Sarah Douglas of the The New York Observer reveals Madison Square Park’s secret weapon, The Yard Man.
Published: May 15, 2012
The Yard Man: Meet Madison Square Park’s Secret Weapon – How the father of the modern sculpture park helped transform the Flatiron greensward into a museum
On May 31, the Madison Square Park Conservancy will assemble 300 art world luminaries to toast a man who prides himself on having recently been called “boneheaded.” Two months ago, the park named a curatorial post, its first, in honor of this same man.
“I will treasure forever being described as a bonehead,” said Martin Friedman, who is in his late 80s, and who served as director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for 26 years before retiring in 1989 and, eventually, becoming an advisor to the park. He was sitting in his art-filled apartment (Claes Oldenburg sketches and sculptures, Sol LeWitt wall drawings) on the 12th floor of a building in Greenwich Village last week, reminiscing about the incident that earned him his epithet. When the park displayed life-size sculptures of naked, standing men by Antony Gormley on rooftops two years ago, The New York Post fretted about their being mistaken for potential suicides in an article bearing the headline “Jump Dummy Jump,” that referred to the exhibition’s “boneheaded organizers.”
In a career devoted to helping artists realize improbable projects, and in so doing creating a cultural mecca in an improbable part of the country, being called a bonehead is easy enough to laugh off. In 1971, less than a decade into his tenure at the Walker, Mr. Friedman overhauled its campus, putting up a new, column-free, warehouse-like building built to suit the way artists were working on challenging, large-scale pieces—at what he still boasts was the low, low cost of around $4.5 million, which, even adjusted for inflation, is still modest compared to today’s museum buildings, which clock in in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And he created a sculpture park—he’s always, he said, “had a particular thing for sculpture,” and when he started at the Walker the public knew more about painters, “hero figures” like Jackson Pollock. He turned the Walker into a museum that focused on the art of its time, and built a world-class collection.