Group of Four Trees, 1969–72
28 Liberty Plaza (formerly Chase Manhattan Plaza)

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

In 1969, One Chase Manhattan Plaza (now 28 Liberty) architect Gordon Bunshaft, of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, asked the French artist Jean Dubuffet to create a large-scale public artwork for the building’s expansive Plaza. Dubuffet designed numerous maquettes for the potential placement. Ultimately, David Rockefeller and Chase’s Art Commission selected Group of Four Trees (Groupe de quatre arbres) for the site. The resulting monumental 12-meter high Group of Four Trees were made from painted polyesther resin, a material known for its lightness and whiteness. The group of sculptures were produced and painted entirely in Dubuffet’s studio in Périgny-sur-Yerres, France.

Dubuffet is best known for founding the Art Brut style, which highlighted work by international artists that existed outside of official culture, exemplified by self-taught and intuitive approaches to art-making. Art Brut maintained a raw sensibility, particularly keen on materiality and visceral impressions.

Dubuffet spent 1962 through 1974 creating the L’Hourloupe cycle of works, of which Group of Four Trees is a part. L’Hourlope is a word invented by Dubuffet, which, “In French… suggests some wonderland or grotesque object or creature, while at the same time they evoke something rumbling and threatening with tragic overtones.”* This body of work began with drawings and paintings on canvas that developed into three-dimensional forms. Dubuffet recalls, “If you do a drawing on paper or canvas showing, for example, a tree—I mean a mental representation of a tree, the ideational transposition of a tree—it’s interesting; but if you then take it into three dimensions and give it corporality, and if you give it the dimensions of a real tree, one in whose shade you can shelter, and which you can walk around, your work then has a different impact on the mind.”** Group of Four Trees plays off the adjacent building’s black and white color scheme, but its looping lines and irregularly angled arrangement is in stark contrast to the rigid geometries and right angles of the architecture. The sculptures appear only loosely based on their titular tree taxonomy and are more urban than organic in their current setting, where they have stood for over four decades.

When dedicating the sculptures on October 24, 1972, Dubuffet concluded, “I do not believe that these four trees, which I hope will not be taken as representations of real trees but as semblances of the thrust and fertility of human thought, bear contradiction in any way to the site upon which they now stand. Indeed, in their capricious and aberrant graphisms, they give an impression—and this was intentional—of feverish intoxication. But they seem to me, by this same febrility, to manifest the ardent source of the enormous intellectual machinery of which this plaza is the core. I confess to being deeply moved that New York, this city so marvelously welcoming and marvelously eager to embrace every bold intellectual innovation, fearlessly accepted this allegory.”*** This fervent and apropos artistic sentiment still resonates today as the building, the plaza and the public artworks it contains, are now icons at the center of the changed, yet ever-dynamic Lower Manhattan.

-Alex Fialho


*Dubuffet, Jean. Jean Dubuffet: Writings On Sculpture. Düsselforf: Richter Verlag, 2011, p. 97.
**Ibid, p. 47.
***Ibid, p. 100.


Image Credit:
Group of Four Trees, 1969–72
Photo by Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images
© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris