Tom Otterness

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Tom Otterness
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| birth_place = Wichita, Kansas| death_date =| death_place =| nationality = American| field = Sculpture| training =| movement =| works =| patrons =| influenced by =| influenced =| awards =}}Tom Otterness (born 1952) is an American sculptor best known as one of America’s most prolific public artists.Carducci, Vince Otterness's works adorn parks, plazas, subway stations, libraries, courthouses and museums in New York City—most notably in Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City""The Real World" {{Webarchive|url= |date=2013-07-27 }}" The Battery Park City Authority and Life Underground in the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue New York City Subway station—and other cities around the world. He contributed a balloon (a giant upside-down Humpty Dumpty) to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.Vogel, Carol. "Two Major Collections Land at Christie's" The New York Times, Friday, September 23, 2005 In 1994 he was elected as a member of the National Academy Museumweblink{{Dead link|date=July 2018 |bot=InternetArchiveBot |fix-attempted=no }}His style is often described as cartoonish and cheerful, but also political."The AI Interview: Tom Otterness," ArtInfo, October 2, 2006 His sculptures allude to sex, class, money and race.Sheets, Hilarie M., "Creeping Cats & Fish in Hats", Art News 105 (April 2006): 127-29 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. His aesthetic can be seen as a riff on capitalist realism.Carducci, Vince. "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age", Sculpture 24 (April 2005): 28-33]Known primarily as a public artist, Otterness has exhibited in exhibitions in locations across the United States and internationally, including New York City, Indianapolis, Beverly Hills, The Hague, Munich, Paris, Valencia and Venice. His studio is located in Gowanus, Brooklyn, in New York City.

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, and was involved in punk visual art, notably exhibiting in the Punk Art Exhibition in Washington DC, 1978.WEB,weblink Punk Art Catalogue - Section III: X Magazine, Colab, Downtown Filmmakers, Miller, Marc H., 98Bowery,


Otterness's work with Colab and independent punk art comprised a number of short films; on Colab's All Color News these include "Rats in Chinatown", filming rats at a Chinese deli,Colab 78-80 (1978-80): "Rats in Chinatown" runs 23:20–25:30 and "Golden Gloves boxing at Madison Square Garden" (with John Ahearn), filming an amateur boxing match.Colab - "All Color News" – "Golden Gloves boxing at Madison Square Garden" runs 3:48–4:21 His independent punk films featured real-life aggression and violence, most notoriously Dog Shot Film/Shot Dog Film, where he adopted a dog from an animal shelter in Golden, Colorado, chained it to a stake, and filmed his hand shooting it dead. This was followed by four fight films, where Otterness, an amateur boxer, filmed his own Golden Gloves fights. Shot Dog Film premiered at a Times Square screening room in early 1978, the film being shown in a loop, and viewers were flash-photographed when they left. The film was the only entry that was not accepted in the Punk Art Catalog, due to its offensive nature. Otterness described these films as follows:Shot Dog Film was then shown on Manhattan Cable TV on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day,The Breeze, February 29, 1980, "Artfile: ‘Shot Dog Film’", p. 11 1978, and caused an instant outcry, leading to calls to prosecute Otterness. The film has continued to haunt Otterness, engendering continued controversy.


Otterness began his career as a public sculptor during his period with Colab and The Real Estate Show. 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 Santería 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. This show featured inexpensive works by some 150 artists, including then unknowns Kiki Smith, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. He began showing with New York's Brooke Alexander Gallery soon after.Carducci, Vince. "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age", Sculpture 24 (April 2005): 28-33

Later career


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. The show travelled to the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez in Valencia; Portikus/Senckenbergmuseum in Frankfurt am Main; and Haags Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.From September 20, 2004 to March 18, 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.Goldberg, Ira. "Speaking with Tom Otterness", Linea: Journal of the Art Students League of New York 10 (spring 2007): 4-7

Public art

(File:Curious Figure part2 Tom Otterness Beelden aan Zee Den Haag.JPG|thumb|A sculpture, by Tom Otterness) (File:Curious figures Tom Otterness Beelden aan Zee Den Haag.JPG|thumb|Another view of the same sculpture)(File:Tom Otterness Herring Eater.jpg|thumb|right|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."Public Art Works in the Los Angeles Civic Center and the Los Angeles Mall" 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."Otterness is perhaps best known to New Yorkers for his 2000 Life Underground installation, which is located in the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue New York City Subway station on the {{NYCS trains|type=service|14th Eighth}}."Adler, Margot: "Subway Art: New York's Underground Treasures", Morning Edition. October 18, 2004. It is a sculptural group that consists of over 100 cast-bronze sculptures placed throughout the platforms and stairways of the station. Part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Arts and Design 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.Chan, Sewell "Access to Art with a Metrocard Swipe", The New York Times, June 30, 2005 The piece took over 10 years to complete. The New York Times notes, "Mr. Otterness worked hard to find creative ways to place his sculpture, navigating around the rules of stations design."David W. Dunlap, "Train to the Museum? You're Already There", New York Times, January 21, 2007 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.Vince Carducci, "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age", Sculpture 24 (April 2005): pg 31 ]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 Corrections Center expansion project.

Dog-killing controversy

Otterness adopted a dog from an animal shelter and filmed himself tying it to a tree and shooting it in the head, titling the piece Shot Dog Film (1977).NEWS, Bowen, Alison,weblink Tom Otterness: Paying price for shooting dog, calling it 'art',weblink" title="">weblink 2013-10-12,, May 1, 2011, NEWS, Sankin, Aaron,weblink Tom Otterness, Controversial Sculptor Who Once Shot A Dog, Wins Commission For Central Subway Installation, Huffington Post, September 19, 2011, The film was subsequently forgotten in the 1980s and 1990s.WEB,weblink Editorial: When Does Avant-Garde Art Go Too Far?, Arn, Jackson, December 10, 2018, Artsy, The 1990 preview of models for Nelson Rockefeller State Park cited his "belief that there are two ineradicable sides of human nature — one noble and inspiring, the other foolish and bestial"NEWS,weblink Tom Otterness's Wicked World of Human and Beastly Folly, Brenson, Michael, November 23, 1990, The New York Times, and the subsequent 1992 review of "The Real World" noted "an undercurrent of conflict and violence" in the superficially cheerful sculptures, including a dog chained to a water fountain; neither mentioned the controversial 1977 film.NEWS,weblink Review/Art; Sculpture, Sculpture Everywhere, Kimmelman, Michael, July 31, 1992, The New York Times, Shot Dog Film was briefly mentioned as having "provoked a small scandal [in 1980]" in a 1997 New York Times article which dismissed it as "a seemingly uncharacteristic gesture that he has since declined to discuss."NEWS,weblink ART; Public Sculpture the Public Likes. Really., Cembalest, Robin, September 21, 1997, The New York Times, 22 March 2019, It was brought back into the public conscience in 2004 by journalist Gary Indiana, who criticized Otterness for the killing.NEWS, Indiana, Gary,weblink One Brief, Scuzzy Moment: Memories of the East Village Art Scene,weblink" title="">weblink February 13, 2007, New York Magazine, December 6, 2004, NEWS,weblink The Dog-Killing Woes of Tom Otterness, Miller, Michael H., October 4, 2011, Observer, The artist and critic Gary Indiana recalled the dog incident in an article in New York Magazine in 2004 about the New Museum’s “East Village USA” show. Mr. Otterness was included in the exhibition., Since then, Otterness has attracted criticism and protests for the 1977 film, apologized for his behavior, and lost a number of commissions from the continuing criticism.The large "Millipede" bronze at Wichita State University, affectionately dubbed "Millie", was installed in 2008NEWS,weblink Millie turns 5 years old, November 6, 2013, The Sunflower, despite criticism from a candidate for Student Government Association president and a news article recounting Shot Dog Film in 2007.NEWS,weblink Associated Press, Wichita State still plans to install piece made by artist who shot dog 30 years ago, March 25, 2007, Lawrence Journal-World, Otterness's studio released a statement blaming his "anger at [himself] and the world" for the film.In 2008, following controversy about the killing on the occasion of the installation of "Large Covered Wagon" in Dumbo, Otterness issued an apology in reply to a query from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:.}}In New York City in June 2011, the Battery Park City Authority, under Bill Thompson rejected lion sculptures by Otterness for the area's new public library, after the sculptures were approved by 5-1 by Manhattan Community Board 1 under Chairperson Julie Menin.NEWS,weblink Johnston, Garth, July 10, 2011, Tom Otterness Statue Nixed Over 1977 Puppy Snuff Flick, Gothamist, March 22, 2019,weblink" title="">weblink March 22, 2019, dead, mdy-all, The New York Public Library disavowed any involvement with the project, noting the donation of sculptures commissioned by a private donor had not been solicited by the NYPL.NEWS,weblink Opinion {{!, Tom Otterness, dog killer: Cute sculptures disguise artist's cruel past |author=Panero, James |date=May 11, 2011 |newspaper=New York Daily News}} Following the Battery Park City Authority's rejections, in 2011, there was renewed controversy over this film, with animal rights groups protesting the selection of Otterness for a major sculpture project at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester.NEWS,weblink MAG receives protests, complaints over artist hire, Silverstein, Jason, October 6, 2011, Campus Times, Also in 2011, the San Francisco Arts commission terminated one of two contracts they had with the artist.NEWS, Sabatini, Joshua,weblink Dog-killer artist loses SF contract, keeps second,weblink" title="">weblink 2012-10-16, San Francisco Examiner, November 17, 2011, Otterness had been awarded a $750,000 contract in September 2011 for art in the new Central Subway project in San Francisco. The San Francisco Arts Commission claimed to be unaware of Shot Dog Film when they awarded the contract.NEWS, Sabatini, Joshua,weblink Sculptor who killed dog set to make San Francisco Central Subway art,weblink" title="">weblink 2011-09-18, San Francisco Examiner, September 16, 2011, The mayor of San Francisco put the project on hold, calling Shot Dog Film "deeply disturbing."NEWS, Lee, Stephanie,weblink S.F. subway sculpture on hold over artist misdeed,weblink" title="">weblink 2011-09-17,, September 17, 2011, In October 2013, Lincoln, Nebraska Mayor Chris Beutler decided against purchasing a $500,000 train sculpture from Otterness for the city's West Haymarket development after residents objected to the artist's Shot Dog Film. Citing the unity brought about by the city's development, the mayor said, "...the artist's past behavior in this instance has created a level of division in the community that is simply not acceptable. Our feeling is that it is in the best interest of the city to discontinue the contract process."NEWS, Hicks, Nancy,weblink Controversy kills 'Train Set' sculpture for West Haymarket", Lincoln Journal Star, October 5, 2013, In September 2014, freelance artist Andrew Tider added three illicit sculptures to the "Life Underground" groupings in the subway station. They imitated the Otterness style, a blend of whimsy and biting commentary on corruption and greed. The figures showed a man pointing a gun at a dog, and a distant bystander.NEWS, Carlson, Jen,weblink Tom Otterness, Who Once Shot A Dog For Art, Mocked With New Guerilla Subway Sculpture,weblink" title="">weblink 2014-10-22, Gothamist, September 5, 2014, NEWS, Dunlap, David,weblink Along the D Line, Brooklyn Train Stations are Platforms for Art, The New York Times, October 15, 2014,

Personal life

Otterness has practiced tai chi, martial arts, and boxing since the mid-1960s, and his studio features a boxing bag.Daily News, May 3, 1996, "Otterness enjoying his art", p. 36. Some early boxing fights in the 1970s were filmed as part of his punk art, and he has won prizes for his tai chi, in the school of William C. C. Chen.William C. C. Chen Tai Chi Chuan: Competition News for 2008: 10th Annual International Chinese Martial Arts Championship

Further reading



External links

{{external media| width = 210px| align = rightSCSXoZnUWPE|"Life Underground" by Tom Otterness}}, Metropolitan Transportation Authority; January 13, 2010}} {{Authority control}}

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