A pair of site-specific murals by Dorothea Rockburne that for two years seemed destined for removal or even destruction by a real estate group may now remain in their home of over two decades, the iconic Sony Tower designed by Phillip Johnson. The paintings, commissioned in 1993 specifically for the lobby of what was once Sony’s headquarters, now belong to the Chetrit Group, which acquired the skyscraper at 550 Madison Avenue in 2013 and plans to transform it into luxury apartments. Since their sealing of the $1.1 billion deal, the developers have largely been ignoring Rockburne’s attempts to learn the fate of her artworks but today finally agreed to discuss their preservation with her in person, Hyperallergic has learned.
On February 9, Rockburne will meet with developers Joseph and Jonathan Chetrit (respectively, father and son) as well as the building’s new architect, Robert A. M. Stern, to discuss how to either preserve the fresco-secco works in situ or move them to an interested museum. The forthcoming meeting was organized by Jonathan himself, likely in response to pressure from the airing of Rockburne’s concerns in the news earlier this week.
As Rockburne told Hyperallergic, Jonathan called her studio this morning, telling the artist she had “nothing to worry about” in regards to her paintings.
“It sounded like they planned to do everything to cooperate,” Rockburne said, adding that she intends to make sure the murals are properly lit and their damaged areas restored if the developers do agree to keep them in the building.
Chetrit also told Rockburne that her two years of attempts at correspondence were “miscommunication,” telling her he thought Sony had been in touch with her all this time. The company sent her a letter in 2013 notifying her of the building’s sale, but Rockburne says it did not discuss the murals’ fate, as Sony no longer had legal responsibility over them. For her part, Rockburne shrugged off Chetrit’s excuses, focusing instead on receiving encouraging news.
“I’m sure, in a certain way, it’s a case of busy lives,” she said. “I can’t tell you, I’m like walking three feet above the floor here. I’ve been ready to fight like hell, I was ready to go to war.”
Spanning 30 by 30 feet, Rockburne’s “Northern Sky” and “Southern Sky” were commissioned for the Sony Tower in 1993 by Michael Schulhof, former CEO of Sony America. Schulhof called Rockburne last night, the artist said, emphasizing that he would do whatever he could to help the paintings find their way into a museum’s collection. After today’s phone call, Rockburne is hopeful that the Chetrits will allow her vibrant works to remain in the updated lobby, emphasizing that that space is their rightful home.
“It is actually a very site-specific work,” Rockburne told Hyperallergic. “It is about the electromagnetic field in that particular part of the sky, so it would be sad to move it, even though a museum would be a good place for it.”
Rockburne has been trying to save her murals for two years, steadily sending letters to the Chetrits. Last July, she hired Donn Zaretsky, who runs the Art Law Blog; he called the real estate group multiple times on her behalf, to no avail. In December, she sent a press package containing the details of her correspondence to the Chetrit Group, warning them that if she did not hear back by mid January she would go to the press — a tactic that has evidently proven successful.
“I’m just elated because for two years my heart has been in my throat about it,” Rockburne told Hyperallergic. “I’ve been trying to save my child every which way I knew.”
While Rockburne’s murals may be saved, this isn’t the first time the Chetrit Group has found itself at odds with the art world. In 2011, after the developers purchased the Chelsea Hotel, all the art it housed mysteriously disappeared, with two works appearing in a pile of garbage. The Larry Rivers Foundation, which spearheaded a hunt, later sued the Chetrit Group over a painting, though the developers steadfastly remained silent about the situation. Most recently, Joseph Chetrit purchased a property in the South Bronx along with fellow developer Keith Rubenstein, who last November threw a tasteless rager at the soon-to-be demolished warehouse, curated by artist Lucien Smith.
Hyperallergic has reached out to the Chetrit Group multiple times for comment but has not received a response.