New York Murals: The City’s Best Overlooked Museum

Murals of NYC
Keith Haring’s 1986 mural in Woodhull Hospital in Bed-Stuy (all photos by Joshua McHugh, courtesy Rizzoli)

You might walk by some of the permanent works in New York City’s best art collection and not even notice them. The murals embedded in the city’s public spaces — in bars, restaurants, hospitals, skyscraper lobbies, and schools — together make up a historical tapestry of New York’s visual culture.

Murals of NYC

A new book from RizzoliMurals of New York City: The Best of New York’s Public Paintings from Bemelmans to Parrish, by Glenn Palmer-Smith with photographs by Joshua McHugh, highlights 30 of these pieces from across the five boroughs. Even if you’ve spent time appreciating the two 1966 Marc Chagalls that preside over Lincoln Center or pondering the astronomical errors in the Grand Central ceiling constellations designed by Paul Helleu, there’s likely something here for you to discover.

Try the crosscultural murals by Lucienne Bloch at George Washington High School in Washington Heights. Her vivid music paintings were inspired by her time working as an assistant to Diego Rivera on his ill-fated Rockefeller Center murals, destroyed in 1933 after he refused to remove Lenin from the populist tableau. There’s also James Brooks’s 1942 “Flight” mural tucked away in LaGuardia Airport, also derided as too Communist; luckily it was only covered up and then emerged later, restored. And while New York is especially rich in the mid-century murals, you might also be surprised to see a sprawling Keith Haring work from 1986 in Bed-Stuy’s Woodhull Hospital, created with funds from the Health and Hospitals Corporation that were designated for art.

Recently the city has made moves to save some of these artworks, including 1930s murals in the Bronx County Courthouse painted by James Monroe Hewlett, which are in danger of being lost to mold and water. The grand mural by Peter B. Wight on the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank was rescued from its grimy black shroud during the building’s extensive revitalization into an event space, and a a 1927 mural by Joseph Aruta once lost beneath plaster is now restored up on the soaring ceiling of Sherry-Netherland at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. Meanwhile, a 1960s mural called “Gastrotypographicalassemblage,” formerly in the CBS Building on 52nd Street, has a new home at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. It was created from 1,650 carved letters by typographical great Lou Dorfsman, then the creative director at CBS, along with Herb Lubalin, Nicolas Fasciano, Tom Carnese, Stanley Glaubach, and John E. Alcorn.

There are often complications with protecting this art out in utilitarian spaces — see the debate over the proposed removal of Picasso’s “Le Tricorne” (1919) tapestry at the Four Seasons. Hopefully visibility will only increase for these murals, as they’re incredibly valuable as public works, accessible to all and an active part of the city’s visual landscape.

Murals of NYC
Lucienne Bloch’s “The Evolution of Music” in George Washington High School in Washington Heights
Bemelmans Bar, NYC Murals by Ludwig Bemelmans
Bemelmans Bar murals by Ludwig Bemelmans
Wall Drawing #896 Colors/Curves  Sol Lewitt   Christie's NYC
Sol Lewitt, “Wall Drawing #896 Colors/Curves” at Christie’s NYC
James Brooks, "Flight" (1942) in the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport
James Brooks, “Flight” (1942) in the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport
Josep Maria Sert's murals at Rockefeller Center
Josep Maria Sert’s murals at Rockefeller Center

Murals of New York City: The Best of New York’s Public Paintings from Bemelmans to Parrish by Glenn Palmer-Smith with photographs by Joshua McHugh is available from Rizzoli. 

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