Sites Magazine

The Birds of Manhattan

December, 1984

Spotting a live hummingbird in Manhattan is not impossible although I believe that at the locations Dan Witz chose for his paintings the occurrence would be very rare. And, today, if the live bird is scarce, so too are the Witz birds. Nearly five years after he undertook the project, many of Witz’s paintings have disappeared. Last winter, when any live hummingbird would have been thousands of miles from New York, avoiding the freezing temperature, I took The Birds of Manhattan and began a walking tour—guided by its rather vague map keyed to the photographs. At the six locations I searched out, only one surviving bird rewarded me. On Lafayette, just north of Canal Street, there perpetually fluttering, was a hummingbird. Slightly subdued by the splatters of melting ice, dimmed by city grime, the Witz bird nonetheless shimmered. Beautiful. The life sized painterly bird of muted and pastel colors was irridescent.

If the birds relate to other city graffiti tenously, because of their style and execution, they are nevertheless painted on pirated spaces—and illegal. Yet to my eyes, the Witz birds, like the Haring babies and Hamilton splatter-men, are a welcome misdemeanor. In graffiti lingo, these birds tag their locations and inform the viewer that Witz is getting up.

If you’re not in Manhattan, or if you don’t care to try hunting down these birds, Witz’s book will still provide you with a document of the year long project. The 20 photographs, 11 in color, capture the delicate birds in flight, surrounded by spray-painted graffiti, hovering behind chain link fences, perched in mid-air above mail slots or trash. One picture shows a bird respectfully “caged” after its wall was painted with a new coat of bright yellow that frames the tiny flyer. The Witz birds are accompanied by William Zimmer’s imformative forward that gives details of the project and a bit of biographical data about Dan Witz. Bill Mutter designed this ruby throated hummer of a book ,which was beautifully printed by Open Studio.

-Dennis Donaghue

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