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Max Spivak Mural 1958

by Max Spivak Mural, 1906 - 1981

New York is a city of 8,491,079 people – and at least as many ideas. Like everything else in the city, those Ideas compete with one another. They get layered one on top of the other. Each new idea obscures a previous one. Over time, those older ideas get forgotten. During a renovation at 5 Bryant Park in the spring of 2015, one such idea was rediscovered by accident.

Blackstone Group, the owner of 5 Bryant Park, a 34-story office tower originally known as the Union Dime Bank at 111 West 40th Street, was undertaking a renovation. Some aluminum panels, remnants from an earlier “modernization,” were removed from the entrance vestibule. A spectacular hand-cut glass tile mural, 40 feet 7 1/2 inches wide and 18 feet 11 inches high, emerged. It was created in 1958 by noted mosaic artist and muralist Max Spivak. When the mural was uncovered, Phyllis Cohen of the Municipal Art Society, director of the Adopt-a-Monument/Adopt-a-Mural program, felt strongly that this masterpiece should be kept intact and in view. Fortunately, the building’s owners, managers and renovation architects, who recognized the importance of the artist and the value of his work, agreed and eagerly adopted it.

Spivak, well known for his public mosaic murals and commissions in the 1950s and ’60s, was born in Poland. He studied at Cooper Union and in Paris, and worked with the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. He recognized that mosaic is “a Byzantine medium.” He felt that too often people “imitated painting and made it dark and light instead of getting the nuances.” His idea was “to encourage the medium itself using the modern medium of scintillation, of vibration, instead of light to dark,” which he fully realized in the mural at 5 Bryant Park.

Look closely at the mural and more ideas come to light. You’ll see that the colorful abstract forms it represents are garment workers’ tools. 5 Bryant Park is in the heart of the garment district. The visible signs of it are few today, but in 1958, when the garment district was bustling, the mural’s depictions of a T-square, set square and patterns would have been appreciated by workers passing by.

Look even closer. It is very hard to see that there was damage caused by that earlier renovation – two narrow electric conduit channels had been chiseled into it. A well-known mosaic craftsman, Stephen Miotto, did the repair. Perhaps no one could have been better suited to the task. As a boy, his godfather, Carlo Rett, who possibly assisted on the original commission, introduced him to Spivak. When Rett died, Miotto inherited many of his old, hand-cut cubes of glass tile or tesserae. A lot of their colors “match perfectly” so he used them to fill in the channels. Thanks to him, Spivak’s original idea looks good as new.

– Carol Cofone

Reference Links

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