Rita McBride (American, b. 1960) lives and works in Los Angeles and Düsseldorf. Her art explores architectural infrastructure as sculptural form; in parallel to the interests of many postmodern architects, she is interested in making operational apparatus like vents, ducts, and scaffolding not only visible but central, putting pressure on the distinction between aesthetic display and practical use in the built environment. 

Rita McBride, Bells and Whistles, 2009–14 (detail). Rita McBride © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The title of McBride’s New School installation, Bells and Whistles, emphasizes this tension, boldly labeling the work with a phrase implying fancy but unnecessary add-ons. The brushed-brass form winds from the second through the seventh floor at University Center, following the egress-stair pressurization duct upon which its pentagonal cladding is, in certain segments, parasitic. Appearing to weave in and out of classrooms and communal areas—the structure is actually discontinuous—Bells and Whistles dramatizes not only the interconnection of areas within the building but the relationship of physical substrate to decorative overlay.

In Bells and Whistles, McBride adapts an interest in ductwork that she had explored in Servants and Slaves (2002–03), another duct-based site-specific sculpture, whose title plays on Louis Kahn’s idea of “servant” spaces—the shaftways, storage closets, and technical rooms that support a building’s habitable square footage. Deploying terms likewise applicable to the New School project, Servants and Slaves has been described as an assembly of “custom-modeled ducts and conduits, transformed by trophy-like metals.… built to inhabit peculiar architectures as visible material objects.”1 Such works emphasize McBride’s interest in zones of transit, function, and exchange—zones that one critic describes as “the public domain, public spaces, public activities, public symbols.”2

When University Center opened in January 2014, it was just the second stand-alone building commissioned by the school since Alvin Johnson hired Joseph Urban more than sixty years before, and this unique construction project allowed McBride to work in a way that was distinct from any of the artists commissioned by The New School before or after her.3 Benton, Orozco, and Egas had worked closely with Urban, and Puryear and Van Valkenburgh created a comprehensive design for Vera List Courtyard, just as Glenn Ligon later would for the Event Café at University Center. Muller’s series engages intimately with the graphic-design history of the school as a whole, and the rescaling of LeWitt’s wall drawing in response to the secondary renovations at Arnhold Hall was not insignificant. Nevertheless, for the most part, the artists commissioned since the 1930s—including, in their very different ways, Fonseca, Jaar, Walker, Tolle and Denes—had responded or would soon respond to New School spaces as given rather than made. McBride, in contrast, worked closely with Roger Duffy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, conceptualizing her work in tandem with the development of the building that would house it; indeed, McBride’s commission was advanced at the recommendation of the architect and functions in dialogue with the architecture.

  1.  “Servants and Slaves, 2002–2003,” in Rita McBride: Public Works (Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach, 2008), 52.
  2.  Susanne Titz, “Public Works,” in Rita McBride: Public Works, 9.
  3. In the 1880s, Thomas Alva Edison’s electrical company was headquartered in a brownstone on this site, which became one of the first buildings in New York exclusively lit by electricity. In 1951, a Lane’s department store was built on the parcel, and when this store failed in 1967, The New School for Social Research bought the building to house its Graduate Faculty, which had been founded in 1933 as the University in Exile.


Rita McBride