On March 12, 1914, George Westinghouse, whose 361 patents rivaled Thomas Edison’s creativity, died in his chair while still working in a New York City apartment. However, in this city, Westinghouse, as a powerful industrial symbol and, later, a sad building remnant on Orange Street, lived on until April 2008. In the demolition dust, I also felt suffering from a death of some sort after living in the shadow of Westinghouse (the building) and dreaming about the city’s renaissance for the past 18 years. Westinghouse and I did not expect a proper closure until Matt Gosser came along with his Project of Westinghouse.
Matt and I formally met in the twilight last spring inside the Westinghouse building, where my children and I were searching for the last memorabilia—a metal sign, a piece of stone, or a lamp shade. An odd silhouette alarmed us until it turned into a tall man shouldering an old sink. That was Matt, searching for the same memories before heavy demolition machines wiped out the whole building.
We soon came to know his pick-up truck parked outside the chain link fence every evening and weekends, as well as some of his artist friends, with cameras and easels. We all shared the same entrance, a hole in the fence that led to a broken staircase. Matt has found Newark to teach architecture (at NJIT) and to make his art from the endless supply of old building artifacts since coming here from Ohio 15 years ago. Although I thought that Matt and I shared the aesthetics of Heraclitus, who believed that “the most beautiful world is like a heap of rubble, tossed down in confusion,” I often watched him and his Hippie artist friends with suspicion and worry. Maybe they would just make some tasteless “postmodern” spectacle from the death of Westinghouse.
On Saturday, October 11, Matt’s Westinghouse Project unveiled its mystical screen in the Gallery of NJIT School of Architecture, with his fellow artists, live music, champagne, and cheap food, like any other bourgeoisie art opening. After spotting some faces of those who I believed to be responsible for the building’s destruction, I left with disappointment in a sardonic carcass viewing. That night, I could not sleep, “It can’t be, Matt!”
On Monday, I took my son back to the gallery to have another look. Matt opened the door before rushing to his class. No music, no drink, no crowd, just the two of us. Outside the window, Newark’s downtown was under the smooth autumn light, with the beautiful New York City skyline on the distant horizon. Inside, 47 artists’ voices were competing with the Westinghouse stories in silence. I could not hold back my tears when I saw Phillip Buehier’s “In Lieu of Flowers.” A waterfall-like sculpture of columns of newsprint gracefully flows through the staircase from the third floor all the way to the basement, with obituaries of those who worked in the Westinghouse building for 20, 30, or even 40 years.
Catherine Gutowski, 84, was honored for not missing a single day of work, or being late in 35 years. Edward Braunagan Jr., 92, was a group leader of the meter division for 43 years, and turned in 1,764 suggestions (843 accepted) in a 12-year period. Anne Nicodemus, 86, received only an orange and three hard candies for Christmas in her orphanage and later treated the Westinghouse factory as her home… Where are you Maurice Veneri, 89, the union president? Dr. Anton Lennert, 79, the scientist? Or Lillian Westcott, 93, the secretary of 45 years to the president?
My son’s favorite piece is DC Smith’s “Westinghouse AM,” made from found objects, documents, paper mache (pigeons inside the empty building), and a radio. I told NJN’s Deserre Taylor, who walked in to report the show, “It is a perfect tribute to the building and a relevant one particularly to broadcasters like you. The Westinghouse building was the home of WJZ, the nation’s oldest commercial radio station that covered the first live Baseball World Series in 1921.” (See my Feb.13, 2008 piece “City without Memory” in TDN.)
Matt Gosser’s art is loud and muscular, despite his always calm and gentle demeanor. His “Centipede,” made from a bundle of old wires, reminded me of the moment when he was cutting the piece in the dark from an electrical control panel with his portable electric saw, black smudges covering his face. His “Electro revisited,” (priced for $18,000) looks like a giant gorilla made from salvaged bolts, screws, meters, wires, wood, and plastic lids, sitting in the middle of the gallery. Or to be more accurate, it is George Westinghouse on his knees, begging for understanding and sympathy. Eleonora Luongo’s three small photos and her powerful poem echo each other:
“It stood a symbol of the city’s past,
a sign of its decay. A looming ghost
of former industry, with empty smoke-
stack, broken windows, cracks in its façade.
Led on and bought and sold and passed around,
declared unsafe and tossed aside; a used-
up hooker on the corner. That’s Enough!
It cried brick tears, and crushed four cars below.”
Chris Funkhouser playfully manipulated all 12 letters of “Westinghouse” in his flash movie, “we sting house.” I am not an artist, but a student of the city’s past and of the Westinghouse building, who has read many of the legal proceedings of the building. I know who “we” are (e.g., greedy owners, developers, lawyers, politicians, state and city officials) and how they together “sting” a healthy building to its death and my “death.” I promise to come back to tell the ugly story! That night, I fell asleep peacefully, but dreamed about Maria Mijares’ three stunningly beautiful oil paintings: “No matter how much, I have to have them to eulogize Westinghouse and my innocence.”