For Penn Station, an artistic curiosity

May 21, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

It is not a man, nor a woman, but somehow both.

And it - they? - will soon dominate the circular plaza of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, and presumably the discussions of onlookers, who may be understandably mystified.

The object of curiosity: Male/Female, an enormous, burnished aluminum sculpture by noted artist Jonathan Borofsky depicting intersecting silhouettes of a man and a woman with a common red neon heart.

Assembly of the five-story sculpture is scheduled to begin this morning and take about two weeks. It will be dedicated June 4, when the private civic group that commissioned it presents the $750,000 sculpture to the city of Baltimore.

Until then, the public's interest will have to be satisfied in doses, as workers assemble and install it. When completed, the 14-ton sculpture will rise 52 feet above the corner of North Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue, its figures' shared heart glowing like a bright red beacon for passing commuters.

"A lot of people will ask, `What is that?'" said Peter C. Doo, an architect and member of the board of the sculpture's sponsor, the Municipal Art Society. "I hope they will wander over and see it up close."

Yesterday, as pieces of what will become Male/Female lay across the plaza still covered in protective plastic from their trip across the country from Los Angeles, there seemed to be little discussion about the sculpture around the Penn Station neighborhood. But at least one person, Yolanda Dixon, an attendant at the BP gas station across the street, was looking forward to meeting her new neighbor.

"I guess you have to interpret it on your own, but I'm trying to figure out why the artist decided to do something like that," she said.

Dixon quickly added, though, "It'll be nice. I can't wait to see it."

The sculpture is far more than a conversation piece, said Doo, who served as project manager for the society. "It will bring attention to Baltimore as an arts center and ... it signifies yet another expression of the importance of art to that community." He noted that the area has the Lyric Theatre, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Maryland Institute College of Art and Artscape.

Society's anniversary

The art society's gift is believed to be the largest investment in public art in the city's history.

Technically, it commemorates the founding of the Municipal Art Society a century ago. But there is slight glitch in timing - the organization's 100th anniversary was in 1999.

The Municipal Art Society is nothing if not inconspicuous. It employs no staff and has no phone or office or Web site. Its board consists of nine volunteers who manage the society's endowment and carry out its mission of providing "sculptural and pictorial decoration and ornaments" for public buildings, streets and open spaces in Baltimore.

Over the years, the society has provided several works of art to the city. Among them are the monuments Boy and Turtle at Mount Vernon Square; Johns Hopkins at Charles and 34th streets; Redwood Arch at Redwood and Paca streets; and Working Point at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The group has also funded several murals and other projects in the city.

"We had talked about doing a major project for our 100th anniversary - making a splash for ourselves. ... But for all the reasons we just discussed, we didn't get it quite done," Doo said. "The project is in celebration of our 100th anniversary, but that will be on our 105th."

With a "world-class" piece of art as the objective, the undertaking was as enormous as the sculpture itself. The Municipal Art Society enlisted the assistance of the Public Art Fund, which for a quarter-century has presented artists' projects, new commissions and exhibits in public spaces in the city of New York. Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, was also consulted.

"We said to them: `Bring a significant artist to Baltimore to do this sculpture,'" Doo said.

Artists in Maryland were considered, but the net was cast much wider. The art society's board was finally given a lengthy list of artists who were considered qualified to undertake the project. They chose Borofsky, an internationally known 62-year-old sculptor from Ogunquit, Maine.

Several proposals

The artist's first proposal - a series of large boulders stacked in a column with an abstract figure on top - was rejected.

"It was a curious piece," Doo said. "Some on the board loved it, and some couldn't stand it."

Borofsky, who earned a master's degree in 1966 from Yale University's School of Art, subsequently submitted several proposals. In 2001, he and the board agreed on Male/Female.

That has become a favorite theme for Borofsky. He has created similar sculptures, for example, for the Kirishima Open-Air Museum in Kagoshima, Japan, and a 30-foot version is on display in Bielefeld, Germany.

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