The AI Interview: Tom Otterness
NEW YORK, Sept. 27, 2006—According to the New York Times, Tom Otterness “may be the
world’s best public sculptor.” Certainly he is one of the most visible.
He is the only artist ever to have contributed a balloon to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,
and his large-scale installations in outdoor public locations—from Indianapolis to New York—are
Otterness enjoys the rare ability to engage spectators from all walks of life and all levels of artworld
sophistication—because while his imagery is cartoon-like, and often highly appealing to
children, his work also tends to carry a political punch. He is particularly scathing in his
portrayals of those for whom financial wealth is all important. Pieces such as Free Money
(1999) and Big, Big Penny (1993) depict this obsession, and others, like his New York subway
installation, Life Underground, beneath ArtInfo’s headquarters, show people actually turning
His next New York gallery show will be at the Marlborough Gallery's 57th Street location in
Tom, let me begin by asking you about the response to the sculptures you showed in
Grand Rapids, Mich. this summer. They were hugely successful.
They seem well-received. I get fan mail. Not bad for a gray-haired, hippy sort of guy. Those
Midwesterners and I speak the same language.
You’ve devoted particular effort to make your work accessible to the broadest public.
It’s a simple language; it’s a cartoon language; it’s smiley, button faces. [With my work],
people aren’t thrown off by a language they don’t understand. It’s not a visual language you
need a BFA to get.
It seems to me that most public sculpture is just a wasted opportunity. There’s
nothing that turns people off more quickly than what they see as pretension on the
one hand or condescension on the other.
It sometimes feels like a very dangerous line to walk. You can fall on one side or the other, and
condescension is one of the dangers. If I pull it off, there shouldn’t be any condescension in my
work. I hope not, I pray not. I just want to be somebody who is talking straight-up in a public
forum about sex or class or race, and that something is being said without selling something. It
doesn’t have any other agenda.
Can I ask you about some specific pieces? Every time I travel to the ArtInfo offices, I
walk past your installation that spreads all over the 8th Avenue-14th Street subway
station. How does it make you feel when you see your own work like this?
It makes me think about how long it took to do! I think it holds the record—both for me and
the MTA [which oversees the New York subway system]. It took 10 years from the first
commission to the end. And I kept putting more and more work in until my wife finally said,
“That’s it! You’re giving away our daughter’s whole inheritance!” I gave them about four or five
times more stuff than they had paid for, but it was such an ideal stage for my work that I could
hardly control myself. More is better in my book!
And what about your balloon that appeared in last year’s Thanksgiving Day parade?
It reminded me how rarely artists attempt to be entertaining. That’s certainly one of
your basic instincts, isn’t it?
Clearly so. It’s the need to be liked! When we chose the image for Thanksgiving Day, I looked
at old images of the parade. I really loved the earliest Macy’s parades. Growing up in Kansas, it
was the first way that I knew about New York City. They were real art, and I tried to go back to
something like that—a real folk-art parade.
Nowadays [the parade] is so wedded with selling something. But that’s also a portrait of who
we are. I still like it as it is now. I loved getting inside people’s homes on TV sets on
Thanksgiving morning. It’s a very special place. It’s a privilege to get inside all of those living
rooms on all those TV sets. It’s hard to do, and it was a goal of mine.
Tell me, because your work has such a political edge, do members of the public ever
take you to task?
Oh sure. As part of my research and development, I take the work back and forth from the
studio and put it out in a public place. Very few people know what I look like, and I can go out
anonymously and because people don’t know I’m the artist, they tell me what they really think.
And I learn a lot. At least I know how work is being read once it’s out there.
I remember when the first Battery Park piece [at the southern tip of Manhattan] went up—it
was of Malcolm X as a lizard on a light pole reading a book. I got into some fairly heated
debates with some black nationalists. You never know where the criticism is going to come
But isn’t part of the function of public art to provoke discussion?
I think that’s its purpose. Public art substitutes for the town square, the area where we’re
supposed to have our communal debates and discussions and exchange ideas. That’s when I
consider my work successful. If it’s instigating discussion between us, then it’s happening
between other people as well, and maybe there’s some conversation happening across party
lines, so to speak. And that’s a good thing.
Tell me what it was like to install your work in a place like Indianapolis. When I
spoke to Julian Opie recently, he told me how struck he was by the number of
existing monuments that were there. Did that influence how you installed your
Indianapolis really is full of public work. They have a history of that in the town, starting with
the Civil War. In Indianapolis I could place sculpture relative to existing sculpture and have a
bounce of meaning between the two. One of my favorite [examples of this] was in front of the
City Hall. There was the governor from the 1860s on a high pedestal flanked by two soldiers
with rifles, and I put Mad Mom in between them all. She was out there with her hands on her
hips. The whole thing was great. People may or may not pick up on those relationships, but
they entertain me, at least.
Looking at the documentation of your large-scale installations, you use many of the
same sculptures, some of which are quite old, and then you add more recent ones
that you’ve made.
Wherever I’m commissioned, I have more or less the same set of pieces to use, and it’ll be a
sort of chess game to see what arrangement I can come up with, what configuration and what
relation between piece and place. There was a different sort of meaning in Indianapolis than
got set up in the New York version, or the Grand Rapids version. I like to think they have a
different life in each place.