Watch the Empire State Building Imitate Famous Paintings with Light

Talking to the lighting designer who put Andy Warhol's 'Flowers' on the Empire State Building to celebrate the opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art at its brand new building.

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May 4 2015, 11:20pm

It was a clear and balmy night for opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art at its brand new, Renzo Piano–designed building in the West Village, perfect for viewing the evening's main attraction: as the clock struck 9 PM, the immortal spire that is the Empire State Building lit up with the colorways of 12 different artworks by 12 seminal American artists, a feat in lighting design by the inimitable Marc Brickman. Over the course of six hours, the building's display morphed from the vibrant pinks and reds of Andy Warhol's Flowers to the wispy white-on-blue of Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds, a symbolic celebration of both the museum's new beginning and the artists who have helped shape the identity of American art just before the time of its founding in 1931.

Over the phone, Brickman tells The Creators Project, "It's one of the most powerful tools in the world," referring to the use of light as a medium, "as powerful as audio and music, but done in a way that actually has context; it really does move people." Nearly 24 hours before the show, Brickman talks about visiting the Empire State Building with his dad during visits to the city, the final tweaks he's making on the show, and the monumental challenge of recreating artworks using a giant building. "Here's Andy Warhol's Flowers; here, you can go try to put it in light," he laughs.

(L) Andy Warhol (1928–1987), Flowers, 1970. Screenprint; 36 × 36in. (91.4 × 91.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of David Whitney  71.179.1. © 2015 Andy Warhol Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, NY. (R) Peter Halley (b. 1953), Blue Cell with Triple Conduit, 1986.  Acrylic and vinyl paint on canvas, two parts; 77 5/16 × 77 1/4 × 3 1/4in. (196.4 × 196.2 × 8.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Heather and Steven Mnuchin  2004.608a‑b. © Peter Halley

"It's the greatest canvas in the world and millions of people see it. I think every year, it just keeps getting better and better, because more and more people really are reacting to it, and everybody has an affinity for it. Everybody has their own personal connection." In the moment, the building "looks beautiful. It's white. It's absolutely white," he says, looking out at his canvas from his room at the NoMad Hotel. He's still got a full day of final touches and tweaks to make before the show, but thanks to new technologies, he's feeling prepared ("I like doing my homework, you know?"). 

Ultimately, the spectacle goes off without a hitch. From a rooftop in Brooklyn, I watch the colors on the Empire State Building display the navy blue-on-red of Peter Halley's 1953 Blue Cell with Triple Conduit, and the soft pastels of Georgia O'Keeffe's 1918 Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, and, like countless New Yorkers and tourists alike, am enraptured by the spectacle of light, color, and architecture. "That, to me," Brickman tells me before we end our call "is the greatest thing that an artist can do—being able to connect to your audience." Thus, if art can be appraised in terms of whether or not it succeeds in achiving the goals of its creators, the evening is a success for Marc Brickman, The Whitney, the Empire State Building, and American art."

Watch the Empire State Building illuminate with artworks above, and check out some images from last Friday's lighting below:

Photo credit: Empire State Realty Trust

Photo credit: Empire State Realty Trust

Photo credit: Empire State Realty Trust

Photo credit: Empire State Realty Trust

Photo credit: Empire State Realty Trust

Photo credit: Empire State Realty Trust

Click here to learn more about the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

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