Tom Otterness (born 1952) is an American sculptor best known as one of America’s most prolific public artists. 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 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. In 1994 he was elected as a member of the National Academy Museum.
His style is often described as cartoonish and cheerful, but also political. His sculptures allude to sex, class, money and race. 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
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.
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.
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. 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.
In 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.
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. 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."
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. 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. 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." 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.
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.
Otterness issued an apology which was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in April 2008. "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.
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. The mayor of San Francisco put the project on hold, calling Shot Dog Film "deeply disturbing."
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."
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.