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Statue of Limitations

Penn Station’s New “Male/Female” Sculpture Begs Questions About Pride, Prestige, Where it Came From, Who Paid For it, and What Public Art is For

Jeffeson Jackson Steele

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/4/2004

Never say that visual art has lost its power to provoke. Since its dedication in June, Jonathan Borofsky’s 51-foot-tall aluminum sculpture looming over the plaza in front of Pennsylvania Station has drawn praise, ire, complaints, and confusion—in print, on blogs, in letters to the editor, and in everyday talk. “Male/Female”—the shiny, vertically intersecting male and female metal silhouettes with the LED heart light that cycles from blue to magenta and back—has achieved, almost overnight, what many disillusioned artists and cynical critics previously thought near impossible: It has average citizens talking about art.

The $750,000 piece was a site-specific gift from the Municipal Arts Society of Baltimore, a private foundation of nine volunteer board members that has raised money and commissioned public works for the city since its founding in 1899. “Male/Female” was a project orchestrated to commemorate the society’s 100th anniversary. And its president is delighted with the debate that has greeted its gift.

“I think it’s great,” says Bev Compton, an account vice president of investments with UBS Financial Services, who has been the president of the Municipal Arts Society since 1975. “Look, I know it was going to generate lots of positive and lots of negative discussion. I mean, there are people out there who think you have this incredible Beaux Arts 19th-century building and here you’ve put something modern in front of it. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Look at the beautiful MICA headquarters, and then look at the Brown building across the street from it. It’s pretty much the same thing.

“But this has certainly been successful at generating discussion, if you will,” he continues. “There are people that like it and there are people that don’t like, and then there’s some that are a little more vociferous about it both ways.”

The most passionate voices have come from those people who don’t like it. One local blogger called it a “colossal piece of crap.” And anonymous posts to the “Rants and Raves” board on Craigslist’s Baltimore Web site have run from the self-explanatory (“I Hate That Borofsky Statue”) to creative neologism. One posting opined “very surprised nobody raised hell on here about that giant yawn in front of Penn Station. But this weekend a friend bestowed upon it a name that may well finally give it some local relevance: The Transvestitute.”

Love it or hate it, “Male/Female” is now part of the visual landscape of Baltimore’s Station North Arts District, a change of scenery fueled by city government and arts organizations in a push that isn’t unique to Baltimore. “Male/ Female” is only the latest of the Maine-based artist’s large-scale, public sculptures, whose variations on themes differ from each other only slightly, but enough to be considered unique. And its eight-year journey from idea to dedication reflects a mounting tendency of urban public art: opting for proven trends over risk-taking originality.

“We have intentionally stayed in the background for the longest kind of time,” Compton says of the Municipal Arts Society. “We didn’t really have a huge portfolio so we didn’t give away a lot of money. But for years we’ve done small arts projects, public art in the city of Baltimore. Now this Borofsky thing, the idea came along because our 100th anniversary was in 1999. But it takes a long time to do a major public work, to get the approval, to locate an artist, and to go through the whole process. So all of a sudden, I guess you could say we’ve come out of the closet.”

Congenial, courteous, witty, and chatty, Compton returned to his UBS office after a two-week absence this past Monday to find himself buried under paperwork—“There was more than two feet of paper all the way across the top of the desk, and the problem is this involves other people’s money”—and is commenting on the society’s 2004 summer. Compton says that the Municipal Arts Society had a general membership when he first joined, but that “went away circa 1977,” he says. “So since then we’ve basically been a board. We’ve done very well in the stock market. There was a time when virtually all private foundations, because they were required to give away money, tried to match the income to the donations. I’ve always used growth stocks and given away principal. It made a lot of sense. So all of sudden here we are, you’re talking a $100,00 a year, and we’ve been accumulating money to give to the city of Baltimore the Jonathan Borofsky.”

Since the Borofsky dedication, the Municipal Arts Society—an organization The Sun politely charged “inconspicuous,” as it has no staff, phone number, office, or Web site—has been in the local news cycle as the little-known catalyst behind the big sculpture.

“The original concept for the Borofsky sculpture would have had to have been around 1996,” Compton says. “Being a small board and meeting once a year, we really didn’t get cranked up until 1999. And here we are five years later dedicating a work. There’s been an enormous amount of effort that’s gone into it.”

For “Male/Female,” that effort involved identifying a site, getting approval to use that site, and then locating an artist. For its artist search, the Municipal Arts Society hired the New York Public Arts Fund as a consultant, and it conducted an artist search that included Maryland, national, and international artists. The fund then submitted about 25 artists to the board, which spent a day selecting finalists.

“We selected Jonathan Borofsky, and we had Borofsky visit Baltimore and then come back to us with an idea,” Compton says. “And he actually came back with an idea, and half the board liked it and half the board didn’t like it.”

In addition to not winning over the entire Municipal Arts Society board, this original design—“basically it was three silhouettes of men and women stacked on top of each other, and what was separating them was big boulders,” Compton says—was also too heavy for the site. So Borofksky came back to the board with about six ideas for his next pitch, of which “Male/ Female” was one.

“The original instructions are helpful” to understanding what the board was looking for, Compton says. “It was to be welcoming. It was identifiable—and that [“Male/Female”] is totally identifiable as a Borofsky. It was to be unique. And we got Borofsky to agree not to put “Male/Female” somewhere else. And it needed to be possibly colorful, but it needed to be reasonable. So it was to be a piece of art that was welcoming and be appropriate for the site, and then you’ve got to let the artist use his own mind. Come back to us with an idea.”

“Male/Female,” for better and worse, is unmistakably Borofsky. It combines the intersecting figures of his 24-foot “Male/Female” in Kagoshima, Japan, and the pulsating heart of his “Heartlight Man” in Tokyo. Baltimore’s “Male/Female” is enough of a departure to be the only one of its kind in Borofsky’s oeuvre, but not so much that its creator isn’t immediately identifiable. And it was precisely the right balance of branding and uniqueness for which the society was looking.

“We didn’t want a ‘Hammering Man,’ for example,” Compton says, referring to the mechanized blacksmith sculptures Borofsky has placed in Seoul, Dallas, Seattle, Frankfurt, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland. “There’s three or four ‘Hammering Men’ out there. Do you want to be number five? I don’t think so.”

But to the question of “Do you want to be another city with a Borofsky ‘man’ sculpture,” the board answered yes. And it’s a response that over 20 other cities have made as well. In addition to his “Hammering Man” sculptures, Borofsky has placed his “Man With a Briefcase” in Minneapolis and Fort Worth; variations on his “Molecule Man,” intersecting male profiles riddled with circular holes in the sheet metal, in Berlin and Los Angeles; his “Singing Man,” a male figure with head upturned and mouth open, in Tokyo and Seoul; his “Flying Man,” a suspended male figure in midflight, in Basel; and variations on “Male/Female” in Offenberg and Bielefeld, Germany, and Kagoshima, Japan.

Borofsky started placing these sculptures in cities in the 1970s, and like fashions, they spread. That spread has been aided by the sculptures’ willful opacity—that the meaning of “Male/Female” specifically, and Borofsky’s large-scale public works in general, eludes big ideas in favor of amorphous emotion, must be part of their appeal, a broad range of grand, uplifting feelings to go with their grand, uplifting lines. But you have to wonder how much of their spread is rooted in cities’ competitiveness, that civic pride that comes from having those things that other cities have.

When asked if Borofsky was chosen because he was an artist known for his large-scale public sculptures worldwide, Compton readily responded, “Yes.”

Cities hungry for tourist dollars and established publicity haven’t been shy about following well-trod civic-minded art and commerce paths. Baltimore’s 2001 “Fish Out of Water” program spread 200 fish sculptures through the city for public auction, during a period when many U.S. cities were mounting similar public-sculpture projects inspired by Chicago’s 1999 “Cows on Parade” project (which it, in turn, had borrowed from Zurich). The “Dallas Soars” project distributed over 100 Pegasus statues throughout the Big D; New Orleans had big fish; Cincinnati had pigs; Orlando, Fla., had lizards; Rochester, Mich., had sheep; Lexington, Ky., had horses; and New York had cows, too.

The trouble with these eruptions of like-minded ideas, though, is that they run the danger of subverting that thing that is supposed to make public art exciting and appealing: being about and from a city that’s immutably identified with it. And while it’s too early to tell how attitudes toward “Male/Female” may change over time, it’s a prediction that’s also going to be a function of how many more cities commission sculptures from Borofsky, a 62-year-old artist who has placed five pieces, including “Male/Female,” in cities since 2002 and has four works projected to be completed this year.

“I mean, there are lots of people out there who would be very happy if it was a statue of a guy on a horse with a three-cornered hat and perhaps a sword in the air,” Compton says. “And I believe that the original intention was to put some sort of sundial there. I find that boring.”

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