Washington 20/20/20 Debuts in Union Square Park

 Photo by Liz Ligon

Photo by Liz Ligon

NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP, today joined the Union Square Partnership Execuitve Director Jennifer Falk and artist Kenseth Armstead to welcome Armstead's newest public artwork, "Washington 20/20/20," to Union Square Park. Presented as part of Parks' Art in the Parks program, the piece is composed as a companion to the first-ever statue on New York City parkland, Union Square's George Washington Statue. Also in attendance was USP co-chair William Abramson from Buchbinder & Warren, as well as John Blasco from our local Councilwoman Carlina Rivera's office.

"Washington 20/20/20" is an African architectural adornment to the solid granite base of the existing park monument. The work references the 20% of the colonial population that were enslaved Africans; the 20,000 slaves in New York State in 1776 when Washington retreated from New York City; and the 20% of Washington's continental army that was African at Yorktown, Virginia, where he was finally able to defeat the British in 1781. "Washington 20/20/20" transforms the two-dimensional marks into translucent perforated steel forms on a two-ton angle iron steel frame. The piece will be on view through October.

 Photo by Liz Ligon

Photo by Liz Ligon

"By bringing Mr. Armstead's thought-provoking 'Washington 20/20/20' into one of Manhattan's most bustling hubs, we are inviting thousands of New Yorkers and tourists who pass through every single day to slow down and engage with their park in a whole new way," said Commissioner Silver. "This piece will spark fascinating discussions about representation, as well as racial and social justice in our country, and we are proud to count it among the thousands of public artworks exhibited in the 50-year history of Park's public art program Art in the Parks."

"We are proud to welcome Kenseth Armstead's moving sculpture to Union Square Park," said Jennifer Falk. "The Union Square Partnership's Art in the Park program showcases a wide range of incredibly talented artists, fostering a creative and vibrant environment in our neighborhood, and we are proud to partner with NYC Parks on this monumental installation."

 Photo by Daniel Avila/NYC Parks

Photo by Daniel Avila/NYC Parks

Armstead cited his inspiration for "Washington 20/20/20" as a poem titled aptly "To His Excellency, General Washington" written by Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet and a former slave.

Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand The grace and glory of thy martial band. Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more, Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore! The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race! Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales, For in their hopes Liberty’s arm prevails. Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late. Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine.
Miraculously, having received this in the midst of war, George Washington finds time to respond February 28, 1776,
I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. In honour of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity. This and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public prints. If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am, with great Respect, Your obedient humble servant, George Washington.

On the meaning and significance of his artwork, Armstead stated:

"Our history is complicated and ever more beautiful when its layers are exposed. This work celebrates Washington and the 20% of his army that was African, laments the 20,000 slaves in New York when he was here fighting to preserve the idea that all men are created equal and finally, critically, reflects upon the 20% of the colonial population that were enslaved Africans both before and after the revolution. Seeing George Washington and history from the view point of Africans in the revolution allows us to face the best part of American history. From day one, this land has always been fought for and preserved by a diverse cast of characters.
"That is why I made this transparent African-inspired facade. That is also why Phillis Wheatley sent Washington a poem. She sent her art to convince the most influential general in the world that Africans deserved to be fully included in the idea of the American dream. We are still fighting, like Phillis, against power, notions of European supremacy and time. We are fighting to be seen as equal and even to simply have our standards of beauty accepted and respected. This park, this home, this monument and my intervention together allow us to see one complicated, integrated, history. That is the very definition of the vision of a more perfect union. In our current moment of false, perfect pasts, this is the only way forward."

This piece is a part of Armstead's ongoing series "Farther Land." The works in the series explore the African-American experience inside the American Revolution. "Farther Land" symbolically reflects on 10 years of the artist's research on the true story of slave turned double-agent spy James Armistead Lafayette. The series responds to the age of revolution and the founders' declaration that "all men are created equal" with irony and suggestive formal content.

Armstead's works have been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Brooklyn Museum; Studio Museum in Harlem; Socrates Sculpture Park; and MIT List Visual Arts Center. His works are included in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, Brooklyn Museum, African American Museum in Dallas, Texas, Newark Museum and numerous public and private collections.