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- November 14, 1983
- Vol. 20
- No. 20
For Irate Citizens, Public Sculptures Belong Anywhere but on a Pedestal
A fender bender raises Detroit's hackles
The Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit has been easy to find since John Chamberlain's Detroit Deliquescence was placed out front last year. "When people call asking where we are located," one receptionist says, "I just tell them to look for the heap of garbage on the front lawn. They always find us." Indeed, even Dennis Nawrocki, an assistant curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts and author of a book on public sculptures in the Motor City, admits that Chamberlain's tapered, 17-foot tower of welded-together auto-body panels "really does look like a pile of junk." In an informal poll taken by a Detroit News reporter last year, Deliquescence earned a "four out of five" hate rate from respondents.
Many suspected the work was Florida-based Chamberlain's raspberry at the auto industry, and they may be right. "Deliquescence means something designed to wear out," the 56-year-old sculptor told Detroit Free Press art critic Marsha Miro. "Detroit is in this condition because they [the auto companies] did it to themselves." The $100,000 work was commissioned in 1977 (with $70,000 in federal funds) by the General Services Administration for the McNamara Federal Building, and it will be moved there as soon as the plaza is readied. Meanwhile, Chamberlain's Big Lux, which resembles a wrecked auto, is currently at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris. Concluded one critic of his junkyard abstracts: They are "strong, effective and have power over the imagination and eye."
Denver's shoot-'em-up draws slings and arrows
It looks like comic-book art, but the humor is lost on the Indians in Denver. Shoot-out is a 3,000-pound, 20-foot-long steel depiction of a one-on-one cowboy-Indian dustup sculpted by Red Grooms, 46, a New Yorker noted for his outlandish burlesques of American culture. "We take it as a slap in the face. It is an insult to our integrity," maintained Frank Black Elk, spokesman for the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement. The showdown came in September, when Indians and artists met on the site, a landscaped traffic island on the University of Colorado's Denver campus. Black Elk is disturbed that Grooms did not produce "a more positive image of Native Americans." Local artists found themselves torn between wanting to resist censorship and sympathy for the Indian viewpoint. In October, terming Shoot-out a "splendid example" of Grooms' work, the Denver Art Museum put out the fire by voting to place the Grooms in its sculpture garden. Donald F. Todd, an oilman who raised more than $100,000 from private sources to commission the piece, has said, "I know my partners feel they've been burned by this, and they don't want to hear about public art again."
A slain mayor's memorial repels San Francisco
Imagine the Lincoln Memorial with the words "Ford's Theater" and a likeness of John Wilkes Booth's leg splint chiseled into the pedestal by the sculptor, and you can perhaps appreciate why Robert Arneson's Portrait of George has not found favor in San Francisco. After Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered by former City Supervisor Dan White in 1978, the city decided to name its planned convention hall for Moscone and place a memorial in the main lobby. From proposals submitted by 20 artists, a committee chose Arneson's bust of a hale, grinning Moscone atop a plain pedestal. But Arneson's finished pedestal had graffiti scrawls, the imprint of a Smith & Wesson revolver (White's murder weapon), carved bullet holes and the words "BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG." So when the city dedicated the center in December 1981, Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered a red cloth draped over the pedestal. The city rejected the piece, which is seven feet high, five days later.
Feinstein explained that in other memorials to martyred leaders, "It has never been expected or thought necessary to make reference to their killers." Neither would a reminder of the crime, she added, properly welcome convention visitors to San Francisco.
An angry Arneson, now 53, returned his $18,500 advance. "I've lost my enthusiasm for doing commissions," he said. But Foster Goldstrom, a local gallery owner, bought the work last year for $50,000. Since then, Portrait of George has been shuttled to various museums and is now appearing at a show on controversial public sculpture at the Milwaukee Art Museum. "Arneson told the truth," says Stanford University art historian Alfred Elsen. "But the truth was grotesque."
Oldenburg's behemoths arouse three cities
People may not always understand Claes Oldenburg's enormous sculptures, but at least they're spared that classic query of the neophyte: "What's it supposed to be?" More than any other artist, Oldenburg has fueled lively civic debates with his pop-art creations. Consider his 45-foot-high Clothespin, erected across from Philadelphia's City Hall. "I think the guy who did it was trying to tell us something about Philadelphia," said one female passerby not long ago, pinching her nostrils. In Chicago, Oldenburg's Bat-column, a 101-foot-tall baseball bat poised in front of the Social Security Administration building (thanks to $125,000 in federal tax dollars), drew pickets to its dedication.
Now Vail, Colo, is the site of the latest Oldenburg imbroglio. After the residents agreed to refurbish the Lions-Head district in 1979, they set aside $50,000 for sculpture and obtained a matching federal grant. Oldenburg was the first choice of a selection committee. Last May, Oldenburg submitted his scale model of an arched, orange fishing pole that would loom 62 feet high over Gore Creek, its line stretched taut by a six-foot-long tin can mired in rushing waters 150 feet downstream. The can did it. "My reaction was disbelief," says Jan Strauch, 41, owner of a local travel agency. To environment-minded residents, who proudly point to the purity of Gore Creek, the can was an insult. Mobilizing, Strauch canvassed 450 locals between May and June, then brandished a survey before the Town Council claiming that 91 percent of his respondents wanted the work unVailed. The 54-year-old Oldenburg showed up to argue that the can was meant to suggest the grub that sustained the area's bygone gold miners. Local architect Fitzhugh Scott, 73, proposed raising private funds for the $190,000 project. Two months ago Oldenburg's proponents—spurred by Scott—swayed the council, which approved construction by a 4-to-3 vote. Yet Chuck Anderson, a councilman who reluctantly voted yea, wonders if Oldenburg's design can stand up to Mother Nature. "It's not unusual to see 60-foot pine trees shooting down the creek during spring runoff," he observes. But at least the verbal runoff has positive elements. "Everybody has become an art critic," says council-woman Gail Wahrlich. "That's healthy."
Is Dallas too small a pond for big frogs?
The hullabaloo over sculptor Bob Wade's giant frogs is nothing if not Texas-size. Seems that last April nightclub owner Shannon Wynne forked over more than $25,000 to have Wade create a sculpture for the roof of the Dallas nightspot Tango. The result: six 10-foot-tall frogs made of steel and coated with greenish urethane. At night, lit by floodlights, the motorized frogs play musical instruments and, yup, dance. The 40-year-old Wade has credentials—exhibits at the Whitney in New York and showings from San Diego to Washington, D.C. But the Dallas Sign Control Board of Adjustment has an ordinance that says you can't have signs that big on roofs. Why, wondered one board member, what would happen if there were a fire and the frogs fell through the burning roof on fleeing patrons? Art experts, including the curator of contemporary art at the Dallas Museum of Art, have defended Wade's amphibians. At a hearing, though, Rick Illes of the board explained that "there's nothing to prevent the local Safeway from putting up a 25-foot gorilla with two heads of lettuce in its hands and calling that art, too." The frogs were deemed to be signs—and banned. But last month a compromise was reached; the frogs may stay if they pass inspection by a city engineer. Asked if the dancing frogs were tangoing, Wade offered, "It's a punk rock, New Wave club. Nobody's ever danced the tango there."
Seattle is caught between a rock and a hard place
Janet Wainwright of KZOK-FM in Seattle thought she had a nifty idea: Raise money to build a shrine to rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native who died in 1970 of a drug overdose. But no sooner did the station begin soliciting donations in 1980 than Wainwright was besieged by callers accusing her of "building a memorial to heroin addiction." Eventually, $30,000 was raised by KZOK and other donors. Fearing vandalism (there was an attempt to dig up Hendrix's headstone in 1981), the city finally accepted Wainwright's suggestion of a Woodland Park Zoo site—the only suitable park location with 24-hour security. A landscape firm won a competition with its plan for man-made boulders. The largest rock is electrically heated to symbolize Hendrix's hot rock music and to provide warmth for visitors who perch on it. But the location—overlooking the zoo's African savanna—inspired a much-publicized, two-man Committee to Get Jimi out of the Jungle, which termed the African connection a racial slur. The memorial, dedicated last June, gets few visitors, but at least one Hendrix fan is satisfied—the guitarist's 64-year-old father, Al. "I'm sure Jimi would like it," he says. "He was crazy about animals."
Richard Serra's rusty walls irritate St. Louisans
"It's not the business of art," sculptor Richard Serra, 44, has decreed, "to deal with human needs." Indeed, very few observers who contemplate his $250,000 sculpture in St. Louis find anything human in it at all. "I thought it was a construction project," admits Sally Grodsky of Miami, Fla., who passed by recently in a city tour bus. "When I walk to lunch," says stenographer Martha Wallin, who works in the civil courts that face Serra's foreboding steel enclosure, "I put my blinders on." Serra's sculpture, entitled Quadrilateral, even though its 10-foot-high walls form what is essentially an irregular triangle, replaced a neglected park on whose benches derelicts used to sprawl—but few citizens are grateful. "I think most people would rather see a parking lot than this," scoffs Jerri Enloe, a secretary whose office looks down on what local wags have dubbed "Fort Serra." The New York artist certainly doesn't play in Peoria. In 1981 the city fathers there rejected a $100,000 Serra project after residents balked. Office workers at the Federal Building in lower Manhattan still complain about having to walk around the $175,000, 120-foot-long Serra wall that bisected their plaza in 1981. When the St. Louis work was completed in 1982—nine years and several bureaucratic delays after it was commissioned—the St. Louis Globe-Democrat gloatingly published a poll reporting that 3,500 of 3,800 respondents wanted Quadrilateral "moved to another location or destroyed." The paper has spared no effort in jeering at the sculpture, mostly because its rival, the Post-Dispatch, is published by Joseph Pulitzer Jr., whose wife, Emily, a former museum curator, was a leading member of the six-person panel that gave Serra the commission ($50,000 came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the rest from the Missouri Arts Council and private donors). Not the misanthrope he might seem, Serra counted on rich landscaping and lighting to enhance his panels of Cor-Ten steel (which takes on a rusted patina, another sore point with locals). "I want to pull people in, to engage them," he explained. But the few trees on the site are still saplings. Like Serra's prediction that people will eventually overcome their "initial effrontery," they have a long way to go.
The Philly museum gave Rocky a cold shoulder
Sylvester Stallone saw no reason why real art shouldn't imitate his movie. After all, no effete objections were heard in Rocky III when, in the courtyard of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a cloth was whisked away to reveal an 8'6" bronze likeness of the Italian Stallion. But when Stallone offered to donate the 1,800-pound statue to the museum last year, the directors wrinkled their noses, and one dismissed the work by Colorado artist A. Thomas Schomberg, 40, who is known for his sculptures of athletes, as "really nothing but a movie prop." Was that any way for the City of Brotherly Love to show its gratitude to Sly for turning its museum steps into a symbol for over-achievers? Bouncing off the ropes, Stallone settled for a less grandiose location—but a warmer welcome—at Philadelphia's hockey and basketball arena, the Spectrum. There the snubbed statue is constantly bathed in the glow of flashbulbs as sports fans pose in the shadow of those great bronze pecs. Yet in a city whose every public monument is treated like an oversize doodle pad, the ultimate sign of the people's respect is that not even a piece of the Rock has been besmirched by graffiti.
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