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THE BIG QUESTION

Last week, as a construction team struggled to integrate the male and female sections of Jonathan Borof- sky's new sculpture, Male/Female, by banging it in the head with a crowbar, many passers-by posed the same question: "Is that thing permanent?"

This week, with the five-story aluminum giants cleanly welded and firmly planted outside the doors to Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, permanence was no longer an issue.

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Yes, Baltimore is either permanently: a) stuck with or b) blessed with Borofsky's enormous, shiny silhouettes of the male/female forms.

So this week the question changed: "What, exactly, does it mean?"

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From his curbside view by the taxi stand just across from the towering figures, Charles Hite, district manager of customer service at the Amtrak station, has heard all manner of conjecture. Baltimore, he said, is waiting for an explanation.

"I've heard some people say it would make a nice matrimonial spot where couples could have a wedding. On the other hand, I've heard people say it represents the gay community. So what is the purpose? It needs to be cleared up. You can see it's male and female. But what's the reason for it? Why did he make it? We're waiting till Friday, when they have the dedication. Hopefully, he [Borofsky] will tell everybody why he made it then."

It seems like a reasonable request - artist, explain thyself.

But then there are also those who already believe they understand the big He/She that will now greet every new train-bound visitor to the city. And they are incensed.

Wilbert G. Person Jr., a cab driver whose circuit passes through Penn Station, seemed to be just waiting for someone to ask him what he thought about the Borofsky sculpture Tuesday morning. The question prompted a tirade.

"It's an abomination!" Person said. "I don't know exactly what they're trying to promote here, but it's an ungodly thing. Anybody who thinks male and female are the same thing, they should take off their clothes and stand in front of a mirror. If it's male and female, they should be two people holding hands in partnership. Did anyone ask the people of Baltimore if they want this thing here? There wasn't a referendum! There wasn't a vote! This is the work of some sorry artist ... probably some reprobate."

Other cities

The public art of Borofsky, an unassuming and gentle Californian with a generally positive international reputation, does enjoy a history of confusing people. Borofsky's unavoidable titans (his figures tend to be quite large) often stir little teapots of outrage and opprobrium whenever they first spring up in the rank of second-tier cities around the United States.

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Take Denver. The artist's 60-foot-tall, $1.58 million sculpture of dancers, which made its appearance last year in a park near the city's Performing Arts Center, was panned by Denver Post art critic Lyle MacMillan. A local radio broadcaster described the elongated figures as "anorexic, starved, bulimic: prom night in the suburbs." People around town started calling it "Dancing Aliens."

Two years ago, Fort Worth purchased one of Borofsky's 50-foot-tall, brushed-aluminum silhouettes titled Man With Briefcase. It was, needless to say, an image of a man with a briefcase. The Fort Worth Weekly, the local arts-and-politics magazine, mocked it on the cover of its annual "Turkey Awards" issue, which points to the city's biggest blunders of the year. "We still occasionally poke fun at it," said Anthony Mariani, art critic and associate editor. "But it's such an easy target that it's not even worthwhile anymore."

In Seattle, Borofsky's 48-foot Hammering Man, a motorized sculpture of, yes, the silhouette of a man wielding a hammer, became the target of a scorching 39-page pamphlet published by an outraged Seattle artist named Selma Waldman. Once it appeared in front of the Seattle Art Museum in 1991, Waldman lampooned it as "an embarrassment of large mass ... a lasagna-legged, noodle-necked, flat-ironed android ... a postmodern hoax." She charged that the city's arts commission had purchased the work not based on its artistic merit or as homage to working people, but because Borofsky's "gargantua-in-silhouette was an immediately familiar convention by a conventionally 'famous' international artist."

The heartbeat

Baltimore's new Borofsky started stirring passions even before its appearance. A red heart, which would be illuminated from inside the human silhouette, was deemed potentially offensive, a reminder of the city's homicide rate. Therefore, the heart will be lit in pulsating blue-to-magenta, a change that even one member of the Municipal Art Society, a private organization that commissioned and purchased the $750,000 work, has referred to as a sad state of affairs.

Whatever one might think of the piece, Borofsky's works are most often celebrated because of their humanistic purposes. He does not make art that is intentionally antagonistic to a public audience, said Maren Hassinger, director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. On the other hand, she noted, even public art with the best intentions can be initially controversial simply because it changes the space people live in.

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"It's like someone has come into your house and moved the couch," Hassinger said. "It takes up real space so that it becomes either an obstacle or a focal point."

The good news seems to be that once people realize that a Borofsky sculpture is there to stay, benign - even happy - acceptance seems to follow. In Seattle, Hammering Manis donned with a Santa hat at Christmastime, has been shackled in leg irons by local anarchists looking for an emblem of labor conflicts, and has been largely embraced as a symbol of city life. In Fort Worth, even art critic Mariani confessed that despite his belittling of Man With Briefcase, he is finding a curious affinity for it.

"It's kind of emblematic of public art in general that people hate it initially, then after a year or two they're eating lunch by it," Mariani said. "Then after two or three years, they love it. Eventually, if anyone tries to move it, people will throw a fit.

"I can say over the past two years that I'm, maybe, warming up to it."


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