's line, on sale in December, WOW's biggest name is Jasper Johns—a fish Villareal did not expect to catch. "While his work is definitely pop, he's almost a mythological figure at this point," she said. "Now you can buy a $95, very large towel that's a ubiquitous Jasper Johns image. This is him saying please, anybody who would like to have this—it's yours for the taking."
Ideological underpinnings aside, the business model is sound. For the first two years of WOW, the APF sold their (at the time $50) rugs through Target. Since that collaboration expired, they have worked with a number of high-minded retail outlets, including Opening Ceremony and the West Village design store Artware Editions. A few years younger than WOW, Artware Editions is a less plebian version of the same project, selling limited runs of utilitarian objects designed by artists like Donald Judd, who has produced a bookshelf reminiscent of his famous wall boxes.
Next to a $4,000 lamp or $25,000 clock, a $95 beach towel looks quite affordable. Launching the line at the Miami International Art Fair, said Artware co-founder Rebecca Kong, was particularly shrewd of the APF mavens. "[Villareal and Remen] really took advantage of the population. They go to the parties, they know everybody, they work it. They have great connections, and they used them wisely in this case," said Kong, whose clients treat the towels as artworks, leaving them wrapped or pinning them to the wall as tapestries. "People think that they're actually editioned work," she said. "If you look on eBay, there are stores that sell them for $250 each."
Villareal and Remen sell their towels with the same spirit that they have installed the Nara sculptures on Park Avenue, caring less that people learn the artist's name than that they enjoy the image. Remen tells a story about spotting a construction worker wearing a Gap T-shirt that the APF had made with Barbara Kruger, which read, "Plenty Should Be Enough." "It was an amazing Kruger," said Remen. "I just said to him, 'I love your shirt.' It really was like wow, this person connected to a greater idea ... And this construction worker, you wonder if he's ever been in a museum, he's connecting to the message of Barbara Kruger."
The Nara statues on Park Avenue are meant to be as accessible as a pretty towel. This is partly a concession to the buttoned-up neighborhood. But it's also because, from the APF's point of view, pretension is bad business. "We very often witness people feeling intimidated going into public museums or galleries," said Villareal. "To put it out there on the street, you're going to get both your connoisseurs going for their pilgrimage, but simultaneously you're going to open up the window to all of these people who had no idea they were going to experience contemporary art."
White Ghost was erected with little fanfare, and with only a small sign in front of it to tell passersby what they're seeing. The statues fit the space so well that they almost blend into the background. As Fremont and her crew finished up, pedestrians stopped for photographs, and a towncar driver—with passengers—pulled over to ask what he was looking at. ("A ghost!" said one of the workmen.) A bearded man hopped off his bike to take a picture from across the street.
"A gimmick," he said. "But surprising!"