Statues, Yay and Nay

Audrey Flack in her studio; Monumental Bronze Company's "Standing Soldier" in Sag Harbor, Photos: Courtesy Flack; Dan Rattiner
Audrey Flack in her studio; Monumental Bronze Company's "Standing Soldier" in Sag Harbor, Photos: Courtesy Flack; Dan Rattiner

In 1992, Audrey Flack, the celebrated painter and sculptor who lives in East Hampton, received a commission of a lifetime. A developer was planning a new project at a point of land in Queens that faced across the water to the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan. He asked her to create a giant statue on the shore there that would face the Statue of Liberty. Ships coming into the Port of New York would pass between the two statues. This new one was to be paid for by Portuguese-American citizens to honor a beautiful Portuguese queen named Catherine of Breganza. She was the queen after which that borough was named.

Audrey Flack spent two years designing this statue. During the design period, here in her studio on Cottage Lane, she eventually created a small plaster table-top model of her final version. She then made a larger model, then another model, eight feet tall. In the end, on its pedestal, it was to stand 50 feet tall.

The queen, wearing a robe and crown, her long hair flowing down her back, stood straight and proud, her arms stretching out in front of her, gently holding a large and dazzling sphere—perhaps the Earth. Perhaps the future. The statue took one’s breath away.

I attended a press conference at her studio, where Flack, standing next to the eight-foot model, explained her thinking. “There are oil paintings made of the queen,” she said. “We have a good idea of what she looked like. But I decided to design her in a more multi-racial way. She is politically correct, proud, an everywoman. She has a broad nose, full lips, and long curls that could be dreadlocks. She is the symbol of proud young immigrants who came to America.”

A foundry in upstate New York in the town of Beacon was engaged. A further model was built in bronze, 11 feet high, and sent up to the foundry. And of course Audrey went back and forth to supervise and advise.

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In May of 1996, the creation of the full-size statue got underway. The developer had all the approvals for the statue he would need. Queens Borough President Claire Schulman had been all for it. The Queens selectmen were on board. He had endorsements from Mayor Giuliani, former Mayor David Dinkins, President Jimmy Carter, Governor George Pataki and Senator Alfonse D’Amato. It might take a year before it could be ready to be brought down the Hudson on a barge.

Finally, there came a day when the statue was finished. And with that announcement there came protests. Lots of them. As a result, Borough President Shulman called a public meeting.

At the meeting, one man against the statue pointed out that since the queen would be standing facing the water, she would have her back to Queens, the borough in the country with the most diverse population of immigrants in the entire United States. This was an insult to Queens. This should never be built here.

Others also spoke against it.

“This statue is bloody with the murder of millions of Africans,” said Betty Dopson, the head of the Committee to Stop the Statue. “Do we really need a statue of a slave mistress? To erect this monstrosity shows disrespect to every African-American whose ancestors were raped and shackled and shipped off.”

A historian who said he was in favor of the statue said that yes, traders were bringing slaves to the New World, but the queen had nothing to do with it. He agreed that the queen belonged to a royal family who owned slaves. At birth, slaves attended her. They attended her throughout her life. But when he said that she wrote in her will that all her slaves were to be freed when she died—and they were—all those at the meeting opposed to the statue got up and walked out.

And with that, Claire Shulman changed her mind. And she ordered that it never be placed at Hunter’s Point or anywhere else in Queens. The Statue moldered for years lying in a field at the foundry in Beacon, only finally getting melted down around 2013.

Audrey Flack, by the way, was undaunted by this last-minute turn of events. Her projects since then stand in dozens of cities around the world. Her stunning works, from before and after this, are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the highest honor that any artist can achieve.

I mention this story because of what is going on in this country today with the tearing down of statues of many figures from history. This Portuguese queen may have been the grandmother of what is going on today.

A columnist for The New York Times suggested last week that the statues not be torn down but the plaques on the statues saying who they were be changed. Likenesses in many cases are not that good. Say they are actually other people who now should be honored. It was not a joke. And it was thinking out of the box.

I will end this account by telling a little bit about a life-size statue that stands on its pedestal in the very heart of Sag Harbor, where Main Street merges into Madison Street. The statue, called “Standing Soldier,” is of a Civil War soldier. He is looking down Main Street toward Long Wharf, a reminder to passersby about all those who lost their lives fighting for the Union.

The trouble with this statue is that there are 2,500 identical “Standing Soldiers” in other cities and towns in the North, but there are also over 500 of them, also absolutely identical, celebrating Confederate soldiers scattered throughout cities and towns in the South.

I have read that all these statues were purchased in the 1890s from the Monumental Bronze Company, a firm in Bridgeport, Connecticut, selling a life-size version for $450 and a jumbo eight-and-a-half-foot version for $800. You ordered them from a catalogue. The figure is a determined young man with curly hair, a moustache, a cap on his head, his hands holding a rifle barrel to his chest, the stock extending to nearly the ground.

The reason they were so popular was that until that time, statues were made of marble or granite and cost thousands and thousands of dollars. Here, a war veteran’s group could get a statue of a soldier for one tenth of that. Made of “everlasting” bronze.

What are we supposed to do with this situation?

P.S. Over the past few years, a group called Friends of Dan’s, led by Richard Burns, created two life-size statues of me and had them placed in strategic locations in the Hamptons. The first one is of me riding a giant lobster and was placed on the north side of the Sunrise Highway in Shinnecock where it turns into County Road 39, and it still stands. The other, presented last August on the 60th anniversary of my founding Dan’s Papers (and the 80th anniversary of my birth), showing me holding up a tiny Montauk Lighthouse, Statue of Liberty fashion, was placed in front of the Audi dealership on the Montauk Highway just before Hampton Road in Southampton. It has disappeared.

Had I done something wrong?

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