This was purchased at a store that used to be on 2nd Avenue, near 4th St. called Civilization. It was a gift and housewares store, and unusual at the time because the Lower East Side had not yet gentrified up to the level of some of the items this store carried.
In my naivete, I thought that I had figured out the piece immediately upon my first encounter with it. The four worlds were not "worlds" in my mind, but simply the four phases of the moon. The first world (top photo) looks very much like the man in the moon to me, and the third world is a blank spiral, so that was the new moon.
It has something more to say than just being a vase, and that was the clincher when I bought it. It was enigmatic, (particularly after I bothered to check the bottom of the vase and found the title for it), and it was decorative in a thoughtful way. The vase could be turned to present any one of the four different worlds. The balance among them was always maintained by the ladder borders. Although the etching is of a piece, it still seems as free as a doodle on paper.
All that being said, it is a piece I would be willing to part with. In a way, it has become a responsibility that I no longer wish to carry. After 25 years of ownership the vase has accumulated in value perhaps, but it is not something I appreciate every day in the way I do the artwork on the walls. I don't use it for flowers or for any other utilitarian purpose.
What this piece reminds me of:
I am reminded of what the Lower East Side became during those few short years that were the decade of the 80s. By the 1990s, there had already been the semi-riots around the development of Tompkins Square Park, the removal of Wigstock to larger venues, and the construction of New York University housing everywhere. I was a witness to the evolution of the Lower East Side from being a frontier where a friend at the time was mugged for almost every month of the four months he lived on Avenue C before leaving the city in terror into a territory of high-end bars and restaurants living off the fumes of CBGB's.
It was a gay neighborhood by default because it was so cheap to live there and the Club Baths were still open on First Avenue. Quentin Crisp was occasionally glimpsed in the area. There was off-off-Broadway, off-off-price designer duds, and away-from-Soho galleries. While this piece doesn't trade in any of the grime and grit of that era, it does show what gems can be found amongst the dreck.
I realize that sounds like I didn't consider the Lower East Side livable until it cleaned up its act, but in fact I started many weekend nights by heading there first. It is where young smart people congregated and met and hung out. I never lived there, already ensconced in the much grittier Hell's Kitchen, but what I'm trying to express is that something is lost when the frictions created by old and the new are homogenized into, for instance, what is now Times Square.