Places that Matter

The Cube

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The Cube, 2011
The Cube, 2011
The Cube, 2011
The Cube, 2011
Astor Place sculpture by Bernard Rosenthal
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By Natalie DeYoung

The eight-foot-square steel sculpture painted solid black stands as the icon of Astor Place. This is astory of transformation, the story of how a work of art transformed the space, and the space transformed the work of art.

Welcome to the kernel of youth. An urgency of individuality, trendsetting, and experimentation has flavored Astor Place with a raw teen spirit for the last half century. Home to the beat generation of the fifties, the hippies of the sixties, and the punks of the late seventies and eighties, Astor Place has developed into a center of unleashed urban self-expression.

At the junction of Lafayette Avenue, Fourth Avenue, and Astor Place, a wide strip of sidewalk sits smack in the middle of the traffic interrupting everything. From any neighboring street you can't help but notice this pavement stage that awaits the meeting a rising generation. In the center of the traffic island stands the Cube, a welcome mat for congregations of teens - a rallying point and a place to call one's own. For the goths and the ravers, some of them runaways, who have appropriated the island (and sometimes live there), the sculpture defines the public space. "It's in the middle of everything," one of the young denizens says. A friend adds, "You know, like, you can't lose somebody if you say, 'Meet me at the Cube.' Ya know? You're in between Saint Marks, Kmart, and Starbucks - like, you can't really lose each other.'

The cube in the center of Astor Place was designed by the artist Bernard (Tony) Rosenthal. Born in 1914 in Illinois, Rosenthal graduated from the University of Michigan in 1936. He then studied sculpture under Carl Miles at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. In 1946, Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles, where he taught at UCLA and completed a number of public art projects. In 1960, just as minimalist ideals took form, Rosenthal moved to New York City. Here he would create his most famous sculpture, Alamo -  the Cube. All of Rosenthal's sculpture is to be touched, sat on, or walked through, embodying the minimalist's concern for the spatial environment of sculpture. Alamo is a unique piece designed to create a kinetic relationship between audience and sculpture. A pole hidden in the center enables the opaque structure to rotate on its corner when pushed by a team of pedestrians. Alamo exemplifies the plain structure of minimalism in its cubic form. Decontextualized from tradition, the Cube's meaning exists in its method and presence as an object. Alamo exists solely as a solid black cube made of steel - an object with a clear and straightforward presence. Rosenthal rarely used color in any of his works during the height of minimalism in the 1960s; he left most of his works to rust, bronzed them, or painted them black as he did with Alamo. The simple cube refers to nothing but itself, inviting the viewer to connect with the work as an object rather than a means of expression. 

One of the first abstract sculptures to be permanently installed in New York City, Alamo has no pedestal but the sidewalk beneath. The contemporary sculptor Hans Haacke, also working in New York during the 1960s, says: "When viewers are allowed or even asked to handle an object, its institutional sanctity is no longer intact. It is off the altar." Installed at Astor Place in 1967, Alamo was intended to stay in New York City only temporarily. However, students at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art across the street petitioned to keep the Cube in its original home community permanently. 

The runaways and other teens on the traffic island "hate it when tourists and or yuppies alike spin the Cube. Don't spin it!" one young man says. "Yes it spins! Yes it's cool that it spins, but please don't spin it. Or at least tell us to get up. 'Cause you'll just be sitting down and -- see how it's like aligned with his head? Somebody will get on that side and start spinning and he won't be paying attention --wap! Could have told me something! That's really annoying. And then you get like the 'Oooo! Ahhh!' Yes, yes, the almighty Cube spins -- now go away...No--no don't spin it --no please! Stay away or we'll eat you!"

The young man walks around Alamo to read the inscription. "It was brought here in [he reads] '1966-67. Bernard Rosenthal. An anonymous gift to the city of New York, November 1967.' I'm not sure-- but that kind of scares me because, like, nobody knows why it's here. Nobody knows who it came from -- ya know..... And it's like, wow, what an anonymous gift -- ruin the lives of many of New York City's youths by having them hang out here and waste their time. Ya know, what kind of gift is that to give to New York? Ya know like, nobody knows quite what to make of the Cube. It's kinda like the whole Stonehenge mystery. Ya know, we don't know who put it here -- we don't know why it's here -- they come here anyway. Ya know, they don't know whether they're happier being here, or being away from here. Ya know?"

He goes on. "Yeah, it can symbolize a waste of your youth, ya know? It can definitely symbolize a waste of your youth. And it can also symbolize, like, a strong deal of friendship and, like, unity amongst different diverse groups. The stupidest thing to be at the Cube is racist. Ya know? 'Cause like - forget having like different races and skin colors. You have many different , like, genres of people, ya know? There are many different genres of races, ya know? Like you have black, white and Hispanic."

Alamo is more than a sculpture. Rosenthal's Minimalist concerns unpredictably open the space at Astor Place to welcome public gatherings. Unlike a traditional public sculpture, Rosenthal's simple cube decorates the space without proclaiming a purpose. It serves as a destination point, a marker, an icon of place, a void that onlookers fill with their own meanings. A chunk of steel, no bigger than eight feet square, draws homeless teenagers from across the country together on a single strip of sidewalk. Amid the streaming traffic on Eighth Street, Astor, Lafayette, and Fourth Avenue, Alamo sits upon an island of refuge. 

For fifteen-year-old Gaia, her haven of only three months presents the possibility of shedding a troubled history and escaping into a new identity. The Cube's plain black surface is a clean slate, and Gaia finds renascence. She confronts a separation from her disapproving family and the challenges of life on the street; so far, she remains optimistic. Stix and Denise, slightly older, continue to linger at Alamo after several years of the habit, nostalgic for the comfort it has brought them. D, the oldest, is most polarized by feelings of the bittersweet. Regret for a wasted youth, and guarded sentiment for desperate friendships -- both are attributed to the Cube. 

Since 1967, Rosenthal's sculpture has spun at Astor Place. It will continue to rotate, unchanged for years to come. As the young man pointed out, the teenagers don't like it when the Cube is pushed. Even though the sculpture is unchanged when turned, perhaps this slight alteration from an outsider threatens change to the denizens themselves. This stage, nourishing much needed attention, will forever draw new characters into its limelight. "It's actually called the Alamo," D says. "And-- most of use know that except for like some of the new heads. But, we're always gonna call it the Cube. It will always be the Cube to us."