Art News

Ten Most Controversial Pieces of Public Art in Denver

The recent uproar over the KKK cop painting created by a tenth-grader and displayed in the Wellington Webb Municipal Office Building got us thinking about this city's colorful past with public art — and by “colorful,” we mean “sometimes fucked up.”

Art, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (who at the time was talking about obscenity), we as a public collective can’t always define art, but we “know it when [we] see it.” It's just that so many of us are seeing something completely different when we behold the same thing. And so some of the controversies, like the art that inspired them, never die. Here are ten more pieces that have inspired endless discussion:

10. Blucifer
Let’s start with Denver International Airport’s unofficial welcoming committee, the demon-eyed cerulean giant of a horse that, by the way, killed its creator, Luis Jiménez. This is not a metaphor. It’s a landmark for Denver these days, as people who fly in and out of DIA can’t help but see it and react to it in some way, either positively, negatively...or both. Citizens definitely have a love-hate relationship with the piece, which is officially named “Blue Mustang,” and this is evident from the fact that it’s often simultaneously named as the most and least favorite piece of Denver public art, starting back in the 2011 DIA Art Master Plan.

9. The Yellow Wall
At least artist Herbert Bayer didn't try to be cute with his “Articulated Wall”; Bayer  passed away in 1985, the same year that the sculpture debuted in Denver. One of the earliest pieces on this list, this fixture of the Denver cityscape (at least from I-25) used to be controversial until most of the other pieces listed here came about, and this quickly went from “Huh?” to “Oh, I like that wall.” But that could be because over the past three decades, the piece has picked up the friendly nickname "Stack of French Fries."

8. That Big Pile of Kidneys Down by the Freeway
John McEnroe’s sculpture (officially known as “National Velvet,” which Elizabeth Taylor would almost certainly protest were she still around) is ensconced on the east side of the pedestrian footbridge connecting downtown to Highland, squatting right in the center of the roundabout circling from the bridge down to the ground. That revolution gives viewers a 360-degree look at the thing, and plenty of opportunity to say “What the hell?” And it has done so now for nearly a decade.

7. The Inexplicable Broom and Dustpan
Artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen say that this sculpture, located outside the Denver Art Museum, was inspired by the sight of Denver sanitation workers “demonstratively sweeping trash into dustpans.” (How one sweeps in a specifically “demonstrative” manner is anyone’s guess.) The piece is titled “Big Sweep,” and it’s often referred to as “whimsical,” which is what you say when something doesn’t really make sense but you don’t want to come out and say that. Compared to another Denver Art Museum piece, "The Yearling" (commonly referred to as “The Horse on the Chair”), though, "Big Sweep" inspires far fewer “Oh, how whimsical” comments and a lot more “Yep, that’s a ginormous dust pan, all right.”

6. Burns Park
It’s sort of an oddity, this little triangle of space along South Colorado Boulevard just north of Leetsdale. The installations here are the remnants of a 1968 experiment in creating a sculpture park (then a radical and inventive notion, as no such thing existed at the time), and only two of the eight originals are still standing. The controversy involves the city’s willful lack of support for the park's upkeep back in the day: In response to artist Robert Mangold’s protests that his spire wasn’t being properly maintained, the city metaphorically flipped him the bird and, in a shortsighted fit of pique, demolished it. It’s a shame that the park’s oasis-like existence is sandwiched between busy streets with very little parking to allow visitors to enjoy it as a park experience. Still, it's a nice break in the visual landscape while navigating Colorado Boulevard, isn’t it?

Read on for five more controversial art pieces in Denver.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen