When Woodlawn Cemetery was established in the Bronx in 1863, the art of funerary commemoration was in its height. Sculptures by renowned artists like Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French were as likely to be found decorating tombs as galleries and public spaces. The Metropolitan Museum wasn’t opened until 1870 and Central Park had only just been created, so many people would take their weekend fresh air among the monuments in the rural cemeteries like Woodlawn and Green-Wood in Brooklyn.
That era of memorial sculpture ended, and most of us are laid to rest under somber slabs of dark granite with only the barest of ornamentation. Patricia Cronin saw the revival of this tradition as a way to not only create a lasting tribute to her and her wife’s love on their burial plot in Woodlawn, but to build a memorial to a marriage she thought they would never be able to have. I recently talked to Cronin over the phone.
“When I first installed the marble, there was one reporter I talked to who thought I was doing something really avant garde, and I had to explain to him that before there was a Central Park, people went to the cemeteries,” she said. “You brought food and the kids and picnicked.”
“Memorial to a Marriage” was installed in 2002 in marble form, funded by a grant from Grand Arts. However, despite seeming like a substance of eternity, marble is incredibly fragile, especially in New York pollution, and it was already beginning to deteriorate not even a decade later. On September 20 of this year, Cronin installed a new version cast in bronze.
She said she picked bronze not only for its fortitude, but also to add a level of interaction with visitors. While she was researching cemeteries in Paris, she observed how it tends to polish down in certain touched areas. (The sculpture of assasinated lady’s man Victor Noir in Père Lachaise comes to my mind. )
“I like extending the performatory participatory nature of my project,” she said.
One of her major influences was Gustave Courbet’s “Le Sommeil (The Sleepers)” (1866), where two women sleep heavily in each other’s arms. Like the lovers in Courbet’s painting, Cronin and her wife Deborah Kass are naked in a bed, asleep under Bernini-like folds of sheets. It’s a very tactile bronze, and I can imagine the years of hands that might caress over it in worn patterns, but at the same time it’s very traditional in its creation. Monumental sculpture isn’t a focus of many contemporary artists, especially not bronze sculpture specifically created for cemeteries.
“I was just trying to really calibrate this so it was as sensual as I thought it needed to be, but also referencing American culture in its puritanical roots,” she said.
While Cronin and Deborah Kass married on July 24, the day same-sex marriage was legalized in New York, that wasn’t possible when she started the grave marker.
“It’s almost like a little bit of time play,” she said. “I’m alive, and I made a memorial to something that didn’t exist.”
She states that the federal Defense of Marriage Act does still have to be repealed so that same-sex couples can be assured of the their rights, but there was another landmark moment that coincided with the installation of her neoclassical bronze sculpture, which was the day that gay soldiers could serve openly in the military.
Although she calls it an “anti-monument,” in that it’s not stabbing the sky like an obelisk or commanding attention like a temple mausoleum, it does weigh three tons as it hugs the ground, “pulling you in the direction of what it’s about.” The formidable mass of “Memorial to a Marriage” had an even bigger significance before she was able to be married.
“This had to have the weight of history, this had to be more real because I didn’t have it,” she said. “Aristotle said that the artist looks out and sees the world incomplete and tries to finish it. I think the piece, because it’s so emotional and can get under people’s skin about death and loss, there is a really type of aggressive aspect to it.”
Since 2002 when the marble was first installed, the burial plot has become one of the most visited of Woodlawn, right along with Duke Ellington and Herman Melville. Cemeteries are mostly unrealized as places for contemporary art, but with each burial plot having its own small space for free reign, they could again become grounds for expression, especially for those things that need to be memorialized for eternity.
“Memorial to a Marriage” by Patricia Cronin is on view in perpetuity at Woodlawn Cemetery (East 233rd Street, Woodlawn, Bronx)
They Managed to Mess Up an Art Heist Movie
There must be a lesson in Vasilis Katsoupis’s film Inside about the vacuousness of the art market or the claustrophobia of exhibition spaces — I just don’t care.
Ten Painful Stories of the Dutch Colonial Slave Trade
The Rijksmuseum’s traveling show strives to remind us that we are all, in some way, a part of this chapter of human history, whose legacy continues today.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Textured Histories at Shiprock Santa Fe
The Santa Fe gallery features Indigenous textiles and jewelry from the early 19th century to today.
Renaissance Portrait of “Ugly Duchess” Likely Depicts a Man
A curator at London’s National Gallery believes the subject of painter Quinten Massys’s painting “is most likely a he.”
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Hokusai’s “Great Wave” Makes a Splash at Auction
An edition of the iconic woodblock print broke records when it sold for $2.8M this week.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Back With an Inflatable Dolphin
Episode four, in which artists tackled themes of justice and injustice, was the most lifeless of the reality TV show so far.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Florida Principal Ousted Over “Pornographic” Michelangelo Sculpture
Parents complained that the famous sculpture was shown to their sixth graders.
Tickets to Sold-Out Vermeer Show Are Going for Hundreds
The online resale market for the Rijksmuseum’s smash exhibition is booming, with tickets selling on eBay for over $2K.
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?