I recently returned from the Downtown Denver Partnership's Urban Exploration trip to Philadelphia, and I was particularly impressed with Philadelphia's public art (this photo is "Crystal Snowscape," just one of the hundreds of breathtaking murals in the city). Philadelphia has a long tradition of investing in public art, and there are exquisite examples around every corner.
However, it is interesting to note that the two most iconic and photographed pieces of public art in Philadelphia are arguably their least attractive.
The "LOVE" sculpture, while certainly an optimistic addition to the once-dreary and dangerous downtown, is grossly out of scale for the prominence of its location. Its garish colors are dated, and the sculpture is dwarfed by the surrounding buildings and the Avenue of the Arts. I couldn't help but think how this impressive vista deserves something more GRAND! I just didn't feel the LOVE.
The second most famous sculpture in Philadelphia is the Rocky Balboa sculpture at the art museum. The bronze statue of Rocky was briefly located at the top of the steps for the filming of Rocky III, but was removed when city officials argued that the statue was not "art" but a "movie prop," and it was banished to South Philadelphia. The statue returned to the Philadelphia Art Museum in 2006 simply because tourists kept looking for it, but the museum insisted on placing the sculpture at the base of the steps to maintain the "design integrity" of the art museum plaza. Ouch!
I started thinking about Denver's public art, and how our least attractive examples also garner the most attention. Some examples for your consideration:
The Blue Stallion
Nicknamed "Blucifer," the Blue Stallion at Denver's International Airport is easily our most famous example of bad public art. Most people already know this sculpture actually killed the artist, Luis Jimenez, who was crushed by the horse's torso while hoisting it for final assembly in his studio. But few know that the red glowing eyes were in honor the artist's father, a neon sign manufacturer in Texas. The effect, while well-intentioned, is really quite disturbing and rivals the stallion's giant phallus for reasons it's one of Denver's most despised, and discussed, sculptures. Did I mention the sculpture took 14 years to make and cost taxpayers $650,000?
Located on the 16th Street Pedestrian Bridge, this sculpture was unveiled in November 2008. During the ceremony, then Mayor John Hickenlooper, couldn't help caressing it. "This is a piece of art that begs to be touched." He paused thoughtfully. "I suspect the mayor’s office may get a few calls."
When I first saw this sculpture, I hated it immediately. I despised it so much I didn't think I could hate something more, until I learned its name. "National Velvet" conjures all kinds of images - a youthful Elizabeth Taylor on horseback, our forefathers draped in luxurious fabric, etc. - but not bulbous red spheres.
Here's an excerpt from Denver's Westword article, 11-18-08:
Even the work’s sculptor, John McEnroe, seemed unconvinced about the title. “'Velvet' implies something suggestive,” he said with a sly grin before the ceremony. “And the word ‘National’ speaks for itself.” Whatever you say, John.
Many nicknames have been suggested for this sculpture including "Wet Salami," and "Kidney Beans" but my personal favorite is Westword's "Saggy-Boob Electric Penis." Regardless what we call it, this $50,000 sculpture was fabricated from resilient plastic and is impervious to the elements. So whether we like it or not, Saggy-Boob Electric Penis is here to stay.
I would be remiss if I did not include The Dancers in our exploration of really bad public art in Denver.
Most often referred to as the "Dancing Naked Aliens" this 25-ton steel and fiberglass eye sore by Jonathan Borofsky was chosen by former first lady Wilma Webb, against the wishes of many on the public art selection committee.
The City and County of Denver eventually paid a whopping $1.58 million for this monstrosity, including five speakers at the base of the sculpture that play a continuous recording of an original song called "Let's Dance." With that kind of budget, couldn't we get more than one song?
Honorable Mention: All Together Now
I actually love this sculpture, recently added to the corner of 14th and Curtis street. As part of the redevelopment of 14th Street (now "Ambassador Street") All Together Now is a playful, optimistic addition to an otherwise dreary street-scape. It gets honorable mention only because when I first saw it, I thought it said "All To Get Her Now." Now, that's all you'll see, too.
In conclusion, I postulate that our reaction to "bad" art can be just as meaningful and valuable as our reaction to "good" art. I'm just grateful we have public art to ponder.