During the construction of the Empire State Plaza (1965-1978), Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller established a Commission for the recommendation and purchase of art for permanent view in the Plaza’s expansive indoor and outdoor spaces. The Commission specified that all objects in the Empire State Plaza Art Collection be by artists based in New York. François Stahly was the only exception to this mandate. Governor Rockefeller, one of Stahly’s greatest patrons, personally recommended him, and Labyrinth was included in the Plaza Art Collection.
François Stahly (1911-2006) was born in Germany and attended art school in Zurich in 1926. Stahly later moved to Paris in 1931, becoming a French citizen. Following World War II, Stahly experimented with sculptural environments and explored connections between art and architecture. In 1950, he created works in Brussels, Vienna, and Berlin; and Connecticut and Tokyo in 1951. He also won several awards, including at the Milan Triennial (1953) and the São Paulo Biennial (1957). During the next few years, Stahly spent time in America, lecturing at universities and working on commissions, including at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
Labyrinth (1970-71) is a sculpture made of iroko timber (a hardwood from the west coast of Africa) joined with metal fasteners. The site-specific work, placed by the artist, was installed on 1/3 acre of the Empire State Plaza’s southeast corner.
Labyrinth is a one-of-a-kind object with each piece of wood hand-crafted, numbered by the artist, and designed to fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The sculpture’s rounded edges and totem-like tower suggest a primitive form of architecture and stand in contrast to the steel and stone buildings that surround it.
In Labyrinth, Stahly aimed to create a sanctuary for the Empire State Plaza’s workforce by constructing “a quiet place in the midst of stress.” This idea also reaffirmed Rockefeller’s belief that the everyday presence of art increases a person’s quality of life – one of the main reasons why art was chosen to be displayed throughout the Empire State Plaza.
Despite the natural decay resistance of the wood, several of the pieces formed large areas of decay along the fasteners, which caused some of the framed structures to become unstable. Over the years, the cycle of heat, rain, ice, and wind infiltrated the deteriorated sections of wood, rendering it compromised.
In 2015, the New York State Office of General Services removed the damaged wood pieces and shipped them to an architectural and wood conservator in Shelburne, Vermont.
Repairs were made to the decayed pieces using the same kind of timber as the original. However, rather than replacing an entire piece of wood, small sections within the original pieces were rebuilt. This allowed the conservator to retain the original grain patterns and patina that existed after Stahly’s original hand work.
In all, 30 sculpture assemblies were treated, consisting of about 230 individual wood pieces, weighing a total of 95,000 pounds.
The repaired Labyrinth was returned to the Empire State Plaza beginning in July 2017. The Office of General Services meticulously re-assembled the conserved Labyrinth wood pieces following the original installation design by François Stahly.
Now complete, Labyrinth is once again a place for people to reflect and enjoy a moment of peace amid the everyday bustle at the Empire State Plaza.