Tom Otterness

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Tom Otterness
Born 1952 (1952)
Wichita, Kansas
Nationality American
Known for Sculpture

Tom Otterness (born 1952) is an American sculptor best known as one of America’s most prolific public artists.[1] Otterness's works adorn parks, plazas, subway stations, libraries, courthouses and museums in New York City—most notably in Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City[2] and Life Underground in the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue New York City Subway station—and other cities around the world. He contributed a balloon (a giant upside-down Humpty Dumpty) to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.[3][4] In 1994 he was elected as a member of the National Academy Museum.[5]

His style is often described as cartoonish and cheerful, but also political.[6] His sculptures allude to sex, class, money and race.[4] These sculptures depict, among other things, huge pennies, pudgy characters in business suits with moneybag heads, helmeted workers holding giant tools, and an alligator crawling out from under a sewer cover. His aesthetic can be seen as a riff on capitalist realism.[7]

Known primarily as a public artist, Otterness has exhibited in exhibitions in locations across the United States and internationally, including New York City, Indianapolis, Beverly Hills, the Hague, Munich, Paris, Valencia and Venice. His studio is located in Gowanus, Brooklyn, in New York City.

Early career[edit]

Tom Otterness sculpture in Nelson A. Rockefeller Park, Battery Park City, New York City.

Otterness studied at the Art Students League of New York in 1970 and at the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1973. He was an active member of the artists' group Colab (Collaborative Projects) from its inception in 1977, and was involved in punk visual art, notably exhibiting in the Punk Art Exhibition in Washington DC, 1978.[8]


Otterness's work with Colab and independent punk art comprised a number of short films; on Colab's All Color News these include "Rats in Chinatown", filming rats at a Chinese deli,[9] and "Golden Gloves boxing at Madison Square Garden" (with John Ahearn), filming an amateur boxing match.[10] His independent punk films featured real-life aggression and violence, most notoriously Dog Shot Film/Shot Dog Film, where he adopted a dog from an animal shelter in Golden, Colorado,[11] chained it to a stake, and filmed his hand shooting it dead. This was followed by four fight films, where Otterness, an amateur boxer, filmed his own Golden Gloves fights.[8] Shot Dog Film premiered at a Times Square screening room in early 1978, the film being shown in a loop, and viewers were flash-photographed when they left. The film was the only entry that was not accepted in the Punk Art Catalog, due to its offensive nature.[8] Otterness described these films as follows:

The Dog Shot film … [is] about fucking someone... getting fucked by someone. That's what the fight films are about too. Running over someone; defeating someone; being defeated. They're the same thing those two films.[8]

You said earlier that when you showed Dog Shot Film at the screening room at 42nd Street that you wanted to hurt the viewers.

Yeah, I mean that whole night on 42nd Street, as best as I could do it, was the most aggressive way I could think of to show a film, the most damaging thing that I could do to the audience by showing a film. I hired a photographer with a camera so when people were leaving the theater, they were assaulted by a flash, attacked.[8]

Shot Dog Film was then shown on Manhattan Cable TV[11] on Christmas Eve[8] or Christmas Day,[11] 1978, and caused an instant outcry, leading to calls to prosecute Otterness. The film has continued to haunt Otterness, engendering continued controversy.


Otterness began his career as a public sculptor during his period with Colab and The Real Estate Show. He sold small, plaster figures for $4.99 at Artists Space in New York for the 1979 holiday season. His inspiration was the plaster replicas of Jesus and Elvis and Santería sculptures in botanica shops in the Bronx. "I thought 'Oh, this is public art…This is something that everyone can afford and take home.'" The next year he made a series of small plaster "proto monuments" for Colab's 1980 Times Square show, which he helped organize.[4] This show featured inexpensive works by some 150 artists, including then unknowns Kiki Smith, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. He began showing with New York's Brooke Alexander Gallery soon after.[12]

Later career[edit]


In 1987, Otterness exhibited his work The Tables at the Museum of Modern Art "Projects" show. White-collar workers, blue-collar workers, cops, radicals, captains of industry were displayed on four bronze picnic tables in the MoMA sculpture garden.[4] The show travelled to the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez in Valencia; Portikus/Senckenbergmuseum in Frankfurt am Main; and Haags Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

From September 20th, 2004 to March 18th, 2005, "Tom Otterness on Broadway", his largest exhibition to date, featured 25 different works installed between Columbus Circle and 168th Street in Washington Heights. The project was sponsored by the City of New York Parks and Recreation Department, the Broadway Mall Association, and Marlborough Gallery, and traveled to three other cities—Indianapolis, Beverly Hills, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Grand Rapids exhibition featured more than 40 works across two miles of the city's downtown area and at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.[13]

Public art[edit]

A sculpture, by Tom Otterness
Another view of the same sculpture
Herring Eater, The Netherlands

One of Otterness's earliest public art works, The New World, was commissioned in 1987 by the General Services Administration for the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, part of the Los Angeles Federal Center. The work was installed in 1991.[14] After this piece, Otterness was commissioned to do others for the General Services Administration, including federal courthouses in Portland, Oregon (Law of Nature, 1997); Sacramento, California (Gold Rush, 1999); and Minneapolis, Minnesota (Rock Man, 1999).

Many of Otterness's public works can be found in New York City. The Real World, located in Battery Park City was commissioned in 1986 and installed in 1992; this sculpture ensemble is meant to represent the world outside the playground, "a broad social allegory on art and life, where the games of power and control are played out in miniature by Otterness's adorable and cunning characters…an imaginative park with things to touch and stories to invent."[4][15]

Otterness is perhaps best known to New Yorkers for his 2002 Life Underground installation, which is located in the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue New York City Subway station on the A C E L services.[16] It is a sculptural group that consists of over 100 cast-bronze sculptures placed throughout the platforms and stairways of the station. Part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Arts for Transit Program, which has commissioned more than 170 permanent works of art to decorate the city subway stations, it is one of the most popular in the subway system.[17] The piece took over 10 years to complete. The New York Times notes, "Mr. Otterness worked hard to find creative ways to place his sculpture, navigating around the rules of stations design."[18] Examples of figures in the subway installation include a woman toting a nearly lifesize subway token under her arm; a well-dressed fare jumper crawling under a metal gate; a homeless woman being rousted by the police; two figures holding a cross-cut saw, about to cut into an I-beam that holds up a stairway.[19]

In September 2010, six new Otterness sculptures were installed along Columbia Avenue in Connell, Washington. Otterness was hired by the Washington State Arts Commission to create the bronze figures and stone tables and benches for downtown Connell. The art was paid for with funds from the newly completed Coyote Ridge Corrections Center expansion project.

Dog-killing controversy[edit]

Otterness's Shot Dog Film (1977) was forgotten in the 1980s and 1990s. It was brought back into the public conscience in 2004 by journalist Gary Indiana, who criticized Otterness for the killing.[20][21] Otterness adopted a dog from an animal shelter and filmed himself tying it to a tree and shooting it in the head.[22][23] Otterness has subsequently apologized, and has lost a number of commissions from the continuing criticism of his behavior.

In 2008, following controversy about the killing on the occasion of the installation of "Large Covered Wagon" in Dumbo, Otterness issued an apology in reply to a query from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: [24]

Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me — Tom Otterness.

In New York City in June 2011, the Battery Park City Authority, under Bill Thompson rejected the donation by Otterness of free lion sculptures for the area's new public library, after the sculptures were approved by 5-1 by Manhattan Community Board 1 under Chairperson Julie Menin. Following the Battery Park City Authority's rejections, in 2011, there was some controversy over this film and the San Francisco Arts commission terminated one of two contracts they had with the artist.[25]

In September 2011 Otterness was awarded a $750,000 contract for art in the new Central Subway project in San Francisco. The San Francisco Arts Commission claimed to be unaware of Shot Dog Film when they awarded the contract.[26] The mayor of San Francisco put the project on hold, calling Shot Dog Film "deeply disturbing."[27]

In October 2013, Lincoln, Nebraska Mayor Chris Beutler decided against purchasing a $500,000 train sculpture from Otterness for the city's West Haymarket development after residents objected to the artist's Shot Dog Film. Citing the unity brought about by the city's development, the mayor said, "...the artist's past behavior in this instance has created a level of division in the community that is simply not acceptable. Our feeling is that it is in the best interest of the city to discontinue the contract process."[28]

In September 2014, freelance artist Andrew Tider added three illicit sculptures to the "Life Underground" groupings in the subway station. They imitated the Otterness style, a blend of whimsy and biting commentary on corruption and greed. The figures showed a man pointing a gun at a dog, and a distant bystander.[29][30]

Personal life[edit]

Otterness has practiced tai chi, martial arts, and boxing since the 1970s, and his studio features a boxing bag.[31] Some early boxing fights in the 1970s were filmed as part of his punk art, and he has won prizes for his tai chi, in the school of William C. C. Chen.[32]

See Also[edit]


  1. ^ Carducci, Vince
  2. ^ ""The Real World"" The Battery Park City Authority
  3. ^ Vogel, Carol. "Two Major Collections Land at Christie's" The New York Times, Friday, September 23, 2005
  4. ^ a b c d e Sheets, Hilarie M., "Creeping Cats & Fish in Hats", Art News 105 (April 2006): 127-29
  5. ^
  6. ^ "The AI Interview: Tom Otterness," ArtInfo, October 2, 2006
  7. ^ Carducci, Vince. "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age", Sculpture 24 (April 2005): 28-33]
  8. ^ a b c d e f Punk Art Catalogue - Section III: X Magazine, Colab, Downtown Filmmakers, 98 Bowery
  9. ^ Colab 78-80 (1978-80): "Rats in Chinatown" runs 23:20–25:30
  10. ^ Colab - "All Color News" – "Golden Gloves boxing at Madison Square Garden" runs 3:48–4:21
  11. ^ a b c The Breeze, February 29, 1980, "Artfile: ‘Shot Dog Film’", p. 11
  12. ^ Carducci,Vince. "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age", Sculpture 24 (April 2005): 28-33
  13. ^ Goldberg, Ira. "Speaking with Tom Otterness", Linea: Journal of the Art Students League of New York 10 (spring 2007): 4-7
  14. ^ "Public Art Works in the Los Angeles Civic Center and the Los Angeles Mall"
  15. ^ Brenson, Michael. "Tom Otterness's Wicked World of Human and Beastly Folly", The New York Times, Nov. 23, 1990.
  16. ^ "Adler, Margot: "Subway Art: New York's Underground Treasures", Morning Edition. October 18, 2004.
  17. ^ Chan, Sewell "Access to Art with a Metrocard Swipe", The New York Times, June 30, 2005
  18. ^ David W. Dunlap, "Train to the Museum? You're Already There", New York Times, January 21, 2007
  19. ^ Vince Carducci, "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age", Sculpture 24 (April 2005): pg 31 ]
  20. ^ Indiana, Gary: "One Brief, Scuzzy Moment: Memories of the East Village Art Scene", New York Magazine. December 6, 2004.
  21. ^ The Dog-Killing Woes of Tom Otterness
  22. ^ Bowen, Alison "Tom Otterness: Paying price for shooting dog, calling it ‘art’",, May 1, 2011
  23. ^ Sankin, Aaron. "Tom Otterness, Controversial Sculptor Who Once Shot A Dog, Wins Commission For Central Subway Installation", Huffington Post, September 19, 2011.
  24. ^ Frost, Mary (April 14, 2008). "Artist Apologizes for Decades-old Dog-Killing Incident". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Archived from the original on 2008-06-26. .
  25. ^ Sabatini, Joshua. "Dog-killer artist loses SF contract, keeps second", San Francisco Examiner, November 17, 2011
  26. ^ Sabatini, Joshua. "Sculptor who killed dog set to make San Francisco Central Subway art", SF Examiner, September 16, 2011
  27. ^ Lee, Stephanie. "S.F. subway sculpture on hold over artist misdeed",, September 17, 2011
  28. ^ Hicks, Nancy. "Controversy kills 'Train Set' sculpture for West Haymarket", Lincoln Journal Star, October 5, 2013
  29. ^ Carlson, Jen. "Tom Otterness, Who Once Shot A Dog For Art, Mocked With New Guerilla Subway Sculpture" Gothamist, September 5, 2014
  30. ^ Dunlap, David. "Along the D Line, Brooklyn Train Stations are Platforms for Art", New York Times, October 15, 2014
  31. ^ Daily News, May 3, 1996, "Otterness enjoying his art", p. 36.
  32. ^ William C. C. Chen Tai Chi Chuan: Competition News for 2008: 10th Annual International Chinese Martial Arts Championship

External links[edit]

External video
"Life Underground" by Tom Otterness on YouTube, Metropolitan Transportation Authority; January 13, 2010