Real estate developer Aby Rosen and art dealer Alberto "Tito" Mugrabi are commissioning today's hottest artists to create a living museum at the Lever House on Park Avenue
by JANET ALLON
Inside the pristine glass box that is the Lever House's lobby on Park Avenue and 53rd Street, hundreds of pieces of shiny metallica dangle from the ceiling. Other silvery shapes—some humanoid and quite provocative—are scattered about the floor. At first glance, it looks like the immediate aftermath of a cyclone at a tinfoil factory. But it is high art of the cutting-edge variety, and this installation, by the artist Tom Friedman, is the latest in a series of novel pieces that together make up the Lever House Collection, a kind of rotating private museum that is the brainchild of real estate tycoon and art collector Aby Rosen and art dealer Alberto "Tico" Mugrabi. "Aby and I are both passionate about contemporary art, and neither of us has a gallery," says Mugrabi, explaining the genesis of the project. "For years, the Seagrams building across the avenue had a private art collection. We wanted to do something with our generation of artists." That "something" is a one-of-a-kind, all-commissioned, rather interactive art museum that is livening up this stretch of Park Avenue, to say the least. It is not an area where passersby expect a close encounter with today's edgiest art. "I wanted to find a way of drawing people in," says Friedman, explaining his choice of material. "There's a sense of immediacy with tinfoil, and it is also shiny, like a treasure." The space has been filled with other light-hearted oddities. Not too long ago, 100 blow-up Incredible Hulks by Jeff Koons populated this lobby. Last year, exploding bridal gowns suspended from the ceiling duked it out in the window courtesy of a piece by E.V. Day called "Bride Fight" that turned the idea of a display window on its head. Recently, it was the more subdued paintings of Enoc Perez, who took as his subject the Lever House itself by creating four paintings from a single photograph, each with different light and different colors—a contemporary take on Monet's Rouen Cathedral. What all the artists have in common is a willingness to create work that somehow relates to the Lever House, or to the city that surrounds it. The light-catching, reflective aspect of tinfoil was part of Friedman's thinking. For Perez, who paints mostly buildings, the commission was a chance to paint a building he already had on his to-do list. "I see architecture as a metaphor," he says. "Lever House is a metaphor for power that is also very human. The elegance of the building is achieved by very simple means." Built in 1951 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Gordon Bunshaft, Lever House was landmarked in 1982. But it was not until Rosen's RFR Holdings bought it in 1998 that it was restored to its full splendor—with tinted green glass, a courtyard that sculptor Isamu Noguchi had originally envisioned for it, and designer Mark Newson's striking restaurant. The art program in the lobby, says Rosen, is the crowning piece. "It's what the space was always meant to be," he says, beaming, at the opening party for Perez's paintings, before turning to guests like Stephanie Seymour and Peter Brandt and Larry Gagosian, who have stopped by to see the latest work. They and other art cognoscenti are big fans of the Lever House collection. "Aby's acquiring this building and taking it where it should be architec-turally, and on top of all that adding a dynamic and productive art program, is a dream," says gallerist Tony Shafrazi. "When you walk down the street, you can't help but have a look. It makes the street into a cultural bazaar. It celebrates and humanizes that part of Park Avenue." Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller agrees. "The building has surpassed its landmark status," she says, "and become an innovative forum for public art in an urban setting." The more permanent fixture in the Lever House courtyard is the towering Damien Hirst statue, "The Virgin Mother." Viewable from Park Avenue, it is a 35-foot-high sculpture of a pregnant female nude from one side. Walk around it, and one side of the woman's stomach is peeled off, revealing both the baby and organs within. Not everyone loves the sculpture, but it does tend to arouse debate. "I think there's a chat room about that sculpture," Mugrabi says. "I recently got a letter from a guy who said that initially he hated the sculpture, but now he has come to love it." Provocative, hard-to-miss pieces like Hirst's may also explain how the Lever House has developed a large enough following that it is now a stop on some bus tours. "They stop there and everyone piles out with their cameras," say Richard Marshall, the Lever House Collection's curator, who works closely with Rosen and Mugrabi in selecting artists and reviewing their proposals. "It's the kind of art that is normally shown in Chelsea, not on Park Avenue." Artists chosen to do pieces for the Lever House Collection run the gamut of very well-known—Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and John Chamberlain—to hot, emerging artists like Barnaby Furnas, E.V. Day and Folkert de Jong, who created a huge sculpture of soldiers pillaging an art museum. What they have in common, says Marshall, is that they are all "daring and unusually creative artists who make pieces that somehow deal with or adapt to the space." In general, the glass box with silver columns is better suited to sculpture, 'and, lacking any walls, a bigger challenge for painters. (Perez's paintings, for instance, hang on walls built especially for them.) Eventually, perhaps soon, the Lever House Collection will hit the road. "Once it grows to about 15 or 20 artists," says Mugrabi, "it will travel to other countries, other museums. Then it will come back here and be reinstalled. It will be like a private museum, with a catalogue and lectures." But before then, there are other installations to come, like the one planned for September by perhaps the art world's highest-paid bad boy, Damien Hirst, who will fill the lobby with dozens of his trademark sheep in formaldehyde and medicine cabinets, a prospect that clearly delights Rosen, who says with a mischievous glint in his eye, "It's going to be sick."