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The Whitney Museum of American Art is selling the building at 945 Madison Avenue that it occupied before moving to the Meatpacking District in 2015, leaving behind one work of art for the new owner on a long-term loan so it can remain in situ. The work, Dwellings (1981), is a series of miniature buildings and landscapes by the artist Charles Simonds that for more than four decades have nestled in the corners of the building’s stairwell and at a separate property across the street.
A spokesperson for Sotheby’s, which revealed in June that it has bought the Marcel Breuer-designed structure, confirmed the loan to The Art Newspaper, and says the auction house “will proudly act as stewards” of Dwellings. “The element of the work that is tucked into the Breuer’s stairwell landing is the most accessible component of the three, and it will remain so since Sotheby’s galleries are open to the public for free seven days a week,” the spokesperson says.
Commissioned by the Whitney as a permanent sculpture for the building, Dwellings depicts tiny settlements on hilltops that are made of humble materials such as clay, sand, wood and chicken wire. The sculpture in the stairwell rests on a landing such that it can be seen from above as well as at eye-level as visitors move between floors. Two other clusters of the small-scale villages are installed across the road at 940 Madison Avenue, one on a windowsill and another on a rooftop chimney.
“It does appear that I have created a sentimental place for New Yorkers and beyond,” Simonds tells The Art Newspaper. “How many times have I heard the line, ‘When I was young, my mother took me to the Whitney and the only work I liked was your Dwelling.’”
The New York-based artist has been making tiny environments since the 1970s, beginning with one for a friend’s windowsill on Greene Street. Soon, more dwellings began appearing in unexpected places downtown, from street gutters to building crevices. Each represents the ruined homes of an imaginary civilisation that the artist calls the “Little People”, touching on ideas of absence and presence.
In a 2022 interview Simonds said he is interested in “how people exist in time and space, and how the architecture they make reflects how they live and what they believe”, adding that his original aim for Dwellings was “to create the experience of movement through time, an awareness of our own mortality”.