New York City is cluttered with public monuments and artworks, a lot of them temporary, but most of which have been permanently installed for various aesthetic and commemorative reasons. You pass them by everyday, usually without a second thought, but have you wondered what the story is behind them? Here’s the answer for five such monuments, which can be found everywhere from Midtown and Greenwich Village to Queens
Prometheus, Rockefeller Center
There’s no way to miss this gilded bronze sculpture presiding over Rockefeller Center’s skating rink. The creation of American sculptor Paul Manship, it depicts the eponymous figure from Greek mythology who gave mankind the gift of fire and who became a symbol of enlightenment and civilization. He did it the hard way, however, since he went against the wishes of Zeus, King of the Olympian gods, who punished Prometheus for his act by chaining him to a rock and having an eagle peck out his liver—which grew back every day so that sentence could be carried out indefinitely. Ouch. Manship shows Prometheus descending from the heavens, surrounded by a ring with the signs of the zodiac. Conspiracy theorists who believe the Rockefellers headed up a secret cabal that controls the world point out that the Prometheus legend is a precursor to the Biblical story of Lucifer—the angel who got kicked out of heaven for defying God when he brought light to humanity. According to this theory, Prometheus, as well other symbols around the 19-building complex provide evidence that Rockefeller Center was built as a Luciferian temple.
George Segal, Gay Liberation, Christopher Street, West Village
Though the title of Segal’s work makes its intent clear, this ensemble of ghostly white figures around a park bench in Christopher Square is somewhat enigmatic. Created in the artist’s signature plaster-cast style, the piece depicts two same-sex couples—one male, the other, female—with the former standing and the latter seated. In both cases, one person can be seen resting a comforting hand on the other (on the shoulder and thigh, respectively), as if each couple was engrossed in an intimate conversation. Sited near the Stonewall Inn (to which Segal pays tribute as the birthplace of the gay rights movement) the sculpture was originally commissioned in 1979 by arts patron Peter Putnam, but wasn’t dedicated until 1992 due to the fact that it was deemed controversial in certain quarters.
Joan Miró, Oiseau lunaire (Moonbird), Solow Building, W 58th St between Fifth and Sixth Ave
This monumental bronze by the famous Catalan Surrealist stands across the street from the Plaza Hotel and is exactly the sort of modernist outdoor sculpture that tends to get overlooked within day-to-day bustle of the city. This particular piece (dated 1966) is one of several enlarged copies of an original version created in the late 1940s, and marks the moment when the artist shifted away from exploring forms in nature to depicting dreams. Though Moonbird looks more like a triceratops that a feathered friend, it evokes the metaphorical significance Miró invested in birds, which he thought of as symbolic connections to the cosmos.
The Unisphere, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens
One of two surviving structures from the New York World’s Fair of 1964–1965 (the other being the New York State Pavilion), The Unisphere was the gleaming centerpiece for the fair’s celebration of the Space Age optimism. Interestingly, considering the recent furor over globalism in the U.S. and elsewhere, this spherical steel model of the Earth represents the theme of global interdependence and “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe” according to its subtitle. Just as ironically given presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rejection of globalism, he commissioned a smaller, stainless steel replica of The Unisphere to put in front of his Trump International Hotel & Tower near Columbus Circle.
Good Defeats Evil, U.N. Building
Based on the legend of St. George slaying the Dragon, this sculpture was given to the United Nations by the former Soviet Union in 1990 to mark the U.N.’s 45th anniversary. Created by Zurab Tsereteli, a native of the country of Georgia (once part of the USSR) Good Defeats Evil serves as a symbol of nuclear disarmament, incorporating parts from dismantled nuclear missiles (the Soviet SS-20 and the American Pershing rocket) for the body of the dragon. Both weapons were eliminated under the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.