The cows are back.
Twenty-one years ago, around 500 fiberglass cows decorated by artists, celebrities, and school children were set up in New York City. The colorful cows grazed in parks and sidewalks, where tourists took photos, children clamored on them, and thieves planned attention-grabbing robberies.
Now, however, the cows are less like a wild herd wreaking havoc in the five boroughs, but more like an elite pack of spoiled show cows trotting around the fair.
Last week, 78 fiberglass cows were relocated to eight locations around the city, mostly where they can be watched by security guards or cameras. At Hudson Yards, 22 cows stand inside and outside the luxury mall, posing under the escalators or looking out onto a glass balcony towards Kate Spade and Coach (where handbags made from their skin can fetch hundreds of dollars).
CowParade, the company responsible for the public art exhibition, didn’t want the events of 2000 to repeat itself, when cows were defaced with graffiti, their ears were cut off, or disappeared from their pedestals. (In one case, two young men were loading a painted cow into their jeep on West Houston Street when the police arrived.)
“This event was an incredible learning experience for us,” says Jerome Elbaum, the 81-year-old founder of CowParade. “We were very naive back then.”
In 1998 Elbaum was living as a lawyer in West Hartford, Connecticut, with no involvement in the art world, when he stumbled upon a couple of fiberglass cows in a hotel while on a business trip to Zurich. Elbaum was in love with the cows, as was a businessman he knew from Chicago, Peter Hanig, who was determined to bring the idea back to his city.
Elbaum helped bring the concept to the Midwest, and he heard from people in New York who wanted their own flock. The idea found the enthusiastic support of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who organized a public event next to a cow painted like a yellow taxi. The project attracted a number of corporate sponsors (including the New York Times) and, at auction time, a parade of eager buyers whose money went to charities.
The first New York cow show was both a tourist hit and a number of mishaps.
The first 50 cows were shipped from Switzerland to New York to be painted by public school students, disappeared instantly, ”reported The Times. The cows were sent back and Elbaum found a new supplier, a company in California that made mannequins for department stores.
The question inevitably arose how radical the artists could be in their designs. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who had their own cow, sued the Giuliani government and CowParade, protesting the rejection of their original draft: a butcher’s cow covered in anti-meat-eating slogans. (The animal welfare organization ultimately lost in court.) And a draft by filmmaker David Lynch, who had a cow with a chopped off head and forks and knives in its back, was rejected by the city and organizers as “horrific”. “
“I was surprised David Lynch did that,” said Henry J. Stern, the city’s parking inspector, at the time. “I thought it was Charles Manson.”
Another problem with the New York Cow Parade, Elbaum said, is that some of the cows are not, well, good.
“Critics really questioned whether this was really art because a lot of it was very amateurish,” he said.
For this exhibition, postponed by a year due to the pandemic, the focus should be on fewer cows and better art. Instead of an Open Call for Designs, this year’s beneficiary of the God’s Love We Deliver cow auction, which cooks and delivers medically tailored meals for seriously ill people, has chosen the artists.
There’s a cow covered in brightly colored brush strokes by a local abstract painter; a cow with Frida Kahlo’s face stretched across its body; a cow by an Ecuador-born graffiti artist who painted New York subway cars in the 1980s; a lightbulb-covered cow named “Edison Cow”; and a cow with fluorescent green-blue pony made of polylactic acid plastic, which is obtained from renewable raw materials.
“Without exception, the art is the best that we have ever produced,” said Elbaum.
Then there are the cows, which are clearly designed as advertising, like the red five-pointed star at Macy’s on 34th Street and the shimmering silver cow sponsored by Baccarat, the crystal brand.
This time there will be little chance of tipping the cow. The cows were purposely placed in highly visible places where they can be watched, said Ron Fox, Vice President of CowParade and Elbaum’s son-in-law. Every borough has at least one flock: Hudson Yards in Manhattan, Industry City in Brooklyn, Bronx Community College in the Bronx, New York Hall of Science in Queens, and the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island.
Another change for this year: The auction will take place entirely online in September. In 2000, the auction raised $ 1.35 million for six charities, including God’s Love, at a gala at Cipriani 42nd Street where Oprah Winfrey spent more than $ 100,000 on three cows.
Despite the refined taste and selective approach of the exhibition, the sculptures are still a playground for kids and a curiosity for New Yorkers.
Outside the Hudson Yards mall last week, a boxer puppy named Louie barked quizzically at four cows on the sidewalk (“He does that every time he walks,” Louie’s owner said). At the mall, a young girl was lifted onto the cherry red saddle of a cow designed (by Neil Patrick Harris) to look like a carousel horse with its hooves bolted to a concrete base.
Julie Ramnarais, a Bronx resident showing her visiting family New York, looked curiously at the picture and asked, “Why cows?” As a Hindu from India, she is more used to seeing animal art where cows are sacred – not in the United States, where beef is greedily eaten.
As Elbaum explains, the cow is worshiped everywhere, no matter what country you are in. In the past few decades, the cow exhibition has traveled around the world – including France, Japan, Brazil and Mexico – the cow always carries a meaning, he said.
“Oh,” said Ramnarais. “I thought it was deeper than that.”