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Treasure of an island cruises the rivers around Manhattan

Special to The Times

When Robert Smithson, the 1960s-70s Earth artist, sketched “Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island,” he drew as if he were in New Jersey, looking across the Hudson River at the New York City skyline. He placed his island-on-a-barge in the middle of the river, but he made it more like a real island than the skyscraper-filled landscape behind it.

To a contemporary observer, the drawing looks like a small version of Central Park, displaced and set adrift.

Thirty-five years after the now-deceased Smithson drew it, his island artwork has become reality: a 150-ton flat-bottom boat full of dirt planted with trees, shrubs and grass.

Through Sept. 25, tugboat captain Bob Henry will spend at least 12 hours a day pulling “Floating Island” up and down the East and Hudson rivers around Manhattan.

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“The ‘Island’ isn’t much different than the construction materials I normally tow,” Henry said via mobile phone from the bridge of his tug, the Rachel Marie. “You just have to hope the trees don’t blow over.”

Smithson was a major early figure in the Earthworks movement that redefined art as something that could exist outside museums and galleries. Unlike his iconic “The Spiral Jetty,” constructed at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, he was never able to realize “Floating Island” in his lifetime; he died in a plane crash in 1973 at age 35.

So on the occasion of the Smithson retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art here, the Whitney teamed with the public art nonprofit Minetta Brook, the Smithson estate and Smithson’s widow, Nancy Holt, to carry out the scheme. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles originated the exhibition in 2004. It continues at the Whitney through Oct. 23.

One of the first challenges “Island” organizers faced was finding a tugboat tiny enough not to overwhelm Smithson’s vision. They found Henry and his company, Island Towing (really; it’s named for Staten Island), which operates one of the smallest tugs in New York Harbor.

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“The only problem was the color,” said “Island” project director Jon Rubin. Henry’s tug was Day-Glo blue, a color that would certainly have overwhelmed the verdancy of “Island.”

“We asked him if he’d paint the boat red,” Rubin said.

In service of the art, Henry was happy to oblige.

“I thought the two-tone blue was rather pretty, but they thought it would detract from the ambience,” he said, squeezing as much of his native Staten Island into “ambience” as possible. And despite the newly red tug being unquestionably adorable, “it’ll be blue again once this thing is over,” he noted.

“I think he gets some guff from the tug guys,” Rubin said.Smithson was a high school graduate who was discharged from the Army because the military thought “continued service would ruin his creativity,” wrote Jack Flam, who edited Smithson’s collected writings. As simple as Smithson’s 1970 sketch for “Floating Island” was, realizing the artwork proved a massive undertaking that involved a team of landscape architects, a structural engineer, a barge yard, a tree contractor, a landscape contractor, a metal fabricator and Henry.

The team had to consult with the Hudson River Park Trust, the Central Park Conservancy, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Somehow, the project was realized for not much more than $200,000, according to Rubin.

The “Island” itself is a carefully-designed hilly terrain. The landscape architects, Balmori Associates, extended Smithson’s instructions to use “trees common to N.Y. region” to all of the “Island’s” coverings.

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In addition to sod, there are seven kinds of bushes, including black chokeberry, vernal witch-hazel, possum haw and blueberry, plus two varieties of tall grasses: switch grass and silver feather. Ten trees -- maples, birch, beech, ash, oak and weeping willows -- give the “Island” vertical heft. Several 3-ton slabs of 450-million-year-old Manhattan schist from Central Park complete the work.

Unveiled in the Hudson River on Friday, about halfway between three new Richard Meier-designed condominium buildings on the New York side and the site of the 1804 Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel on the New Jersey side, the “Island” is 30 feet wide and 90 feet long.

As it moves through the water, its turns bear an unlikely swaying resemblance to a model’s hips as she walks down a runway.

By Saturday, the art set in Chelsea, Manhattan’s strip mall-cum-neighborhood of contemporary art galleries, was on the lookout, with staff and visitors scurrying back and forth from art-filled showrooms to Hudson-facing windows.

Save for mobility, Smithson’s “Island” seems more natural than any of the industrialized islands around Manhattan. The only trees that look a little distressed are the weeping willows, much like the anemic ones in Smithson’s drawing.

“The main issue was transplanting trees in September,” said Rubin, also an artist. “It’s stressful for them. And we were lucky during the three-week production period. There were no bad weather days, and Hurricane Ophelia missed us.”

The original plan was for “Island” to come as close to circumnavigating Manhattan as possible, but a few problems emerged. The U.N. didn’t want anything suspicious outside its headquarters on the East River while scores of world leaders were meeting inside. The U.S. Coast Guard closed the water space around the U.N.'s Secretariat building, forcing a change.

The “Island” could have navigated close to the Queens side of the East River, but its 45-foot-tall trees are 7 feet higher than a bridge that traverses Roosevelt Island. Similar logistical problems made it impossible for it to float down the Harlem River on Manhattan’s north side. Only on the last two days of the work’s existence, when the U.N. 59th General Assembly has ended, will the piece make its way up the East River toward Harlem.

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Although “Island” may not travel the route that Smithson apparently intended, the Whitney and Minetta Brook have publicized more than a dozen places in New York and New Jersey from which people can see it. Most of the sites are parks, a reminder that Smithson’s vision is itself a mini-park, converted into an island, floating around another island.

“It’s this idea of displacement that he talks about a lot,” Rubin said. “There’s a lot of displacement in his work. On the ‘Island,’ we have the three rocks from Central Park. To take it a step further, the World Trade Center wasn’t there when he drew this in 1970.

“Then it came, and now it’s left us. It’s like time travel.”


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