publication of the International Sculpture Center
a Grand Scale
by Michael Klein
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to the Sky, 2004. Stainless steel and fiberglass, 100 ft. high.
Work presented by TishmanSpeyer Properties and organized by Photo:
Public Art Fund. tom powel imaging
familiar with the work of Jonathan Borofsky might be surprised to know
that he has not had a solo exhibition in a museum or gallery since 1991.
They might be equally surprised to learn that during the last decade or
so his efforts have almost exclusively been devoted to large-scale outdoor
The impetus for this radical change is manifold: artists grow, change,
adjust and molt old styles, shed old ideas and embrace new ones. The vagaries
of the art world also shift and, combined with an artists personal
life (in Borofskys case a move from California to Maine), everything
is subject to significant reappraisals and re-evaluations. For Borofsky,
this paradigm shift presented him with a shift of scale, from the intimate
spaces (gallery walls or museum corridorsthe cave as
he calls them) where he had won great critical success to the public arena.
Looking back on his career over the past 30 years, this change seems rather
Borofsky was known in the 70s and 80s for installations that
combined a plethora of materials and subjects, energetically and cleverly
jammed into spaces. These stunning, visually abundant, and thought-provoking
exhibitions were presented around the world, from New York, Los Angeles,
and Minneapolis to Tokyo, Rotterdam, and Stockholm. The inventory of works
and ideas included lively self-portrait paintings culled from a particular
dream the artist recalled; series of small black and white doodled drawings
of stick figures, faces, or animals; framed works spinning with the aid
of an electric motor; lithographs and screen prints using words and texts;
and video or light projections on the walls and ceiling. Mechanical beings
such as his lively Chattering Man intermingled with the audience so that
the viewer was as much a part of the assembled event as was the art. Borofsky
became renowned for his multi-faceted style and razor-sharp inventiveness.
Much of his work derived from dreams, dreams about movie stars like Elizabeth
Taylor, historical figures like Hitler, or other artists, such as Dalí
and Picasso. He was also the number guy, an artist who supplanted his
signature with a number drawn or painted on the work like an inventory
tag of his own thoughts and musings. Counting had been and continues to
be the conceptual link in the work. The combination of dreaming and counting
seemed to be the way in which Borofsky could blend the past with the present,
feelings with observations, the here and now with memories. But the real
key to understanding the work in general comes from a statement made by
the artist in 1980, I think everything in art is a self-portrait.
Man, 199495. Fiberglass over steel, 56 x 57.5 x 19.75
ft. Work installed
in Munich, Germany.
grew his sculptures large in early commissions for such companies as General
Mills in Minneapolis (1987) and works for private collectors such as Head
in Trees at 3,013,641 (1985), now part of the Nasher Sculpture Center
collection in Dallas. Add to this list of public works the world-famous
Hammering Man, the largest of which, a black steel silhouette some 40
feet high, looms above the crowds in downtown Seattle, while another in
the series stands adjacent to the Messeturm in Frankfurt, Germany. The
man hammers while we work, play, and live out our lives. The image holds
universal appeal and evokes layers of meaning: the artist as worker, the
myriad of laborers who work with their hands, the model citizen. For Borofsky,
it is part of himself: The worker in myself
if I can get myself
moving and start doing something physical, I usually feel good.
This mysterious hammering man stands as a constant reminder, banging out
a silent tempo, measuring time with each strike of the hammer. Through
it, both the public at work and Borofsky at work stand dignified.
Borofsky has adapted his persona and its manifold incarnations (running
men, dancers, molecule men, stick men, and men with briefcases) to the
outdoors. In this world, art is no longer protected by a small supportive
audience of well-wishers, collectors, and dealers: it has now entered
the world of CEOs and board rooms, selection committees and juries, politicians,
art councils, cultural and municipal agencies, public art administrators,
engineers, fabricators, designers, and architects, all of whom are engaged
with and part of the dialogue by which the work is proposed, conceptualized,
and accomplished. This is a far cry from the studio, with its solitude
and self-editing. Faced with this world, Borofsky has condensed his ideas,
moving from the pluralistic zeal of his multi-part installations into
more specific and determined single statements. Minimal with content
is how he likes to describe it.
Man, 199091. Steel, 70 ft. high. Work installed in Frankfurt,
Photo: robert stolarik/polaris
sculptors can manage the scale shift from human to superhuman, to take
a work that is meant to stand on the floor of a gallery or sit neatly
on a pedestal and enlarge that same idea to meet the challenges of architectural
space. Calder did, Picasso did not. Giacomettis figures reached
toward this scale, but in the end he, too, limited his ambition. Tony
Smith and Ronald Bladen achieved monumental scale, but they adhered to
architectural paradigms and Modernist abstract principles. Unlike others
of his generation, Robert Smithson or Michael Heizer, for example, Borofsky
in this phase of his career did not leave the gallery system in order
to work on a large scale in nature. He simply stepped out of the gallery
into the urban environment and embraced the setting to make it his own
in sculpture that he has called easily digestible. Borofsky
makes these statues of the common man (and woman) as another kind of self-portrait,
gigantic in proportion and scale, taking his message into the traffic
and congestion of the city and more directly to the people. The international
appeal of these monumental and dynamic constructions continues, as works
are proposed and built in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Korea,
and the U.S. Native language, cultural differences, and political allegiances
present neither barriers nor impediments to the understanding of what
Borofsky is expressing through these enormous works. Those who choose
a Borofsky piece for their site do so with a knowledge that the nature
of the work will be mostly understood and accepted by their varied audiences:
sightseers, city dwellers, travelers, the curious, art lovers, even dubious
politicians and cynical critics.
I Dreamed I Could Fly, 2004. Aluminum, steel, and Lexan,
5 figures, 6 meters long. Work installed in the Toronto International
context of these works strongly suggests and influences their ultimate
meaning, so that the individual locale and historic character of a place
will be entwined within the meaning of the work for those who confront
it. Politics aside, the spiritual message is clear and the idiom is not
abstract: it is definitely and defiantly representational. Freedom in
Offenburg, Germany, is a case in point. Borofsky states that the
sculpture is meant to commemorate the role Offenburg played in the democratic
development of Germany. Offenburg was the starting point of the democratic
revolution, which took place in Baden. On September 12, 1847, the Demands
of the People of Baden were made public in Salmen Hall at the assembly
of the Confirmed Friends of the Constitution. Two further publicized meetings
were held in 1848 and 1849, both ending in an appeal for revolution. After
the defeat of the revolution, many sympathizers had to flee or were ruined
economically. Nevertheless, the 1847 demands still hold a significance
today. Many of them were used in later German constitutions, and are an
important part of the present constitution of the German republic.
sketch for 30-foot-tall Walking Man to be installed in May
2005 in Verden, Germany.
spiritual nature of Borofskys work is tied to social and political
views, to a deep regard for the individual and a respect for characterthis
no doubt instilled in him by his musician father and architecture-trained
artist mother who opened the world to him, made it a place to explore
and to be actively engaged as an artist. Among his most recent installations
is Walking to the Sky, commissioned by Rockefeller Center, facilitated
through the Public Art Fund. It is a work placed in the heart of the world,
so to speak, Rockefeller Centers 11-acre site in the middle of Manhattan.
With this piece, Borofsky has re-engaged an earlier idea, Male Walking
to the Sky, presented at Documenta IX in 1990, a work that comes from
an even earlier drawing (1977). In the Kassel work, a solitary man walks
skyward. The new version of the tableau is more complex, there are more
figures of particular types and characters, different in age, race, and
genderall kinds of human beings, Borofsky says. The
three figures on the ground appear to act as both observers and observed,
as if in a Greek drama: they watch the figures walking toward the sky,
perhaps knowing their fate. For many, the image will undoubtedly evoke
memories of 9/11, souls rising, people moving on; yet the beings portrayed
are marching in an orderly fashion, striving toward goals or destinies,
seemingly moving to the future. Borofsky again speaks to his audience
through these figures, reminding us that our shared commonality, our humanity,
is the knowledge that we are here to achieve. At the same time, his sculpture
ensemble serves also as a respitea place to go and reflect, separate
from the teeming crowds and the din that surrounds and fills the site.
2004. Welded aluminum with internal digital lighting, 50 ft. high.
Work installed at Penn Station, Baltimore.
winter in Torontos new international airport, Borofsky completed
and installed another group of figures, only this time they hang some
30 to 50 feet above the floor. Like an acrobatic formation, they are sheathed
in brightly colored, translucent skins and appear both weightless and
buoyant. I Dreamed I Could Fly comes from both a drawing and a painting,
but it is also akin to numerous installations in which Borofsky or a surrogate
appears to fly. With this installation the act of flying is given over
to five figures, suspended below a 40-foot-wide skylight in the ceiling
of the terminal. The figures are schematized, simple outlines or streamlined
forms. The distinction between figures is more in shape than details,
avoiding the issue of nudity altogether. In fact, these symbolic figures
have no identifying characteristic or feature that would make their narrative
more explicit. They are images of the mind, and, because they are imagined
rather than real, they represent the idea of the human, the character
or the presenter of a political or social ideal. In Germany, a word for
it is freedom, in Baltimore, it is humanity. But
the figures are always some aspect of Borofsky himself, bigger than life,
standing, acting, and finally guiding us through his personal thoughts
and visualized actions. Art, as Borofsky proclaimed in a 1989 lithographic
print, is for the spirit; it is no less true today than it was 15 years
past spring for the city of Baltimore, Borofsky prepared another vertical
piece, a somewhat Jungian archetype of a male/female figure commissioned
by the Municipal Art Society and placed in front of Pennsylvania Station.
The brushed aluminum sculpture stands 51 feet tall. A pulsating LED sits
where the two figures intersect; the light emitted over a 60-second cycle
ranges from cobalt blue to fuchsia, denoting spiritual energy. The
whole idea of this piece is two energies becoming one, Borofsky
says, two energies coming together to create a greater force.
Or, as one passerby shouted with delight as he walked by the piece on
the day of its unveiling, Its humanity!
2004, in the town of Verden, southeast of Bremen in Lower Saxony, a bank,
Kreissparkasse, is placing another aluminum walking figure in front of
its headquarters. Conceived as a single continuous, drawn line, it includes
the outline of a figure astride, drawing both into space and around space.
The sculpture is industrial in appearance, a grand Léger-like walking
machine. The sculptures contours are articulated in the shoulders
and hips to underscore its motion and mechanized appearance. This piece
echoes the determined pace of an earlier six-story Walking Man, completed
in 1995 and on view on the fashionable Leopoldstrasse in Munich.
With this growing and highly observable oeuvre, Borofsky continues on
a path that articulates his public spirit. Working in the world, outside
the confines of the contempoary gallery scene, he is broadening the sense
of what his art can be and what mission it can achieve.
Michael Klein is a curator and frequent contributor to Sculpture.
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