Go Figure

Denver's last dance for the '90s.

Lying flat and helpless -- as flat and helpless as Denver's economy -- alongside Speer Boulevard is a giant steel-and-fiberglass sculpture created by Jonathan Borofsky. But by the end of the month, and surely by the time the U.S. Conference of Mayors convenes here in early June to salute outgoing Mayor Wellington Webb, that figure and a companion piece will rise to become "Dancers," a signature artwork for the city.

A monument to the way we were in the '90s, when Denver's hopes were high enough to raise almost $1.6 million (with a little creative accounting) for a public sculpture, high enough to support two sixty-foot-tall, indeterminate-sex dancers destined to look like aliens mysteriously plopped down in front of the Denver Performing Arts Complex. And just as destined, as art critic Michael Paglia predicted over four years ago, "to become the most reviled object" in town, taking that title away from another set of otherworldly dancers, the awful Adam's Mark ballerinas given this city as an artistic sop for losing the hyperbolic paraboloid.

In its present form, though, lying flat and stolid, the figure resembles nothing so much as the Solid Muldoon.

Back in 1877, a seven-foot-stone man, a "prehistoric human body," was discovered south of Denver, near then-bustling Beulah. The find was named the "Solid Muldoon" after legendary wrestler William Muldoon -- or after Muldoon Hill, where it was unearthed (history is vague on many points of this saga) -- and displayed around the state, starting in Pueblo. Soapy Smith brought it to downtown Denver, billing it as the "missing link" between man and apes and charging ten cents per person to see this "petrification as natural as life." Marveled the Denver Daily Times, "There can be no question about the genuineness of this piece of statuary."

From here, the Solid Muldoon went on the road, attracting crowds all the way to New York City. P.T. Barnum was so impressed that he offered to buy it for $20,000, according to one version of the story. According to another, William Concant, one of Barnum's early associates, was the very man who'd dug up the Solid Muldoon in the first place. (History is conveniently vague on this point, too.) But one thing is certain: Plenty of suckers came to see the Solid Muldoon.

That is, until it was finally revealed as a hoax, a man-made figure "with a knowing smile on his face as if he was enjoying the joke," one reporter noted, fashioned out of mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood and meat.

But not fiberglass, which had yet to be invented.

Two decades ago, this particular stretch of park was home to the Solar Fountain (also known as the Giant Cup of Soup), Larry Bell's sculpture that was demolished to make way for...the Performing Arts Sculpture Park. The Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film set up a selection committee to study possible pieces to grace the space; from a list of five finalists, Webb -- Wilma, that is -- chose the Borofsky.

Two weeks ago, the spot where "Dancers" will soon rise was a bog: The Denver Department of Parks and Recreation history is also vague -- in this case, concerning where, exactly, it has installed many of its sprinklers. When the city started doing foundation work for the Borofsky piece, workers hit water.

By the time the two dancers are finally upright, their pas de deux will have cost $1.55 million -- with the city footing $600,000. A third of that came from a Platte River project that dried up, according to Cara Roberts, director of the city's arts office, with another $400,000 moved over from the $2.6 million Percent for Art budget earmarked for the Colorado Convention Center expansion. Although that swap was soundly panned several years ago, the sculpture's proximity to the convention-center project makes it legit, Roberts suggests: "You need to stand over at the convention center to really get the full visual impact."

The full, Solid Muldoon.

Denver was thinking big, very big, in the '90s.

Two finalists for the sculpture park -- Fernando Botera's fat bronze couple that now stands in the nearby Galleria, and Donald Lipski's "The Yearling," a truly stunning piece that adorns the lawn between the Central Denver Public Library and the Denver Art Museum -- were also acquired for the city through private donations, and when the arts commission was done shaking down the town to cover the costs of those and the Borofsky, it moved on to raise money for the million-dollar Ed Dwight monument commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. in City Park. That project isn't done, either: Rumors are flying about pricey additions, although Roberts says her office is just in the "exploratory" phase, while the city considers putting an information kiosk there. Some viewers think Frederick Douglass is Abraham Lincoln, she points out, and "they have no idea who Sojourner Truth is."

Denver International Airport is still due a monumental piece, too: Luis Jimenez's "Mustang," now eight years in the making. According to Roberts, the city is extending that contract another eighteen months. If and when the horse is finally finished, it will be positioned not outside, as originally envisioned, but inside the main terminal near the south end, where a walkway may someday lead to an airport hotel.

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