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Atlas, created by sculptor Lee Lawrie with the help of Rene Paul Chambellan, was installed in 1937.
I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to hear a friend’s ten-year-old daughter sing sacred music in a choir. The cathedral is loaded with scaffolding inside and out, a $175 million restoration, but it is still impressive and cool on a hot New York summer day. There were a lot of tourists and security, hard wooden pews, and pulpits the height of redwoods. The young choir was dwarfed by the scale of the cathedral and their voices did not reverberate or echo; the choirmaster struggled for a bigger sound swooping his arms up and down in pointless gestures. After the congratulations and the thanks, the long blue gowns with sedate white collars were discarded, and the choir disbanded on the steps of the cathedral. In the distance: Atlas holding the world and a Jeff Koons topiary extravaganza called “Split Rock,” two monumental sculptures.

What does all this bigness—The Cathedral, Atlas at the entrance to The Rock, Split Rock—mean or portend? Is it designed to entertain, subdue, reassure? Are we awed in the shadow of these very big works? Do we long to escape to small spaces?

The Cathedral is a mid-nineteenth century edifice, its construction, like Central Park, interrupted by the Civil War, the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Rockefeller Center went up in the midst of the Great Depression (another monumental historic event) and the Koons is a satiric display of commercial derring-do. At least that is how I read it. Here is an artist who can command the dollars to strut his work—anywhere. Is he laughing at us? Are we laughing at him? Is the work ridiculous or sublime? Can we even grasp a work this big?

And where can we go for respite in the midst of all this mid-town New York bigness? “Let’s cross the street,” my friend said. “There’s something you have to see: a department store for dolls.” Cars, pets, baby siblings, a hair salon ($20 per appointment per doll), a photo studio, a restaurant, bathroom stalls where there are doll “holders,” story books for every ethnically correct diorama, and all of it human scale and mesmerizing. Except for the $110 price tag on the dolls themselves.

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