Dumb and Dumber

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.

Another figure seen in Borofsky's '80s installations is an androgynous form posed as though it were dancing, though without any kinetic features like the "Hammering Man" sculptures. Those androgynous figures, of course, are the prototypes for Denver's "The Dancers," proving that, contrary to what many people seem to think, this style and type of piece is hardly unexpected from Borofsky. Also, like the earlier examples, "The Dancers" has an audio component that broadcasts music from its base.

The human scale of the runners-up, the Lipski and the Boteros, suggested the way in which Tieken, Kemper and many others, including myself, were thinking about the sculpture park: Its relatively small size surely called for many relatively small sculptures. In fact, there was a full-scale mock-up of what a sculpture-studded park could look like a couple of years ago when a show by Joel Shapiro, co-sponsored by the DAM, brought more than a score of his fabulous pieces to the lawn.

But with the Borofsky sucking up all the visual space available, it's impossible to imagine that anything else could be added to the park. Oddly, the imposing size does not lend the piece a sense of monumentality but instead makes it feel bombastic. What other sculptures could possibly hold up to it -- except, perhaps, for another Borofsky? But then the park would look like an overcrowded china cabinet. This all-consuming hit-you-over-the-head effect of "The Dancers" does give it something in common with the nearby under-construction Colorado Convention Center: Both are way too big for their sites and for the gracious scale of the adjacent Speer Boulevard.

The CCC plays an essential role in the Borofsky saga, because public-art money earmarked for it -- as well as funds held by Denver's parks and recreation department -- were shifted over to the Denver Sculpture Park when private fundraising reached its outer limits at just under a million. This fiduciary sleight of hand was a surprise, because the city had previously refused to move art money from one project to another -- which is why there's a lot of public art in Denver in out-of-the-way places like under bridges and on the pavement. But there was something decidedly different about the Borofsky: Wilma Webb had picked it out, and it would be embarrassing if it never happened. So, presto-change-o, the rules fell by the wayside -- just as they had in the naming of the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building. In both cases the city council did the mayor's bidding, as usual, and carried out the necessary legal maneuvers to change the relevant ordinances.

It may sound elitist, but wasn't it better when public art was chosen with no input from the public? Especially because now the public is represented by politicians or their wives.

It's a real pity that the CCC wasn't constructed in the Platte Valley, where former mayor Federico Peña wanted to build it, because the open spaces over there would have easily accommodated it, and one of those huge parks would have readily handled something the size of the Borofsky. Though there are many things I don't like about "The Dancers," if it had more room to breathe, I wouldn't hate it as much as I do -- and I wouldn't have to look at it as often, either.

And, to be blunt, I do hate it. I think the figures are ungainly and awkward in detail and overall appearance. Sure, Borofsky is an important artist, but I've never felt that he was great at cutting space with form, and that's painfully apparent in the case of "The Dancers." The feet are too big, and the conventionalizing of the musculature and the features of the faces seem clumsy. All of this was intentional on Borofsky's part, being that he's in the generation that rejects beauty and elegance and instead pointedly tries to do things that look dumb.

Or would that be mindless? Coming over the Speer Boulevard bridge, I observed that on one side, there's a ball field named for a beer, on the other, a sports arena named for a soft drink, plus a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel -- and now a pair of cartoon characters dancing the jitterbug. Having fun yet, Denver?

The kid-friendly charm of "The Dancers" is guaranteed to make them popular among the youngsters, and just last week I saw a couple of teenagers throwing a Frisbee through the legs of the colossal figures. It was this sight that inspired a thought: What if those teens displaced from Skyline Park found their way down here? Wouldn't that be funny?

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia