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A Midcentury Manhattan Mosaic Returns to Public View

Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak restored at 5 Bryant Park (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

A midcentury mosaic forgotten for years beneath metal paneling on a Midtown Manhattan office building is now restored and on permanent public view. Created by Max Spivak in the late 1950s, the mosaic mural at 5 Bryant Park depicts abstractions of garment industry tools soaring in a field of golden, hand-cut glass tile.

The mosaic covered with tarps after its discovery in March
The mosaic covered with tarps after its discovery in March (click to enlarge)

Back in March, David W. Dunlap reported for the New York Times that the mosaic at West 40th Street and Sixth Avenue was suddenly uncovered. For over a decade it was hidden by a metal façade. Soon after the article was published, the about 40-foot-by-18-foot mosaic was lost again, shrouded with blue tarps. Luckily, despite the brief chance for preservation attention, the Blackstone Group and Equity Office, which owns the office building, paid for craftsman Stephen Miotto to restore the mosaic. Dunlap reported last week that as of Friday, the mosaic is again revealed, this time for good.

1957 photograph from the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution shows Spivak leaning against the mosaic just to the left of his signature. The Bryant Park area was once central to the garment industry, and workers might have recognized the whimsical depictions of a T-square, set square, patterns, and other tools suggested by the forms. Spivak, born in Poland, studied at Cooper Union and later with the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s began public mosaic mural work, which he continued with commissions into the 1950s and ’60s. While the 5 Bryant Park mosaic is all tesserae — hand-cut cubes of glass tile — in other mosaics he mixed in less illustrious materials like steel washers, pebbles, and stray finds from beach combing.

Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Detail of the mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Detail of the mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park

Spivak died in 1981, and although some of his mosaic murals in New York City were lost, others survive. At 104th Street and Broadway, a 1947 mosaic column is outside Ben & Jerry’s (originally commissioned for Riker’s restaurant). His “Central Park as Refuge” from 1962 gleams with a park scene on the wall of PS 84 at 32 West 92nd Street, and at Flushing International High School in Queens his “Tools of Education” from 1956 also endures.

In an 1963 interview with Harlan Phillips for the Archives of American Art, Spivak called the mosaic “a Byzantine medium,” where too often people “imitated painting and made it dark and light instead of getting the nuances, the play.” He added that what he did “was to encourage the medium itself using the modern medium of scintillation, of vibration, instead of light to dark.” In the 5 Bryant Park mosaic, the luminous mix of colors, the buoyant abstract shapes, and the lightness of the glass material all contribute to a feeling of airy movement, again brightening the street after years in the dark.

Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Signature of Max Spivak on the mosaic (at right)
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Detail of the mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park
Mosaic by Max Spivak at 5 Bryant Park

The mosaic by Max Spivak is at 5 Bryant Park (West 40th Street and Sixth Avenue).

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