CMU crafts a compromise on artist's controversial sculpture

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"Walking to the Sky" by Jonathan Borofsky, artist and Carnegie Mellon University alumnus, will become part of public art on the campus.
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Map: Proposed sites for Borofsky sculpture

As a boy, Jonathan Borofsky used to sit on his father's knee and listen to stories about a friendly giant who lived in the sky. The giant did good things for people, and in the stories, Borofsky and his father would go up to the sky and visit with him.

The child grew up to be an artist, one whose inspiration comes from both the human figure and the human condition. Because his work speaks to us on both an intellectual and emotional level, you don't need an advanced art degree to get it.

As the best public art should be, Borofsky's work is provocative. One of his sculptures, inspired by his father's stories about the giant and called "Walking to the Sky," has been stirring the pot at Borofsky's alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, for several months, and it hasn't even arrived. Where and even if it should be installed has been widely debated on campus, ever since the university announced its intention to plant it at the intersection of the Hornbostel Mall and the Cut, the campus's two rectangular green spaces, by building a concrete pad there.

In the business world, the intersection of the Mall and the Cut would be called the "100-percent corner," the location that gets the most traffic and the place where retailers want to be. Often the 100-percent corner joins two historic streets, and often historic buildings come down to accommodate the new store, usually a chain pharmacy.

Which is not to compare the aesthetics of "Walking to the Sky" with those of a chain drugstore, and certainly no buildings would fall to make way for it. Nevertheless, it would be an intrusion on the historic Hornbostel Mall, as out of place there as a bland, one-story commercial building is amid the facades of Main Street.

In an essay last fall in Focus, the university's faculty and staff magazine, CMU architecture librarian Martin Aurand campaigned for preservation of the Mall, created in the first two decades of the 20th century as the defining feature of architect Henry Hornbostel's original campus.

"Hornbostel's Beaux Arts design principals, as derived from French Baroque planning, addressed space as a positive element, rather than just a void," Aurand wrote.

Unfortunately, the university hasn't always seen it that way, installing the occasional event tent as well as permanent intrusions like Wean Hall, whose protruding, brutalist concrete lecture hall, since 1971, has been as welcome as an ocean liner at a lawn party.

Still, above it all, Hamerschlag Hall has endured as the terminus to Hornbostel's vista, "which is a work of art in its own right," Aurand wrote. That so few people see it that way is a measure of how little historic landscapes are recognized, understood and valued, even on a campus where making art is something of a sacred act.

"The 100-foot-tall 'Walking to the Sky' will challenge the century-old primacy of the Hamerschlag Hall tower, the scale of the entire campus ... the clarity of Hornbostel's vista, and the integrity of his 'grand design.' "

In an editorial, The Tartan, the campus newspaper, called the sculpture "ugly and cumbersome" and "a huge phallus." Some students complained about being left out of the decision-making process.

And then along came Hilary Robinson, who, a century later, holds the same position Hornbostel did -- dean of the College of Fine Arts. She's new to the job, having arrived in September from Ireland, where she was head of the School of Art and Design at the University of Ulster. She must have packed among her luggage a great big bag of diplomacy, because it didn't take her long to find a solution agreeable to groups that were even divided among themselves.

About 15 years ago, Robinson saw the first version of the sculpture, a single figure on a slanted pole called "Man Walking to the Sky," which appeared at Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany.

"I thought it was such an optimistic piece of work, about being ambitious, aiming high, the sky's the limit. I think all of those messages are absolutely right for this university and what we do here," she said.

The newer piece, with seven figures walking up a 100-foot-tall pole and three figures at the base, was installed temporarily at Rockefeller Center in the fall of 2004, where many saw it as helping to heal the wounds of 9/11. That work was purchased by the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, where it is permanently installed. The one for CMU, a gift of alumna and trustee Jill Gansman Kraus, is being fabricated now in Los Angeles.

To Borofsky, who lives in Maine, the sculpture represents "all of humanity rising upwards from the earth to the heavens above -- striving into the future with strength and determination," he said in an e-mail. "It seems to me that we are all learning to be free, and ultimately this sculpture is a symbol of our collective search for wisdom and the awakened consciousness that comes with this freedom."

Those who know what to look for still can find the giant story: The three figures at the base include a father holding the hand of his young son.

Robinson's solution, welcomed by the President's Council, was to develop a public art policy, create a public art committee that includes students and community members, and propose a series of campus forums to guide the selection and placement of public art.

At the first one last week, closed to the news media, the approximately 175 people attending shared both support and opposition to the committee's selection of a new site for "Walking to the Sky," on the Cut in front of Warner Hall and near Forbes Avenue, from which the sculpture also will be visible to passers-by. When it's installed in May, CMU will gain an important work by one of its most successful sons and the Hornbostel Mall will suffer only its usual intrusions. Relocating the 100-foot-tall sculpture from the 100-percent corner was the right move.


Correction/Clarification: (Published April 8, 2006) This Places column as originally published on March 15, 2006 said that participants in a campus forum at Carnegie Mellon University agreed that Jonathan Borofsky's sculpture, "Walking to the Sky," should be located on the Cut in front of Warner Hall and near Forbes Avenue. It was a very passionate discussion, according to those who were there, and during the session both supporting and dissenting views were expressed. The session was not open to news media.Diether Endlicher/Associated Press
The sculpture "Man Walking" by Jonathan Borofsky stands in front of the headquarters of Munich Re AG, in Munich, southern Germany.


Click photo for larger image.


Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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