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Go Figure

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...
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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.

A hotel built by the city, just like the hotel slated for the expanded convention center. The hotel that's billed as the only way to make the convention-center expansion work -- just as the Adam's Mark deal that gave us the ballerinas was billed as the way to make the circa-1990 convention center work. That center was finished on the cheap, and already the Tinkertoy embellishments have been pulled off in anticipation of a sleek shell that will give the city a distinctive new skyline, a silhouette as significant as that of the Sydney Opera House, architect Curt Fentress promised last year.

Even if its significance is now far overshadowed by the anticipated Denver Art Museum expansion, a commission that went to Daniel Libeskind not long before he was tapped to design the World Trade Center replacement.

But there's still $2.2 million remaining in the art budget for the convention-center project. That will pay for such adornments as a giant bear peering inside -- no doubt wondering what happened to this city's bull market.

Denver danced through the '90s, propelled by a sweet prosperity that seemed like our just deserts after the depressed '80s.

The decade left its mark, including a sculpture park that will soon be graced by two dancing aliens. "It will truly be a one-of-a-kind art experience," promises Roberts. "Whether you love it or you hate it, it's clearly going to make an impact."

Right before it falls flatter than Denver's economy.

Another Landmark

It was a sight no one had ever expected to see: Mayor Wellington Webb and Denver City Councilman Ted Hackworth sharing a platform. And they were agreeing on something no one had ever expected to hear: how the city could save money by changing personnel policies.

Back in February, after the mayor/council charter-revision committee abandoned the idea of pushing through any real reforms before the May 6 election -- gave up on making changes to the Career Service Authority that oversees thousands of city workers and somehow manages to give 70 percent of those workers merit raises for being "above average" each year, and surrendered to the sad reality that elected officials would simply have to take those whopping big raises because the City Charter left them no choice -- some members of the Webb administration promised that they wouldn't give up, that they wouldn't leave all the dirty work for the next mayor ("The Smile High City," February 20). But the same people who never expected to see Webb and Hackworth now smiling together hadn't believed them.

Still, here were Webb and Hackworth, announcing that they were pushing a plan to help balance out Denver's $50 million budget deficit, a plan that would be proposed that day to city employees. And the fact that it was May 1, International Workers Day, was just a coincidence.

"It's a real temptation to say 'Seventy more days and I'm out of here,'" admitted Hackworth, the longtime council curmudgeon who will be gone in July, as will Webb. So why had they bothered? "I guess because I'm old," said Denver's mayor of the past twelve years.

They acknowledged that their proposal was just a start, since even if all nine points are adopted -- and that's unlikely, given that one calls for the police, fire and sheriff's departments to "forgo planned 2004 wage increases, and/or to a reduction in paid time off" -- it will only save the city $33 million. And while they were discussing the finer points of the plan publicly, behind-the-scenes power plays were already under way. Among other things, there's a move to make the director of the Career Service Authority -- the head of the city's personnel system, a slot currently occupied by the controversial Jim Yearby -- an appointed position that answers to the Career Service board rather than a part of the personnel system it oversees. And Webb didn't resist the opportunity to take a shot at procedures at the city auditor's office, a spot he once held that's now filled by Don Mares, a mayoral nemesis.

But still, it's a start. And better late than never.

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