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On the morning of Thursday, June 12, Mayor Wellington Webb and First Lady Wilma Webb, among a host of political and art world luminaries, dedicated the most expensive sculpture ever erected in Denver, "The Dancers," by international art star Jonathan Borofsky. The public was invited to the event, and I was even invited specifically, but I couldn't bring myself to go. I didn't want to have to applaud the thing, which politeness would have dictated, because I'm going to have to look at the monstrosity for years to come -- and that seems like more than enough for the city to ask of me or of any other citizen.
The impossible-to-miss sculpture, towering some six stories tall, is installed in what has been whimsically (pretentiously?) called the Denver Sculpture Park. It is actually the lawn that separates the back of the Denver Performing Arts Complex from Speer Boulevard. This site, which has a somewhat checkered history, was designed by SOM (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) in the '70s to complement the DPAC, though it was never completed because the landscape plan was only partly carried out. The minimalist design included paved walks and concrete benches surrounding an elegant sculpture, "Solar Fountain," by Larry Bell and the late Eric Orr. It was a perfect period piece that represented the city's greatest period: the oil-boom era of the '70s and '80s. The fountain was meant to generate steam through solar energy, but it only rarely worked, a failure that also seems to perfectly, if not ironically, represent the spirit of the oil boom. The piece was repeatedly vandalized over the decades -- but never more so than when it was smashed to shards and thrown into dumpsters by the city itself several years ago.
The destruction of the "Solar Fountain" was the very first thing done to create the so-called sculpture park where "The Dancers" recently took foothold. That's right: In order to create a sculpture park, the City of Denver removed the only sculpture in it. It's so Webb-era, isn't it?
SOM's site plan was also lost and replaced with a very enthusiastic (not meant to be a compliment) redesign, featuring lighting, ramps, staircases and walls. The extensive use of raw concrete makes the "improvements" superficially compatible with the DPAC, except for all those curlicue details, which look goofy in the presence of the atrium's dignified arch that apparently inspired them.
As the park remodel was happening, a panel of private citizens was assembled to choose sculptures and explore ideas on how to privately fund the plan. Soon after starting, they became deadlocked in their decision-making -- something that turned out to be very fruitful for the city.
Looking at public sculpture across the country, committee member Nancy Tieken, the force behind the very art-friendly NBT Foundation, found a bargain piece available immediately. At the same time Mariner Kemper, another member of the group and a steward of another very art-friendly entity, the UMB Bank, fell in love with a pair of sculptures at a New York gallery. When it became clear that neither Tieken's nor Kemper's pick would be chosen for the sculpture park, each helped raise the funds needed to acquire them and donated them to the public. So the Denver Sculpture Park process, also called "The City of Sculpture" initiative, brought us not only the Borofsky, but also Donald Lipski's "Yearling" on the lawn of the Central Library and a pair of Fernando Botero sculptures installed in the galleria of the DPAC.
The Borofsky was the final selection, but the committee didn't choose it. No, First Lady Wilma Webb did. She had become a big player in the Denver public-art world in the '90s -- based solely on whom she had married -- and often used her political clout to impose her ideas on the rest of us. But she was not alone in her fondness for the Borofsky. Mega-wealthy art patron Noel Congdon liked it, too, and she and her husband, Tom, put up hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the purchase. Other individuals also pledged money, but it was not enough to pay for the Borofsky, which eventually cost $1.58 million.
This mammoth expenditure has galled many, and I can't blame them. That kind of money could have revitalized the Denver art world if it had been spread around a little in the area. But honestly, it's not a bad price when you consider Borofsky's stature as a major contemporary artist with twenty years' worth of high-status sculpture commissions under his belt.
Borofsky first gained fame as a conceptual artist back in the 1970s with his counting piece, for which he obsessively counted and then wrote down the numbers on graph paper. He started the process in the late '60s, when he was an obscure twenty-something artist, and continues it to this day. In the '80s Borofsky found his niche in the famous-artist category with installation art, filling galleries with drawings, found objects and a cast of figural sculptures made of steel or papier-mâché.
Among these figures is his signature series, the "Hammering Man." These sculptures are metal cutout silhouettes of a man with a mechanized arm; the movement of the arms replicates the act of hammering. The most famous "Hammering Man" is in Seattle, and it was surely this piece that brought Borofsky to the attention of Denverites.
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