The most talked-about piece of public art at Denver International Airport kicked up plenty of discussion even before it was installed on February 11, 2008.
DIA was still years from opening when the city's blue-ribbon arts panel gave a $300,000 commission to Luis Jiménez to create "Mustang," a 32-foot-high fiberglass horse that would become part of a thirty-plus piece, $7 million art collection funded by the city's One Percent for Art program. Airport commissions went to dozens of artists, some local — including Gary Sweeney, then a baggage handler for Continental who created "America, Why I Love Her" with postcards from tourists attractions across the country — and some international.
Although Jiménez lived in neighboring New Mexico, he fell into the latter category. Born in El Paso, he'd studied art formally at the University of Texas in Austin — and informally at his father's neon-sign studio — and was known for creating colorful fiberglass sculptures with a Southwestern flair. His proposal for the massive "Mustang" with glowing red eyes was based on the eight-foot-high "Mesteño (Mustang)" that's now part of the University of Oklahoma collection; it recalled the days when mustangs ran wild on the prairies, and also this area's Hispanic heritage.
"He was such an icon, and at a time when there weren't a lot of artists," remembers Patty Ortiz, now a museum director in San Antonio who was also tapped for that first round of commissions. (Those are her airplanes circling overhead as you get off the train in Jeppesen Terminal.) "He pushed that boundary and was accepted in the mainstream art world — not just doing what you would think of as Chicano art, but doing quality work that was accepted all over the country."
But he didn't do that work quickly. Jiménez took his time with "Mustang," inspiring numerous threats and actual lawsuits from the city. By the time the sculpture was finally installed — twelve years late and thirteen years after DIA opened — its price had doubled, to $650,000. And it had also cost the life of Jiménez, who was killed in 2006 when a piece of the 9,000-pound sculpture fell on the 65-year-old artist while he was working on it in his studio, severing an artery in his leg. He bled to death.
And that's when blue horse's devilish reputation really took off.
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Even before Denver International Airport opened in 1995, the project had inspired numerous conspiracy theories. It was located on an Indian burial ground; the ill-fated baggage system just masked the fact that underground tunnels were being built to create a sort of Noah's Ark to protect the chosen when the world went to hell in a handbasket, or to house prisoners in a global concentration camp — take your pick. George Noory's crackpot Coast to Coast devoted an entire four-hour show to DIA in June 2007, much of it focusing on the New World Order, a fiendish, autonomous, behind-the-scenes government that manipulates global events. As evidence that the airport was a New World Order stalking horse, a caller pointed to the New World Airport Commission that had been set up in 1990 to handle opening festivities for the airport. "Denver is scheduled to be the Western headquarters of the US New World Order during martial law takeover," David Icke, a former BBC personality, wrote in his 1999 book, The Biggest Secret. "Other contacts who have been underground at the Denver Airport claim that there are large numbers of human slaves, many of them children, working there under the control of the reptilians."
But the pieces that really sparked conspiracy theorists were two murals by Leo Tanguma, "In Peace and Harmony With Nature" and "The Children of the World Dream of Peace." Tanguma, a Denver artist who spent three years creating the 28-foot murals, thought that one showed how humans can destroy nature and themselves through genocide; the second showed humanity coming together to rehabilitate nature. "I'm not part of any conspiracy whatsoever," he told Westword in 2007, when dozens of websites were already devoted to the Denver airport conspiracies. "I mean, it's weird to be saying that. In general, this is about humanity. What could they find bad about this?"
While Tanguma was defending his work, Jiménez's family was finishing his, "to pay honor to his memory," says Matt Chasansky, now the director of the Art and Culture Program at DIA.
And also, perhaps, to avoid having to pay the City of Denver for failure to deliver on a contract.
From the start, airport officials and the artist had agreed to install "Mustang" in front of the terminal, looking at Longs Peak. For a time, there was a push to put the sculpture inside the terminal, but when the TSA needed more space, that concept was quashed. And after 9/11, there were changes in the original site plan, too. At one point, the sculpture was going to be accessible, with a parking area around it so that people could walk all around the piece, see how it had been constructed and get intimate with the art. Now security concerns and the fact that the site was near a runway — not too close for those glowing eyes to cause problems, though — put the kibosh on that idea.
In 2007, the almost-finished "Mustang" finally went from the Jimenez studio to California, for pre-installation engineering. By now its value had doubled and then tripled, after the city's then-public art program administrator, Kendall Peterson, had the sculpture appraised by Jeffrey B. Bergen of ACA Galleries in New York City, which represented Jiménez. Bergen estimated its value at $2 million. "This figure accounts for the fact that there are only a handful of monumental works left by Luis Jiménez, and this is the largest of the group," he wrote. "All of the monumental works by Luis A. Jiménez would be appraised somewhere in this price range."
Transporting this monumental $2 million beast over the Rocky Mountains to DIA was challenging, because it qualified as a wide load. "It took a very circuitous route," says Chasansky, who'd just joined the airport staff. But that meant he was there to oversee the installation in February 2008, and despite the rocky road "Mustang" took to DIA, "it went without a hitch," he recalls. So did the sculpture's dedication four months later, when city officials and the press got to get up close and personal with the very anatomically correct horse. "We got some comments, pro and con," he says, but at an airport where gargoyles already watched over the baggage department and the New World Order ruled the terminal, the horse sculpture didn't attract that many neigh-sayers.
And then, in early 2009, local developer Rachel Hultin created a now-defunct Facebook page called "DIA's Heinous Blue Mustang Has Got to Go" that quickly attracted thousands of members — as well as a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal and another major piece in the New York Times.
To push her cause, she asked people to write haikus about the horse, which resulted in works like this:
Spooky blue flame steed
Greets us with heinous anus
This is art? Horseshit!
But no matter how artistically people made their requests, "Mustang" couldn't go anywhere, city officials told Hultin — as well as all those national reporters. At least not for another four years. It was Denver policy that public art pieces had to be in place for five years before the city would even think of moving them, much less dumping them altogether.
That policy is reaffirmed in the DIA Art & Culture Program Public Art Policy guide dated October 1, 2012:
The Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs and the Denver Public Art Program are committed to the ongoing presence and integrity of public art and the sites for which public art is created, to preserving the vision of the artists who create public art, and to assuring continued access to the artworks in the city's collection by the public.
On rare occasions, unusual circumstances warrant the removal, relocation or disposal of a work of art from the city's collection. The Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs follows established procedures for deaccession or relocation to insure that the integrity of public art, artists and the public is respected. Generally, artwork will not be removed from public display sooner than five years after its installation. A request for deaccession or relocation involves careful consideration of public opinion, professional judgment and legal advice.
That five-year anniversary hits on February 11, 2013. Is it finally time to put "Mustang" out to pasture?
Denver International Airport is now in the process of commissioning a second round of artwork, a $4.5 million cultural windfall tied to the South Terminal expansion. The first phase ended with "Mustang," Chasansky says, and there's been lots of discussion of what to do this round. "We need to stay nimble and be good stewards of public art," he says. "We need to think how things will benefit the public."
One project has already been introduced: "Friends as Neighbors," which brought four artists to the airport for a week, then sent them back to their homes to create proposals that took Colorado's geography and culture into account. "Parterre," a new piece by Longmont's Kim Dickey, was installed in the terminal this past December 21. That was a big day on the Mayan calendar, conspiracy theorists should note, but the intricate ceramic piece was more inspired by eighteenth-century European gardens and the airport's own design (which does not mimic male genitalia, no matter what a recent Colbert Report would have you believe). And sometime in February, a performance piece will feature people carrying sound equipment in their luggage, stopping to entertain (or at least startle) passersby.
Do not expect many more blue sculptures, even though Lawrence Argent's "I See What You Mean," aka the Big Blue Bear, outside the Colorado Convention Center, has won many fans. "We won't be the city of blue animals," Chasansky promises.
But this is likely to remain the home of the Big Blue Horse.
Because Chasansky isn't hearing many calls to deaccession the piece these days. "There continues to be discussion," he says, noting that about 50 percent love the piece, 50 percent loathe it. That statistic was confirmed in an airport art survey conducted last year. But the survey also determined that "Mustang" is the best-known piece of art at DIA: It has become a cultural touchpoint, and not just in Colorado. In 2011, Yahoo named it one of the top five bizarre pieces of public art in the country — but "Mustang" only ranked third.
The Denver Art Museum has been considering a Luis Jiménez retrospective, but setting that up with the estate has been no easier than getting "Mustang" completed.
"It's really important to have in Denver's art collection," Patty Ortiz says. "I've always loved this work, and I think a lot of times it can be misunderstood because it's kind of fierce, in a way, and not easy to look at, but it's not meant to be easy. It's supposed to challenge and make them think."
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"I love the Mustang," says Chandler Romeo, an artist who's on the current committee considering new art for the airport. "And the reason I love the Mustang is because it doesn't matter who you're talking to, where you are, people will react. Everyone will talk about the Mustang. To my mind, that's fantastic. Either they hate it or love it, but it evokes a response. I have been followed around cocktail parties and talked to about 'Mustang.'"
The talk will continue. Although the conspiracy theorists have generally left the legend of the blue mustang alone — after killing its creator, what more would the piece have to do? — it does rate a mention in the Montauk Project, Chasansky's favorite DIA conspiracy theory. As the story goes, post-World War II experiments with mind control and time travel sent U.S. troops into the past and the future — where, in 2600, they come upon a ruined city with the remains of a mammoth sculpture of a blue horse. (Think the end of Planet of the Apes, but with "Mustang" instead of the Statue of Liberty.)
And come 2060, the odds are good that "Mustang" will still be standing guard outside Denver International Airport.
"Here's my thing," Chasansky says. "Most of the people who don't like the blue Mustang still value public art — and now a whole group has emerged who may think it's a badass blue Mustang, but it's our badass blue Mustang."