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Tom Otterness (b. 1952 in Wichita, Kansas) is an American sculptor whose works adorn parks, plazas, subway stations, libraries, courthouses and museums in New York---most notably in Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City[1] and in the 14th Street/8th Avenue subway station---and other cities around the world. He was the first artist ever to have contributed a balloon to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.[2] “…he made a giant Humpty Dumpty suspended in an upside-down tumble, as though he might have jumped from one of the swanky Central Park West rooftops…”[3]

Tom Otterness: The Gold Rush, Courthouse, Sacramento, California

The Gold Rush, Courthouse, Sacramento, California

His style is often described as cartoonish and cheerful but tends to carry a political punch.[4] His sculptures are filled with multiple meanings and allude to sex, class, money and race.[5] These sculptures depict, among other things, huge pennies, pudgy characters in business suits with moneybag heads, helmeted workers holding giant tools, and an alligator crawling out from under a sewer cover. The main theme of his work seems to be the struggle of the little man against the capitalist machine in a difficult and strange city. His aesthetic can be seen as a riff on capitalist realism and blends high and low, cute and cutting[6]

2010 OHNY: Tom Otterness Studio

Known primarily as a public artist, Otterness has exhibited in popular exhibitions in locations across the United States and around the world, including New York City, Indianapolis, Beverly Hills, the Hague, Munich, Paris, Valencia and Venice. His studio is located in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Early career

Otterness studied at the Art Students League of New York in 1970 and at the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1973. He was an active member of the artists' group Colab (Collaborative Projects) from its inception in 1977. This group was distinguished for its politically engaged open membership.

Otterness began his career as a public sculptor during this period with Colab. He sold small, plaster figures for $4.99 at Artists Space in New York for the 1979 holiday season. His inspiration was the plaster replicas of Jesus and Elvis and Santeria sculptures in botanica shops in the Bronx. "I thought 'Oh, this is public art…This is something that everyone can afford and take home.'" The next year he made a series of small plaster "proto monuments" for Colab's 1980 Times Square show, which he helped organize.[7] This show featured inexpensive works by some 150 artists, including then unknowns Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. He began showing with New York's Brooke Alexander Gallery soon after.[8]
[edit] Exhibitions

In 1987, Otterness exhibited his work The Tables at the Museum of Modern Art "Projects" show. White-collar workers, blue-collar workers, cops, radicals, captains of industry were displayed on four bronze picnic tables in the MoMA sculpture garden.[9] The show travelled to the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez in Valencia; Portikus/Senckenbergmuseum in Frankfurt am Main; and Haags Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

In 2005, "Tom Otterness on Broadway", his largest exhibition to date, featured 25 different works installed between Columbus Circle and 168th Street in Washington Heights. The project was sponsored by the City of New York Parks and Recreation Department, the Broadway Mall Association, and Marlborough Gallery, and traveled to three other cities—Indianapolis, Beverly Hills, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Grand Rapids exhibition featured more than 40 works across two miles of the city's downtown area and at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.[10]

Public Art
Herring Eater, The Netherlands

One of Otterness's earliest public art works, The New World, was commissioned in 1987 by the General Services Administration for the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, part of the Los Angeles Federal Center. The work was installed in 1991.[11] After this piece, Otterness was commissioned to do others for the General Services Administration, including federal courthouses in Portland, Oregon (Law of Nature, 1997); Sacramento, California (Gold Rush, 1999); and Minneapolis, Minnesota (Rock Man, 1999).

Many of Otterness's public works can be found in New York City. The Real World, located in Battery Park City was commissioned in 1986 and installed in 1992; this sculpture ensemble is meant to represent the world outside the playground, "a broad social allegory on art and life, where the games of power and control are played out in miniature by Otterness's adorable and cunning characters…an imaginative park with things to touch and stories to invent."[12] Miniature figures parade along a penny-strewn brick path. Among the groupings, one can find these tiny figures playing chess as well as pushing, celebrating atop, or getting rolled over by a giant sized penny; a well-dressed Humpty Dumpty shaped fiddler sits precariously on the roof of a falling-down house.[13]

Otterness is perhaps best known to New Yorkers for his 2002 Life Underground installation, which is located in the 14th Street–Eighth Avenue New York City Subway station.[14] It is a rambling sculptural group that consists of over 100 cast-bronze sculptures placed throughout the platforms and stairways of the A, C, E, and L lines of the station. Part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) of New York Arts for Transit Program, which has commissioned more than 170 permanent works of art to decorate the city subway stations, it is one of the most popular in the subway system.[15] The piece took over 10 years from start to finish. The New York Times notes, “Mr. Otterness worked hard to find creative ways to place his sculpture, navigating around the rules of stations design.”[16] Taking inspiration from the cartoonists and illustrators of the past, including Thomas Nast's depictions of the corrupt New York City mayor, Boss Tweed, Otterness' works are at times very cartoonish and cheerful, and the forms of his sculptures often have a humorous look. Examples of figures in the subway installation include a woman toting a nearly lifesize subway token under her arm; a well-dressed fare jumper crawling under a metal gate; a homeless woman being rousted by the police; two figures holding a cross-cut saw, about to cut into an I-beam that holds up a stairway. One of the main themes running through the various groupings, which read like comic book panels, is the idea of resistance—petty offenses against authority perpetrated by the disaffected.[17]

In September 2010, six new Otterness Sculptures were installed along Columbia Avenue in Connell, Washington. Otterness was hired by the Washington State Arts Commission to create the bronze figures and stone tables and benches for Downtown Connell. The art was paid for with funds from the newly completed Coyote Ridge Correctional Center Expansion Project. Washington State law allocates one-half of 1 percent of the state's capital construction budget for public art.


Journalist Gary Indiana criticized Otterness for an independent work done in 1977 called "Shot Dog Film" a looped video piece, in which, according to Indiana, Otterness "adopted a dog and then shot it to death for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film."[18]

In spring 2007, a candidate for Student Government Association president at Wichita State University questioned the use of $150,000 in student funds to pay part of the commission for a new campus sculpture by the Wichita-native artist.[19] The 20 ft. long piece was installed on Monday, October 27, 2008.[20]

Otterness issued an apology which was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in April 2008, "Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me -- Tom Otterness.” [21] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle article stated: "While it remains to be seen if this will mollify Otterness’ critics, it does appear to be the apology many are asking for." [22] All do not agree. Many public opinions via blogs question the validity of the apology.[23]


1. ^ ""The Real World"" The Battery Park City Authority
2. ^ Vogel, Carol. “Art at the Macy’s Parade” The New York Times, Friday, September 23, 2005
3. ^ Sheets, Hillarie M., "Creeping Cats & Fish in Hats," Art News 105 (April 2006): 127-29
4. ^ "The AI Interview: Tom Otterness," ArtInfo, October 2, 2006
5. ^ Sheets, Hilarie M., "Creeping Cats & Fish in Hats," Art News 105 (April 2006): 127-29
6. ^ Carducci,Vince. "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age," Sculpture 24 (April 2005): 28-33 [1]
7. ^ Sheets, Hilarie M. "Creeping Cats & Fish in Hats," Art News 105 (April 2006): 127-29
8. ^ Carducci,Vince. "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age," Sculpture 24 (April 2005): 28-33
9. ^ Sheets, Hilarie M. "Creeping Cats & Fish in Hats," Art News 105 (April 2006)
10. ^ Goldberg, Ira. "Speaking with Tom Otterness," Linea: Journal of the Art Students League of New York 10 (spring 2007): 4-7
11. ^
12. ^ Brenson, Michael. “Tom Otterness’ Wicked World of Human and Beastly Folly”, The New York Times, Nov. 23, 1990.
13. ^ Sheets, Hilarie M. "Creeping Cats & Fish in Hats," Art News 105 (April 2006): 127-29
14. ^ "Adler, Margot: "Subway Art: New York's Underground Treasures", Morning Edition. October 18, 2004.
15. ^ Chan, Sewell “Access to Art with a Metrocard Swipe”, The New York Times, June 30, 2005
16. ^ David W. Dunlap, "Train to the Museum? You're Already There," New York Times, January 21, 2007
17. ^ Vince Carducci, "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age," Sculpture 24 (April 2005): pg 31 [2]
18. ^ Indiana, Gary: "One Brief, Scuzzy Moment: Memories of the East Village Art Scene", New York Magazine. December 6, 2004.
19. ^ / Wichita State still plans to install piece made by artist who shot dog 30 years ago
20. ^ Eagle Staff, "'Millipede'home in Ulrich garden at Wichita State,[3] The Wichita Eagle, Tues. Oct 28, 2008
21. ^ Frost, Mary. "Artist Apologizes for Decades-old Dog-Killing Incident"[4], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 14, 2008.
22. ^ Real Estate Brooklyn coverage Bay Ridge Eagle Brooklyn, 2007 NY information :: daily paper in Brooklyn
23. ^ sculpture3

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