Today’s art quiz: Skylunch III

Identify that Artwork, 6/28/19: a piece of conceptual art (what I’ll call Skylunch III) taking off on a sculpture (Skylunch II) reproducing a photograph (Skylunch I) showing construction workers eating lunch on a girder high in the sky. Skylunch II and III are mounted on trucks so that they can easily move from place to place.

Bob Eckstein caught sight of Skylunch III in NYC’s Columbus Circle this morning, on top of a pickup truck:


Presumably just part of the composition (Skylunch I and II have 11 men, we see 8 here), and the photo is none too clear. I wondered who created it, when, with what materials, for what purpose, and why the men are — or appear to be — all clones of a single model.

Informed answers to any of these questions would be appreciated; comment on this posting, or send me e-mail. (Google Images is useless; it thinks #1 is a photo of a musical group.)

This version of the Skylunch II story has most of the background information: from the website Daytonian in Manhattan (“The stories behind the buildings, statues and other points of interest that make Manhattan fascinating”) on 11/26/11, “Sergio Furnari’s “Lunchtime on a Skyscraper””:

(#2) Skylunch II:  Lunchtime on a Skyscraper — A Tribute to America’s Heroes

On September 29, 1932, in the final months of the construction of the Art Deco RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, Charles C. Ebbets ascended to the 69th floor and snapped a photograph of eleven construction workers eating lunch on a steel girder. There, with Midtown Manhattan dwarfed in the background, the men dangled their feet and casually ate their sandwiches and drank their coffee.

The photograph, which Ebbets called “New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam,” appeared in the New York Herald Tribune’s photo supplement the following Sunday. It would become one of the most famous black and white images of all time.

(#3) From my 11/22/17 posting “Superhero supper”, Skylunch I: Lunch atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam)

(#4) From that same posting, the (mixed Marvel and D.C. Comics) superhero version, Dan Avenell’s Breakfast of Champions

Decades later a poster of the photograph hung in shop window on Fifth Avenue when sculptor Sergio Furnari walked by. The Sicilian-born Furnari was new to America and the image captivated him. The faces of the workers—mostly immigrants — spoke to him.

“I know how they felt,” he later recalled to New York Times reporter Leslie Chess Feller, “I looked at those faces and knew I had to capture them in clay. Like me, they were immigrants, poor people who worked hard.”

Furnari started out creating a life-size version of the photograph. The figures were executed in terra cotta, cement, fiberglass and metal. One-by-one the completed statues were welded to an I-beam which Furnari attached to his truck. The work in progress was exhibited around the city, wherever the artist would park.

As he worked on the astonishing sculpture he said “Those men were real people. Each one has, I think, a soul. I feel it when I sculpt them, when I touch their faces and make their features come out of the clay. It’s like I keep their spirit alive.”

Furnari called his work “Lunchtime on a Skyscraper—A Tribute to America’s Heroes.” That title would take on new significance on the morning of September 11, 2001.

The work was nearly finished. Only one figure was left to complete. That morning Furnari and his wife, illustrator Julia Licht, watched the collapse of the World Trade Towers from their apartment window.

Within the next few weeks working heroes would have a new meaning for Furnari and his sculpture.

The work was completed in October. Meanwhile hundreds of workmen toiled in the still-smoldering ruins of Ground Zero. “The twin towers were made by the ironworkers, and it was the ironworkers that had to remove the whole steel out of Ground Zero,” he later related.Furnari transported the inspiring work to the site as both a tribute and an encouragement to the workmen. “When they were down in the hole, nobody was smiling. But when they were by the statue, they were inspired, and realized their work was appreciated,” he said. The sculpture uplifted the workers for five months.

In 2003 Furnari attached the 25-foot, one-ton sculpture onto his truck and set off on a nationwide road trip in hopes of bringing “the American and New York spirit all over America.” He encouraged people across the country who saw the work to sign his truck. Before the end of the tour, millions of Americans had seen the sculpture.

Upon its return to the city “Lunchtime on a Skyscraper” became a sort of mobile museum, appearing here and there and always attracting a great amount of attention.

Skylunch I gives us a remarkable shot of working-class men (most of them immigrants, new to America) in the midst of doing a dirty, difficult, and dangerous job, having an everyday lunch together just as they would on a park bench together on break from a routine job on the ground, except that they’re fuckin’ floating on a girder in the goddam sky.

Ebbets gives us a romantic, ennobling view of the men — the best of the working class, tough but modest — and also of a fantasy New York City and the burst of energy that fired the modern vertical city into being.

Furnari’s Skylunch II is solid, hard, and down to earth, and because it’s crafted with the metal skin of monumental statuary, feels heroic, despite the folksy way the men are presented.

The workers of Skylunch III are three-dimensional but hyper-real, simultaneously solid and ethereal, spirit embodiments of the working class (do these men sweat?).

Three very different ways of presenting these guys as working-class heroes, and

A working class hero is something to be
— John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, “Working Class Hero” (1970)

One plainly affirming line, but it comes right on the tail of the angry, despairing lines:

And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see

I remind you that Lennon lived in (and in 1980 was assassinated right outside of) the Dakota on Central Park West, just around the corner from the spot where Bob Eckstein snapped #1. And that that this New York is worlds away from the earnest soaring optimism of Lunch atop a Skyscraper.

One Response to “Today’s art quiz: Skylunch III”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    A few years ago, somebody brought to one of our folk-dance weekends a jigsaw puzzle of Skylunch I, providing much entertainment to a large group of people.

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