Art At, On, and In the Water: The Marine Art of New York Harbor

By Vladimir Brezina

Now that New York City is once again embracing its waterways, all manner of the city’s activities are spilling over into the harbor—and that includes the city’s art. As I kayak around the harbor, I can’t help but notice the number of works of art that don’t stop at the water’s edge, but plunge right in…

Here are a few examples. In some cases, they use for their effect their location at the interface between land and water. In more extreme cases, they can only be appreciated, indeed can only have been created, from a boat on the water…

First, in odd corners of the waterways, there are many private doodles.

This friendly sea monster is just inside Newtown Creek

… and this sailor ensnared by a giant octopus (?) is on a houseboat deep in the reaches of the Gowanus Canal.

Graffiti abounds. Sometimes it seems that the graffiti artists have made it a point of pride of reach the surfaces that are completely inaccessible from land, but freely open to the water…

This elaborate graffiti frieze, on the back wall of an industrial building overlooking the Bronx River, could only have been created from a boat. Notice that it does not rise above the reach of a standing person, unlike the following…

.… more famous, giant graffito—the Columbia “C” in Spuyten Duyvil.  Given its height, this clearly was not created from a boat, but by descending down the rock wall from above. It’s been there since 1952! (although more recently repainted).

In the Hudson River, between the twin piers that lead out to the Holland Tunnel ventilator off the West Side of Manhattan, is a field of totem-like arrangements of fishing floats

… and just south of them three metal seabirds standing on the decaying pilings of the old Pier 32.

Although these birds stand some way out from the Hudson River Park‘s waterfront promenade, they are still visible to the landbound passers-by, particularly when the birds’ outstretched wings catch the sunlight.

But a few years ago, kayaking off Staten Island just past the marine pilots’ base at Stapleton’s Pier 6, Johna and I were startled to come across this gauzy heron sculpture, standing all by itself on a pole far out in the water, where only a few pilots and kayakers can ever admire it…






Even more ethereal would presumably have been the Harvest Dome, if, during its final water-borne transit to its intended installation site in Spuyten Duyvil, it had not been shipwrecked by the wind and tides on Rikers Island and confiscated by the Department of Corrections. Only in New York!

Survival in New York’s turbulent marine environment clearly takes sturdy artwork. In the East River, a few feet off the boulders that line the banks of Roosevelt Island, is The Marriage of Real Estate and Money, a 1996 series of four bronze sculptures by Tom Otterness. More appropriately to the subject than the artist perhaps ever envisaged, the sculptures alternately disappear underwater and rise above the water as the tide rises and falls…

Shades of the legends of Execution Rocks… a theme used again, powerfully, in the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial by Marisol at Pier A at the Battery

For several months in 2008, there were the waterfalls of Olafur Eliasson

The thought of the Harvest Dome moving through the East River brings to mind other—more successful—sculptures that at one time or another have floated through New York Harbor.

I remember kayaking one night, a number of years ago, through a field of large, lighted tepees anchored between Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. I can’t now find any photo or even the name of this installation (can anyone help?). But some of that kind of experience is recreated, in miniature, every year in the Floating Lantern ceremony commemorating the dead of 9/11 that is held at Manhattan’s Pier 40.

And I remember kayaking one day in the Hudson and seeing in the distance an entire floating piece of forest, mounted on a barge, moving improbably toward me… This was Floating Island, a piece intended to resemble a sliver of Central Park moving through the harbor, conceived by Robert Smithson decades ago but realized only on the occasion of Smithson’s Whitney retrospective in 2005, 30 years after his death.

This year, to celebrate the 125th birthday of the Statue of Liberty, Burger King—a company not known for its artistic bent—constructed a massive multicolored aluminum crown that was then likewise towed through the harbor on a barge. If somewhat lower in concept than Floating Island, this sculpture did capture the Guinness World Record for the largest aluminum sculpture

There’s even soon going to be sculpture under the water, albeit not quite in New York Harbor itself. Farther down the Jersey shore, Art as Reef is completing a forty-foot horseshoe crab sculpture that will then be sunk as an artificial reef in the Atlantic Ocean off Manasquan Inlet.

And finally, there’s of course the biggest one of them all…

(Thanks for a couple of these stories to this post on The Old Salt Blog. All uncredited photos are by Vlad.)

10 responses to “Art At, On, and In the Water: The Marine Art of New York Harbor

  1. What a great post, both text and photos. Thanks for sharing your unique point of view, things the rest of us would never see otherwise.


  2. Hi
    I produce films about artists, and kayak the nyc waterways–can we talk?



  3. I have been trying to capture what I see in my mind of the Holland River totems for several years. Haven’t found the right combination of lens, light, luck, and inspiration yet but I keep trying…
    Really am glad I have found your blog.


  4. Pingback: Travel Theme: Walls | Wind Against Current

  5. This post is amazing as New York is amazing! These gems of the waterways make my toes curl! And the names — I’ve always loved “Spuyten Duyvil” — and of course NY needs a floating island being pulled by a tug — the island & tub look like something a grade school kid would make in his bathtub – perfect. So we have the classic NY architecture built up over 200 years, we have graffiti every were and much of it interesting and some of it attractive, we have rust, rot, corrosion, and debris — plus — these expensive sculptures that fit in almost as well as the whole rest of it. Fabulous! And of course we have Johna and Vlad to catch it all in their watery net. Thanks!
    (Going back this far shows how far you guys have come. A post like this today would get 200 likes easy — not 3!)


  6. Pingback: Seen from a Kayak | Wind Against Current

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