Distant Views 20 years ago
2020.5.2

Behind the Signs

In 1999 folks in New York anxiously awaited the turn of the Millennium. It was rumored that the internet would fail, our new world of digital dependence would ruin us, and all computers would crash. Escapes were planned, back-ups designed, and New Year's Eve 1999 was a dreaded event. As we know, it did not turn out to be a disaster. 


In my early years in New York, I did not have a proper studio. I made various projects here and there, and one in particular has been unearthed: the Behind the Signs series made in 1999. I'd done some freelance work for a publishing company in what was then known as the Bertelsmann Building (now named 1540 Broadway) in Times Square, and was taken to lunch at the cafeteria on the 8th floor. Out of the tall picture-glass windows I saw the structures that supported the enormous advertising signs that have put Times Square on many a postcard. From the street it was full color, full video: over-sized images of Coca Cola, TV News, Broadway shows, M&Ms, and major companies spending millions on a shot of being recorded by tourists from far and wide. But the view from the cafeteria was a different world. I was amazed and inspired to see behind those enormous signs, struck by how little color there was back there, as opposed to the gaudy colors of the other side. Some structures were old, and others of polished aluminum soared high into the sky past the 8th floor. It was truly a very different Times Square in black and white.



By chance, I also happened to know someone who worked in the building in a different company, and he offered to keep a large portfolio of my in-process drawings behind his desk. I'd ask for him at the sign-in downstairs, go to his desk, grab the portfolio and head for the cafeteria just as it opened about 11 o'clock. I was only able to stay an hour at a time before building patrons crowded the space. Hour by hour, six drawings, 30"x 22" each, emerged. Given the worry over the Y2K event, I also felt a need to finish the series by December '99. 


It's been fun to see these drawings again, for they portray an unusual take on Times Square. They are drawings of the city without people, and at a distance. They show the structures that few see or even imagine.  Being on the street looking up, shielding eyes from the bright colors and garish moving images, one usually does not think of the black and white world behind the signs. Today, with distancing, quiet streets and avenues, and few people, these drawings from 20 years ago resonate in ways I could not conjure up when I made them. 


See all six drawings in Archives.