My Pet Saurien

SaurienThe other day, I walked forlornly in the footprints of Saurien. He had left behind just six ten-inch-square rusty shadows seemingly silkscreened to the sidewalk. He had apparently run off, which was not surprising given that he was never leashed to a fence or, in his case, bolted to the sidewalk in front of the IBM Building on East 57th Street.

I always worried that despite his 4000 pounds and 19-foot-high stature, someone in the middle of the night might hoist him up with a cherry picker and drive off with him in a flatbed truck. The blood-orange hued creature by the sculptor Alexander Calder had been a kind of pet of mine since he arrived in the life of New Yorkers in 1996. For all these years, he let me and any of the estimated 460,000 people who pass the corner of 57th Street and Madison Avenue (the result of a study commissioned by the developer of the building, Edward Minskoff) every day pet him, lean against him, even walk beneath him and tickle his belly. I always felt safe in his presence. Even though the 52-story tower cantilevers uneasily above, Saurien seemed sufficiently strong to shoulder the building should it begin to falter.

But, suddenly, Saurien was gone. When I asked an indifferent security guard in the building, he said without emotion, “They took him away.” “Who?” I asked. “The artist who made him.” That, of course, wasn’t possible, given that Calder had died in 1976. “Something else is supposed to come in its place,” the guard added, then turned away and resumed talking into his earpiece. Saurien is one of Calder’s stabiles, one of those hybrid works the sculptor, best known for his mobiles, made. They are at once sculptures but ones that appear ready to move and that often reference or hint at a figurative creature, in this case a prehistoric lizard with three fins lining its flank. Because Saurien was never set on a plinth, he was part of the cityscape, every bit as much as a pedestrian.

He was literally on equal footing with us all. Saurien’s departure from his 57th Street “yard” reminded me of my favorite dog, Max, who lived next door to me in Illinois when I was a boy and who I loved as a kind of best friend. When his owner had to move to the other side of my town, Evanston, to a meaner, smaller house with a tiny yard, I was never able to bring myself to visit Max there—and these decades later, I still feel a kind of guilt and regret. Max would wait for me every day, staring out his living room, paws resting atop the sofa. The moment he saw me return from school, he would gallop to the back door and paw, scratch, and yelp until he was let out. Saurien was equally faithful and devoted, though he remained silent—and never fetched a ball for me.

Much of my professional life as an editor and writer has been in or around 57th Street and every time something unpleasant has happened at work—a mass masthead layoff, perhaps, or an undeserved admonishment from a boss—I would stand beneath Saurien (the French spelling of Saurian, which refers to a suborder of prehistoric lizards) for some comfort. I would pet his rivets and bolts for a few minutes before moving on, renewed.

But like a faithful dog that has run away, Saurien has returned, though to a different owner. While walking along Park Avenue yesterday, deciding as always to cut across my favorite plinth, the plaza at the Seagram Building, there he was! And this time he wasn’t alone, but in the company of two other Calder sculptures. I was so excited to see him that I asked the security guard there about the work.

“You want to buy him,” he asked me. “It’s eighteen million dollars.” I explained that it wasn’t the price that concerned me, but whether Saurien would fit in my 550-square-foot one bedroom. After a life of seeing a half million people pass by him every day, might he not be lonely in my place, staring down at passersby 18 stories below.

It seems that Aby Rosen, the owner of the Seagram Building, has decided to be a foster parent to Saurien until November 10. When I asked the people at the Calder Foundation where Saurien was to go after that, the woman on the phone said, coolly, “The plans aren’t finalized.” Although Aby Rosen has great taste in buildings—he owns not only the Seagram but also Lever House across the street—he does not have great taste in art. He’s the one who recently removed the Picasso stage curtain from the Four Seasons, claiming that plumbing work needed to commence (though no worker has yet to pour any Liquid Plumber into the wall). And he’s the one who erected, for a spell, the eviscerated pregnant “sculpture” by Jeff Koons in the Lever courtyard. But maybe his conscience has gotten to him and he has taken on Saurien as his pet project.

But other public works in Manhattan have been disappearing, too. The Cold War-era Berlin Wall segments at Madison Avenue and 54th Street have been brought in from the cold forever it seems. The security there said to me, “They’re being restored and might be back sometime.” And the Calder mobile whose black fins once spun above the main room of a Chase Manhattan Bank at Park Avenue and 55th Street has now been put away somewhere. The whimsical ant-hill like sidewalks that once ringed a building on Third Avenue between 46th and 47th streets have been flattened. And one of my favorite artworks, Big Red Swing, an actual swinging platform beneath an otherwise banal office building on Third Avenue and 49th Street (built by the same developer who commissioned the anthill sidewalks), remains in place but has been taken advantage of, I believe. The work by sculptor Theodore Ceraldi is painted a glossy red and a chain-brand optician has placed its logo and sign with the same hue just above it, as if this artwork was their idea.

If I could adopt Saurien I would. Even though I know he won’t ever be melted down or put to pasture, I do worry that he might vanish from public view.

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