Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

29. The first plans for the arrival of the six-ton statue forged in the form of a vessel may have been embedded in negotiations for illicit transfers to Trump Properties from Russia, designed to meet Trump’s outsized ambitions to impact New York’s skyline, and do so by funds he could get from Russian oligarchs. What led Tsereteli’s shady oligarch backers, if not the sculptor, to invite Trump to enable its arrival is unclear, but the ambitions Trump revealed and his flouting of laws, regulations, and principles to achieve his desired ends made him a perfect mark. The realtor appeared determined to confirm his symbolic arrival on top of the world in Manhattan’s vertical landscape, where place eclipsed space, geopolitics seemed a provincial artifact of the past–at all costs.

Trump Tower was robustly promoted in global terms as a luxury preserve “totally inaccessible to the public,” exclusively for “the world’s best people,” and far removed from the gritty city below. By 1996, Trump specialized in places outside public space, in exclusive enclaves removed from urban criminality, and the West Side Yards provided a similar para-urban residential site. But he needed it big, built to dominate the city’s skyline, as Trump Plaza and Trump Place still would in 1997, a new addition to urban verticality and remove. Trump had begun selling condominiums into this gated preserve to Russians from the 1980s, at the end of the Soviet era, selling luxury units to Russian elites, who continued to invest millions in Trump property in New York, Toronto, Southern Florida, wealthy from dirty money accumulated in the 1990s, many billing themselves only as “very successful businessmen” who seemed in tune with Donald’s tastes and image of affluence; he continued to work his wonder by promoting large skyscrapers in years to come.

The new colossus he sought erect on Trump property promised a new sort of new world, but reveals much about the instrumental opportunism he sought to invest Columbus as a national symbol for his own personal ends. Christopher Columbus is a strongly contested as a symbol of the nation–reviewed in my last post–but how a massive bronze statue of Columbus designed in Moscow hoped to mark a new era of Russian-American friendship arrived in the western hemisphere was a tangled history of the relations of monumental ambitions. Trump long aspired the Hudson River complex to be the most ostentatious change to the city skyline and indeed topography of residences in the West Side and Lincoln Center area of midtown Manhattan.

The offshore statuary he promoted of a gargantuan statue of Columbus, as if displacing all other public monuments in New York City, elevated the neoclassical robed figure that Zurab Tsereteli had planned in 1991, desingned as slightly taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty;

Tsereteli had so promoted the addition by 1997 as due to Trump’s intervention New York Times reporter Michael Gordon, according to Mark Singer, sought affirmation as he could hardly believe when Moscow-based sculptor boasted of enlisting Trump’s support it be built.

Television City, later Trump City and Trump Place

Tsereteli was long interested in Russia–or the city of Moscow, whose mayor seemed his primary patron–expanding his indulgence of massive statuary into America, and the Columbian quinquecentennial seemed apt. Trump seemed the conduit to reach New York’s Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and to wrangle building clearance in New York by creative rezoning. I n the stretch of landfill for the long optioned freight yards running from 59th to 72nd Street, Trump had projected residences of over seventy-five stories, and other fantasies: after building Trump Tower, be seems to have sought grandiose result that served as a lasting legacy to the family of builders from Queens, that would leave a permanent mark on the city’s skyline: and Manhattan’s Central Rail Yard seemed the perfect place for a grandiose vision of six towers including what would be the tallest building on the planet, an olympic size swimming pool, shopping center, and 10,000 parking places, and 20-30,000 riverfront residences,–a project not only of vanity, but with the goal of fixing his presence in Manhattan’s skyline. Trump appeared attracted to the statue for patriotic associations long associated with the fifteenth-century navigator, than the monumentality of the statue, and its massive cost that Tsereteli described. In Moscow, having a Tsereteli seemed a confirmation of authority and grandeur, if by an aesthetics more monumental than sublime.

For even for the younger Donald Trump, statuary was an extension of the cult of personality and magic “personal” touch that he sought to invest in his buildings and to distinguish them by as monuments in their own right. The statue of Columbus–only later called The Discovery of the New World in official records, was a grandiose image of a commemorated individual who was identified with New York by virtue of its Italian American community–and the Columbus Day Parade–that was part of his own landscape. Its gigantic monumentality a mirror image of the very budding complex he sought to create, monumental statuary promised the possibility of promoting the complex, and the opportunity to consolidate his relations with the Russian financial assistance that rescued Trump Properties during the 1990s, when the possibility of erecting the massive statue on the Hudson in Trump’s West Side Yards development first arose.

Trump Holds “Television City” Chief Tower, Murphy/Jahn of 59th-72nd Street, 1985/
Bettmann Archive

–a project he staked considerable hopes on after failing in numerous casinos and Atlantic City projects, and hoped that the government would allow him to develop, and perhaps help cover the cost. The luxury complex would be soon associated with the largest statue ever built in the world of Christopher Columbus, planned as the largest construction in the Western Hemisphere, personalizing the complex conquest of once public real estate as the most expansive residential development Trump had ever overseen.

Standing on the shores of the Hudson, far from where the fifteenth-century navigator traveled, the odd placement of the statue of a size surpassing the Statue of Liberty at Trump’s latest residential complex would broadcast his complex and the discovery of the new world was perhaps closest to a patriotic statement about the nation than Trump had earlier made. Previously presented to two United States presidents after the fall of the Soviet Union, if in model form, the ostentatious monument was openly embraced by Trump in the mid-1990s. Why?

The curious metric used almost uniformly in journalism and press releases to describe the statuary–the iconic Statue of Liberty, Liberty Enlightening the World, the massive neoclassical robed statue dedicated in 1886, gifted to the nation a century earlier by the government of France, in international news. If Liberty’s copper clad arm was admired in 1876 centennial celebrations in Philadelphia, and is now a national icon, Trump offered Tsereteli’s patrons not only a means to plant a Tsereteli in America, of a capped Columbus as a gargantuan Renaissance newspaper boy, but a form of redefining American-Russian relations after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the celebration of new cults of personality that ensued.

Tsereteli had grandiose plans for the bronze monumental statuary as a gift for the Columbian quinquecentennial, revealing the scale of his plans by defending resistance to the kitschy colossus by noting how if how earlier monuments as the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, each acquired iconic value as symbols marking place–“without those symbols, those places were unimaginable,” he sustained. He eagerly exploited the post-Soviet visit of George H.W. Bush to Moscow in 1990 as a chance to present multiple models of the statue he sought to gift America, and presented the model that Bush had selected when accompanying President Boris Yeltsin on a visit of state to President Clinton in 1994–the very occasion when a drunk Yeltsin was found, hailing a taxi in his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue, presumably long after discussing a model of the monument whose grandiosity suggests not cold command but impassive sullenness.

Statue of Columbus as Assembled in Arecibo, Puerto Rico (2016)

How Trump was approached about gifting the behemoth that was crafted out of metals with low shipping international taxes to the United States was unclear, if the construction was ideated by Tsereteli from 1990. The long arc of the statue’s search for a home parallels Trump’s own career in curious ways, possibly or probably with reflections in submerged global links of corruption, international trade, geopolitical influence yet to be discovered or explored.

28. Trump showed significant interest in the sculpture that must have become ”real” to him as the massive sculpture promoted by two Russian oligarchs who had served time for fraud; he seems to have seen the statue in Tsereteli’s Moscow studio, where the sculptor who had first presented several models to George H.W. Bush during his 1990 state visit to Moscow and pursued the project when he personally brought the one selected when accompanying Boris Yeltsin to the United States, in September 1994, insistently seeking a location–the issue was dropped, however, after a drunk Yeltsin was found in his underwear by alarmed White House security guards. Donald Trump may have come late to the game, but it became his: and one couldn’t imagine a better audience for Tsereteli’s elevator pitch, even if he received it last.

Why Tsereteli saw the builder as the right audience to be his intermediary to Mayor Rudy Giuliani isn’t clear. But the massive size of the monument undoubtedly reflected The Donald’s own boasting on his visit to Moscow that led to Trump’s famous 2013 five word tweet–“TRUMP-TOWER MOSCOW is next!” –and showing his Russian audience the value he placed on monumental size, mythic recreations of past ideals, and grandiose visions. The attachment Trump had in Moscow that led to the proposal of the statue suggest a long history of ties to the Russian government that raised such attention for Robert S. Mueller III as a lucrative project planned with the Russian government; Brooklyn-raised Felix Sater had openly boasted of his ability to bring Putin on board for Trump’s election, in ways that echo the close ties Trump developed to Lavrov, Moscow’s former mayor, and the ear of oligarchs since Trump imagined building a hotel beside the Kremlin in 1987.

The peculiar statue–a Columbus without maps, not pointing in or indicating a direction, but seeming to wave to spectators–didn’t fit within many heroic traditions of statuary, but seemed holding a globe in his palm. Was the statuary indicative of Trump’s patriotism, or did it merely help stage another spectacle to promote to a complex for personal gain?

Trump reveals plans forTelevision City in November, 1985/Marty Lederhandler AP

Trump’s actual interest in the statue whose creator was long promoted by two Russian oligarchs who served time for fraud , is unclear. The statue had been promoted as a testimony to post-Soviet US-Russian friendship. But it was probably based on self-interest–more than international ties. Trump’s eyes were drawn to monumental statuary on the Hudson to generate media buzz in the West Side Yards project that would later be developed as Riverside South; he got that even a somewhat cubist rendering of the fifteenth century navigator would make a splash on the Hudson River; it’s unclear if the grim-faced Columbus would either face the property and Manhattan island or look out to see, echoing the Statue of Liberty further south in New York Harbor, which it was slightly taller than. Before its pieces were reassembled in Puerto Rico, the statue faced proposals of relocation–after New York declined the kitschy monument, in 1997, when its Board of Commissioners were not feeling inclined to The Donald–and rejections followed from Baltimore, Miami Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Columbus, OH, until the Great Navigator arrived in a fishing village on the edges of American territory. The statue still dominates the viewer from an incredible height, but isolated in its surrounding landscape, and less monumental than it was imagined.

The absolute lack of geographical specificity of the massive sculptural complex renders Tsurateli’s artistic vision rather strikingly mobile, and unrooted, and removed from actual technologies of travel, perhaps fitting for a new urban vision of Columbus, looking like he stepped off a plane.

The silent partner of statuary was the similarly grave, robed neoclassical Statue of Liberty, to whose dimensions Tseretelli’s Columbus is regularly compared, lying to the south in New York Harbor of slightly lesser height.

The similarly grim-faced square-jawed monument with one arm raised high would have stood in agonistic relation to the statue; one is tempted to see the first neoclassical monument, Liberty Enlightening the World, as being rebuffed for welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses carried “tempest-tost to me” by a big, white man saying he got there first. Several figures in Trump’s administration did query the lines of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, inscribed on the statue’s base, readily altering it to be restricted to those “tired and poor who can stand on your own two feet and not be a public charge,” to keep with the value the Trump administration.

Even if the statue predates Trump’s 2015 stance on immigration, Trump revealed his attraction to the Columbus statue clearly foreshadows Trump’s defense of the heroic ideals embodied in the “beautiful statues” of once-lionized figures as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee in the nation’s culture; for Trump argued these Confederate commanders were secure in history on the footing of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson-and indeed, as readers will wince as they remember,

Removal of Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville

Trump had shocked much of the nation by loudly proclaiming Columbus Day during his first year in office as something that must be defended as a national holiday: he issued a proclamation the October after his inauguration that sought to reclaim the historical place of the Genoese navigator to the heroic canon of the nation, enjoining the entire nation to celebrate “the permanent arrival of Europeans” in the New World as what “set the stage for the development of our great nation”–a phrasing that seems directly addressed to the very “great replacement theories” of White Supremacists that are espoused by Ann Coulter and others–making Columbus explicitly into a celebration of the European origins of Americans that not so silently echoed polemics on racial supremacy.

30. To be sure, Trump’s attraction to the colossal statue almost erected in the Hudson River reflects Trump’s rather notorious vanity to self-monumentalization: his continued attraction to commissioning kitschy self-portraits or busts! But the revison of recent misgivings in recognizing Columbus Day as an occasion meriting the “collective celebration” of all Americans of Columbus’ “spirit of discovery” purifies the violence of settlement and practices of colonization from any of the “misgivings” Barack Obama firmly if meekly noted in conceding the need to attend to “the pain and suffering reflected in the stories of Native Americans who had long resided on this land prior to the arrival of European newcomers.”

Trump’s constituency would have little of that concession. And Trump either seemed to appease their positions when he reacted to the removal of the contested monuments in Charlottesville, and their place in our nation’s history, or affirmed a taste for the very sort of monumental figural statuary he seemed ready to have erected on the seventy-five acres of what was then called “Riverside South” in 1997. Trump had more purely self-interested reasons in mind when he proposed integrating “The Birth of the New World” to New York’s skyline as a gift from the city of Moscow–an odd proposal, in retrospect, indeed. The statue would have adorned a massive riverfront complex be named Trump City, a large stretch of riverfront property Trump had earlier optioned as assets of Penn Central were sold offhand would herald the triumphant return of Trump Properties to Manhattan.

Trump already planned an over-the-top phallic structure for the Hudson in the West Side Yards was broached just after Trump Tower, revealing an even greater bid to mar the urban skyline. The statue of Columbus would echo a strong taste for the “beautiful statues and monuments” to the Confederate army, that he called “sad to see” leave as the nation’s history was “ripped apart.” Amonumentof the fifteenth century navigator, arms raised, did he hope to erect on the Hudson’s banks, by erasing the multi-ethnic New York City with a vision of triumphalism? The addition of a massive statue of Columbus would promote media attention to the West Side Yards project, but mach its grandiosity,

Rendering of Trump City by Murphy/Jahn Architects, 1985/8

One might well raise questions about how a taste for kitschy monumentality associated with Trump met the self-promoting sculptor who courted grandiosity, before Puerto Rico, a debtor nation, raised $12 million to construct a version of the massive colossus in a virtually deserted old fishing town with a municipal debt of over $60 million and whose economy has long ago decayed.

But Trump seriously entertained Tsereteli’s pitch.

Georgian SculpZurab Tsereteli Displays Planned Christopher Columbus Monument in 1999

30. The scale of the complex reveals the intense competitiveness he felt to all other builders in the city, and its skyline: he ambitiously projected 20-30,000 riverfront residences in what he held a news conference to celebrate as “the greatest piece of land in urban America” where he boasted that he and his backers would win approval for a complex to be designed by a “world-class” architect to design the shopping structure and Olympic-sized pool that “the West side needs” and create “the most exciting job anywhere in the world” on the contested lands whose ground was not yet broken.  But in the light of recent acknowledgment of the “outsized role of Russia” in how Trump’s reemerged from financial ruin and a string of corporate bankruptcies in the 1990s, and the continued questions of what sorts of debts he carries, the story of the colossus almost built on the Hudson and planned for Trump City acquires more than curiosity for architectural historians of New York.

Trump planned a final touch, often forgotten: a monumental bronze colossus gifted by the city of Moscow, a statue by the Georgian master of sculptural grandiosity that would be taller than the Statue of Liberty. In light of the broad vandalism of Columbus statues and monuments on Columbus Day last year, it is interesting to reflection how Trump understood a monumental statue of Columbus as augmenting his property value and promoting his residential projects. Why the statue, which Trump described as destined for his Hudson River properties at the sculptor’s request, retains a size forty five feet greater than New York’s Statue of Liberty

Could one imagine a less apt sculptor for a massive statuary that embodied claims celebrating imperialism as patriotic kitsch in a colossus on New York’s Hudson River? For a multi-ethnic diverse city, the statue of a saluting Columbus, here shown in the version erected in Puerto Rico, standing in galley that seems the size of a bathtub, one hand on anachronistic rotary wheel, is hardly the triumphal image of discovery, but more of a socialist realist triumph whose gargantuan dimensions mapped more onto Trump’s ego than the riverside setting or indeed the politics of the time.

31. The much-vaunted complex was never built, the hopes he would later express to add to the structure–renaming Riverside West, first as “Television City,” then just “Trump City,” and finally, as plans were reduced due to community opposition, Riverside South, along the 57 acre stretch of landfill he had managed to rezone for residences. But in the course of future revision, in a curious episode the land was to be the site of a monumental statue of Columbus of the sort that bears fingerprints of a thirst for the same sort of monumental grandiosity, no doubt entangled with images of self in ways that are best left to be imagined, or more mutedly described as irrevocably impacting the skyline.

Architectural Rendrepering of Trump City/1985-86 (never built) by Murphy/Jahn Architects

–as if magically transforming the old railroads located along the Hudson River into new luxury housing that would transform the past to the vision of modernity thatTrump seemed at some point in time synonymous.

The completed project was to include an immense statue of Columbus, although only the head of which ever actually arrived in New York. The statue slated to be taller than the Statue of Liberty was cancelled. But Trump proudly announced plans to include a statue of Christopher Columbus he announced as a gift from the city of Moscow. The uncompleted colossus was to be added to promote the complex housing 20,000; Trump let reporters known Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was fundamental in supporting and helping to promote the project. Was the statue, announced to be made from $40 million in bronze in 1991, not only a very outsized gaudy gift but an investment designed to promote the value of housing at a time when Trump Organization was in fact on the brink of ruin, and a gambit to stake is fortune on the reshaping the New York skyline for a final time when his financial fortunes had become uncertain and the Soviet economy on the verge of collapse?

Trump took considerable satisfaction in confirming to a New York Times reporter in 1997 that “we are working toward [the] end” of installing a monumental statue of the fifteenth century navigator on the Hudson River that would awe observers and all traffic along the river, as well as residents in the towers of the residential complex; the monument he would build on its grounds would be six feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, and had indeed met with the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli in his Moscow studio, about which negotiations were underway between Moscow’s mayor and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, who had been gaining wide popularity for cleaning up Manhattan, Trump described the arrival of the statue–whose head was in New York–as if it was a done deal to which the builder was “absolutely favorably disposed.” Trump didn’t mine words: “This man,” he said of the kitschy Georgian sculptor, “is absolutely Legit.”

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, globalization, monuments

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