Take this art -- please

August 13, 2004

He's large. Large. Tall. Large. So large. And he's mine.

IN ROBERT Altman's 1980 film Popeye, those lyrics were sung by the character Olive Oyl to describe Bluto. Today, they could just as well be the city of Baltimore's paean to its newest public sculpture. Except for the part about "he."

That's because the aluminum giant on permanent display in the plaza at the entrance to Pennsylvania Station isn't just a he. Or a she. It's both.

Titled Fabrication of Male/Female, the piece by Maine sculptor Jonathan Borofsky is composed of a cut-out male figure and a cut-out female figure, joined at right angles down the middle. Representing the heart, one assumes, is a pulsating light that changes hue from blue to red and back again every 30 seconds or so.

But whether it is both male and female or neither one exactly, it is definitely large. Weighing something like 14 tons and standing 51 feet tall, the sculpture dominates the area in front of the graceful old train station. In fact, it dominates the classic beaux-arts station itself, looking oversized, underdressed and woefully out of place.

We have tried to like it. Male/Female was dedicated in early June, and we know that sometimes contemporary art takes some getting used to, so we tried. And tried.

And now that the newness has begun to wear off, we find it ... well, tacky. That's too bad, because it was a remarkably generous gesture by the private Municipal Art Society to commission and donate to the city a piece of public art.

We're just very sorry it had to be this one. To be fair, it didn't exactly sneak into town overnight: The art society worked with the city's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, and it received unanimous approval for the design from Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. And in a statement prepared for the dedication, Mayor Martin O'Malley called Male/Female a "great way to mark the entrance to our Station North Arts District."

However, the mayor also called the piece "thought-provoking" and "unique" - weasel words if we ever heard them. He has since backpedaled a bit when asked specifically if he likes the sculpture, saying that "art, like beauty, is so often in the eyes of the beholder." A politic response, indeed.

We are neither prudes nor philistines in matters of art, and it is possible that in some other spot this rather flashy display might be pleasing. But it fails both as a complement to the almost century-old granite and terra-cotta grandeur of Penn Station and as an appropriate symbol of Baltimore for visitors and residents alike.

Perhaps it could be moved to a more compatible - and less public - spot. Yes, it's called public art, but the public neither paid for it (that's the good news) nor had much to say about its selection as - in the words of a member of the board of the Municipal Art Society - "a symbol for Baltimore."

As such, it beats a giant pink flamingo - maybe. But we wouldn't want to see one of those perched outside Penn Station, either.

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