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30 Years of Trash from the Upper East Side Is New York’s Best-Kept Art Secret

To handle the job of collecting over 140 tons of garbage a day, the NYC Department of Sanitation mans a sprawling network of garages, boats, and over 2,000 trucks. And on the top floor of one of the active sanitation garages is a very large collection of garbage — but it’s highly curated, in what might just be one of the art world’s best-kept secrets.

In this dazzling case, one man’s trash is another man’s monumental 45,000-piece assemblage (gallery, civic monument, installation?). And the man who assembled it is Nelson Molina, a former garbage man who worked the Upper East Side of Manhattan for 34 years. If an odd shape, a glint, a sparkle caught his eye, he’d pluck it from oblivion and bring it back to his garage, M11. After three decades of industrious, termite-like persistence, Nelson’s intuitive fossicking gradually took shape into an object of stupefying aesthetic profundity.

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He’s since retired, but his collection remains in the care of the NYC sanitation department, where like a desiring machine, it continually attracts admirers and descriptors — art brut, monument, outsider art, thick description, non-site, folk art, ethnography, combine, durational performance, naive art.

We tagged along with New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz on his first visit to Nelson’s gallery.

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