Subject to Interpretation

By Michael Fressola
Arts Editor

Sculptor David Hayes's second commission from Richard Nicotra creates art out of stainless steel

Without even being asked, sculptor David Hayes answers the No. 1 dopey question: "What does it mean?"

"It means," he says calmly, "whatever you choose. It means whatever you think it means."

"It" is his second Nicotra Group office-building commission, a suspended, 11-foot sculpture made out of cut and burnished stainless-steel plates. It was installed earlier this month in the entrepreneur Richard Nicotra's nearly finished, 80,000-square-foot Lois Lane office building.

"Stalactite" (the artist concedes: "Stalactite? Stalagmite? I had to look it up.") looks as if should weigh more than its 250 pounds. But for all its relative lightness, Hayes characterizes the material as "torturous." It seems that "normal acetylene doesn't cut it." It is only the second time in a career spanning more than 40 years that he's executed a commission in stainless steel.

Hayes enjoys a national profile. He's had perhaps 80 one-man shows and is represented in 75 public collections ­ including virtually all of the big and medium-sized American museums, plus university and corporate collections.

For a sculptor interested in metal, he had just about the best possible training. After basic art courses at the University of Notre Dame, he headed south to Indiana University at Bloomington to study under David Smith (1906-65), the first American artist to make art out of welded steel.

Like Smith, Hayes prefers the interplay of organic and geometric to formulas that are wholly one or the other. His first Nicotra commission, "Sea Forms" at the 900 South Avenue office, is a deceptive, ingenious hanging arrangement of rough-edged steel shapes, painted black.

It is suspended in the 28-foot-high, glass-fronted lobby of 900 South Ave. From the street, driving by, you would swear that it is a spherical arrangement in which curvaceous puzzle pieces suggest fish, fronds, sea birds, any kind of marine life. At closer range the apparent roundness begins to look suspect and once you're in the lobby, it evaporates.

"Sea Forms" turns out to be two curved, screen-like, tilted sections. It's not even vaguely round. Around it, a curving wall is paved in brilliant, gold-veined, white onyx. There's quite a bit of variegated wood paneling nearby and a patterned marble floor underfoot. The matte black dance in the air overhead grates engagingly against the luxurious surfaces.

"Stalactite" is in the lobby of a similar building. Raw space currently, the lobby will have granite walls, a marble floor in a geometric pattern, and the tall niche in which the sculpture is suspended will be mirrored.

Nicotra has been acquiring art ­ not all of it so intelligently intentioned as Hayes's sculptures ­ for his 400-acre empire (much of it natural and protected) for several years now. What he likes about "Sea Forms" and "Stalactite" is, "they're playful and I think visitors will enjoy them."

Like its predecessor, "Stalactite will probably reveal unexpected depths and qualities with time. If it doesn't, it would become merely ornamental, a costly grace note in an elegant lobby. Hayes, who has had plenty of experience, thinks it'll hold its own.

"There's enough integrity in the forms and in the way in which they integrate. For me, the interesting thing is when the sculptures elicit responses I never dreamed of."

June 30, 2002

Copyright 2002 Staten Island Advance.
Reproduced by permission.