Female, male, monumental

Sculpture: Art society offers the city a 51-foot gender-bending artwork to stand in front of Penn Station.

November 14, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore, long known as the Monumental City, is about to get a new monument that its backers hope will become a signature for the city.

A 51-foot-tall burnished aluminum sculpture of intersecting human figures - one female and one male, with one common red neon heart - is being commissioned to take shape by early 2003 on the circular plaza in front of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.

Male/Female is the title of the work by Jonathan Borofsky, a sculptor who is internationally known for a series of large-scale human figures in urban settings.

With a price tag of $750,000, it would represent the largest single investment for public art in the city's history. But it won't cost taxpayers a cent - it is being presented as a gift to the city from a private group, the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore, which says it has already raised two-thirds of the cost.

The proposed sculpture will take shape just as the city is completing $14 million worth of improvements to Charles Street and the plaza leading to the 1911 train station. Nearly as tall as the station itself, the sculpture is seen as a capstone to those efforts.

"For a city that calls itself the Monumental City, we haven't added very many monuments lately," said Constance Caplan, a board member of the Municipal Art Society. "This will be the first major work of public art for Baltimore in the 21st century, and we think it will be regarded the way the Arch is in St. Louis or the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. ... We want people to be able to identify with it, and we want it to be a source of pride."

"This is going to put Baltimore on a par with other cities," said Municipal Art Society President Beverley Compton. "It's going to show up on postcards: `Come see the Borofsky.' It's going to attract international attention."

The art society is working with Mayor Martin O'Malley and his Advisory Committee on Art and Culture to obtain the approvals necessary to donate the sculpture and install it on city-owned land in front of the train station.

As part of the approval process, representatives presented a scale model of the sculpture yesterday to Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which oversees changes to the train station area because it is a city landmark. It gave unanimous approval to the design.

"This is really an accomplishment," said Commissioner Marion Blackwell. "Your organization needs to be commended for its gift to the city."

The group has funded many public sculptures since its founding in 1899 and was instrumental in commissioning the Olmsted Brothers to design public parks in Baltimore, among other achievements.

Caplan said board members had been looking for a way to commemorate the society's 100th anniversary when they were approached by Baltimore businessman Leonard Sachs about the idea of commissioning a major work of public art in front of the train station.

Sachs was head of a civic group that raised money in 1995 to renovate the train station with lighting and other improvements.

The group also wanted to see a major work of art installed in front of the station, but the area was under construction and off limits to the public at that time.

Society gets involved

About a year ago, Sachs asked the Municipal Art Society to become involved. The plaza "was always intended as the site for a major piece of sculpture," he said yesterday. "The Municipal Art Society had the ability to select an artist, develop the work of art and, most importantly, to fund it. I think it's going to enhance the whole district surrounding Penn Station."

Compton and Caplan said the idea appealed to the society's members because the station is a gateway to the city - the eighth-busiest station in the country and a transportation center used by thousands of people every day.

In addition, the plaza is visible from the Jones Falls Expressway and from Charles Street. Proposed development around the station includes a new bus terminal for the Greyhound Corp. and a hotel on the station's upper levels.

The art society worked with a consultant, Tom Eccles of the Public Art Fund of New York City, to select an artist for the site. After considering 20 candidates, including two who were local, the board selected Borofsky and asked him to create a sculpture that was celebratory, welcoming, uplifting, appropriate for the Penn Station Plaza and representative of "the spirit of Baltimore."

He responded with a plan for a sculpture that will weigh between 10 and 12 tons - a weight that the plaza can support without additional reinforcement.

The sculpture is composed of the silhouettes of a male and female intersecting at right angles. When viewers walk or drive around the sculpture, the figure changes from male to female and back again. Viewers also will see three-quarter views that show the two figures blending together.

In the center of the figure's chest will be a glowing red "heart light" that will be slightly visible during the day and create a soft red glow in the evening.

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