For decades, a 200-foot-long mural made of enameled steel served as a landmark for drivers at the intersection of routes 4 and 17 in Paramus. Some adored its colossal smears of red and blue. Others called it an eyesore.
Either way, starting in the 1960s, the 250-ton marvel of postwar expressionism from Polish artist Stefan Knapp stood as a bold splash of color on the facade of Alexander’s department store. But after the retail giant went out of business in the early 1990s, the mural came down, too.
More than 15 years later, the mural sat in storage, disassembled into 280 panels.
In 2015, panels from the mural were put on display for the first time in 17 years at the the Art Factory, an artists’ studio space at an old textile mill on Spruce Street in Paterson. A local congressman came to pay homage to the famous work. So did the granddaughter of the owner of Alexander’s, along with those who treasured memories of Knapp’s work — what the artist called a representation of his view from above as a pilot for England’s Royal Air Force in World War II.
But anyone who wanted to see the panels could only do so during special “art walk” events at the facility (the last one was in June), and not, like many of its admirers wished, as a whole work on the side of some other building.
Now, five of the mural’s many panels are open for public viewing through at least the end of the month at Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood. Representatives from the Bergen Museum of Art and Science, which serves as a steward of the mural, are hosting a reception at BergenPAC’s gallery on Thursday.
“These are sections of the mural that people get the kick out of most — the signature panels,” says Dorothy Nicklus, the vice president of the museum (which is not affiliated with the county government), meaning the space where Knapp, the artist, signed his name.
“A lot of people from Bergen County keep asking about them,” Nicklus says of the panels. A handful were moved to the Englewood space from Paterson last month.
“It was meant to be enjoyed by the public,” she says of the mural. “We thought this would be the perfect way to do it.”
Nicklus says the museum is in the process of planning a documentary on Knapp and the mural, including its reception by the local community.
“So many people have a story,” Nicklus says. “There isn’t anyone who doesn’t have a story about their relationship with going to the store, seeing the mural driving by.”
When panels from the mural were last displayed in Paterson, David Garsia, general manager of the Art Factory, who grew up in Hawthorne, said he had a personal connection to the mural.
“It was a part of us,” he said. “It was a part of our childhood.”
George Farkas, owner of Alexander’s, commissioned Knapp to create the mural after seeing his work at London’s Heathrow Airport. In a juicy bit of art-world lore, Salvador Dali had originally been commissioned to create a piece of art for the facade of the same Alexander’s, but Farkas ended up going with Knapp’s concept instead.
Knapp’s artwork was often known for its large scale. A Polish national and Holocaust survivor who died in 1996, he was photographed for Life magazine in the 1960s wearing skis to traverse the surface of the expansive mural-in-progress in an airplane hangar. (He had previously worked as a ski instructor.)
The resulting work of expressionism, billed as the largest mural in the world, catered to an audience that didn’t need to see the art up close to be aware of its presence — Knapp’s signature alone spans three of the 280 panels.
“Airline pilots used it as a marker to fly into LaGuardia,” Nicklus says.
Cindy Farkas Glanzrock, Farkas’ granddaughter, spoke in 2015 about restoring the mural panels to a public space.
“I would love to find a venue, maybe bring them to Manhattan … and hopefully maybe find a developer that would be interested in placing them in a wonderful site, whether all as one piece or as separate pieces,” she said.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-9th Dist., attended the display of the panels the same year.
“When I came out of the service … my full-time teaching job was in Paramus so I drove by everyday,” he said.
Still, efforts to bring the mural back to a public space have been fraught with obstacles.
After Alexander’s closed, Vornado Realty Trust, owner of the property, donated the mural to the Bergen Museum, receiving a tax deduction in return. The museum, which lacks a physical home, could not find a place to display the huge work of art, so the mural’s panels stayed in storage in a public works garage in Carlstadt. But in 2015, the museum was warned that the panels would be put outside if they were not removed in 30 days.
When Garsia stepped forward to offer the Art Factory as a place to house and display the individual panels, William Roseman, who was then the mayor of Carlstadt, refused to let all of them go. Roseman retained at least 20 panels, saying that he wanted to make sure the museum would not sell the mural.
Roseman said he had helped to broker the deal with Vornado to donate the mural to the museum in 1998 in exchange for the company agreeing to foot the bill — about $50,000, he said — to ensure the panels remained intact when they were taken down.
Now that Roseman is no longer in office, Nicklus says the main obstacle to transporting the remaining panels has been recruiting someone who has truck capable of holding the art to do the work for free. Trucks were previously donated but they weren’t the right size, she says.
“All it takes is one truck,” she says, likely from someone who owns a marble or granite business.
Nicklus says it looks like the majority of Knapp’s mural will remain in separate pieces at the Art Factory, where she anticipates it will be seen by the public again once renovations are made to the facility.
While small in scale, there is one key benefit about the Englewood gallery display, Nicklus says. Although it’s only on a temporary basis, part of the mural is finally back in Bergen County.
A reception for the exhibit of the Alexander’s mural panels starts at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 13 at BergenPAC, 30 N. Van Brunt St. in Englewood. The panels will be on display though the end of September; bergenpac.org or bergenmuseum.com