Rockburne On

What’s happening to the monumental murals at the AT&T building?

Art East News
"Northern Sky” (left) and “Southern Sky” (right) (1993). Dorothea Rockburne

An already controversial plan by Saudi-backed developers Olayan America to renovate 550 Madison Avenue into a modern office building has hit another snag. Following on the heels of Snøhetta’s proposal to update the base of Philip Johnson’s postmodern skyscraper with a rolling glass facade, new questions have arisen over a pair of murals in the second floor lobby.

Famed abstract artist Dorothea Rockburne, who came to prominence in the 1970s with her paintings inspired by minimalism and mathematical principles, is questioning what will happen to her site-specific installations commissioned in 1993 by former Sony executives.

A pair of 30 by 30-foot murals slotted into viewing alcoves, “Northern Sky” and “Southern Sky” are contextual pieces designed specifically for what was once the Sony Building. The swooping spheres of red and yellow, overlaid with a pattern of shifting squiggles, are representative of the electromagnetic field in that part of the sky while also drawing on aspects of chaos theory.

The Chetrit Group, 550 Madison’s former owners before selling the property in 2016, had been engaged with a game of cat-and-mouse with Rockburne for years over the fate of the murals. Only after Rockburne revealed their correspondences publicly did the Chetrit Group eventually promise to keep the murals in place and pay for their upkeep. With the building changing hands, the agreement evaporated.

Prompted by the Snøhetta’s recent renderings, the issue has once again reared its head, but Rockburne seemed hopeful when asked about where the murals would ultimately end up.
Rockburne said, “Michael Schulhof [former CEO of Sony America and the original commissioner of the work] has stayed in contact with the new owners of the building. They’re aware of the importance, and have planned to take care of them.”

Rockburne is less certain about what the building’s new facade means for the interplay between the building itself and her work, and had strong feelings about the latest proposal. “I knew Phillip Johnson. I’ve had dinner with Phillip Johnson. This is like putting a glass curtain over a cathedral.”

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