Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mohandas 'n Andy

Their statutes face each other over the west side of Union Square. Given where I live, I pass these guys several times each week. Mohandas Gandhi's image stands at the southwest corner in a lovely triangular garden. He's been there for many years. Andy Warhol's image was placed just off the northwest corner of the square within the last year or so. Seeing the two of them standing there week after week, month after month, looking in each other's direction has set me to thinking about how different they were in almost every way.

Gandhi was the first son of a high official in a small Indian princely state and eventually travelled to London to study law at University College. Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, the fourth child of Slovakian immigrants. His father was a coal miner. The rich child became the savior of the oppressed. The working class boy grew up to be the darling of the rich and famous.

Gandhi's statue shows him as he looked on his famous march to the sea to make salt — after he had given up all privilege and devoted himself to a life of simplicity. He was midway in his historic nonviolent campaign to free his country from British domination. His image in the square is classic bronze.

Warhol's statue couldn't be more different. It is silver and so shiny it's impossible to take a decent picture of it on a sunny day. While Gandhi appears wrapped in plain homespun cloth, carrying a staff, Andy's in a suit and carries a shopping bag. Their clothes are perfect symbols of the men. Gandhi eschewed any trappings of wealth and power. Andy was a major conspicuous consumer. (David and I went to the exhibition when his estate auctioned off his possessions at Sotheby's. The goods on offer were a riot of one man's acquisition mania. The curator of the sale told us that when Andy died, his Upper Eastside townhouse had a room full of shopping bags that had been carried home but never emptied of their contents.)

The only thing the two statues have in common is that they are of men wearing glasses.

Both Andy and Mohandas were revolutionaries. Gandhi profoundly so. Warhol in the world of art and the place of the artist in society. I salute them when I pass. Every time I walk by Gandhi-ji, I put my palms together and whisper namaste. I revere him as an archangel. One day last summer, David and I took an empty Campbell's tomato soup can filled with purple flowers and left it at Andy's feet.

The two statues face each other across the part of Union Square where our fabulous greenmarket takes place. There is some logic to that. The mahatma would approve of a place where local vegetable and fruit growers and makers of bread sell their wares directly to consumers. And Andy liked any place where he could buy stuff.

And in a deep and important way, they seem at home here downtown where artists and lovers of peace and freedom have always hung out.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. I've seen these statues and they are some of my favorites in this magical city. And I do like the way that Warhol is a totally glitzy sculpture !!! Gandhi is wonderfully decked out in flowers some days and in the mid to late afternoon when the sun is very bright behind his head, I swear I see his glistening sense of peace!!! I never thought of them facing each other before reading this. Nice touch!!!

  2. Thanks, Annamaria, for reminding me of Gandhi's eternal witness in Union Square Park at the intersection of West 14th Street and University Place. I can't help but wonder what he thought of us: me and my men as we drove the illegal hotdog ladies with their carts from 14th Street (the old ladies might have looked Indian in their shawls but were, as a rule, Middle-European), and I can't see him objecting about the 3-card Monte men who were all Cuban. He'd understand: we were the Village Peddler cops, charged with keeping 14th Street clear for pedestrians. No choice! Never a choice!