`Walking to the Sky' lifts big-city hearts

Maine sculptor's work received well in Manhattan, less so in Baltimore


September 26, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - As noontime strollers swarm Rockefeller Plaza on a late summer weekday, they crane their necks skyward to take full measure of Jonathan Borofsky's new 100-foot sculpture, Walking to the Sky.

Workers from the plaza's surrounding skyscrapers, eating lunch on circular benches, gaze at it, while tourists speaking multiple languages contort themselves to photograph the towering structure, a gently arcing stainless-steel pole upon which seven fiberglass figures calmly march up into the blue. Others simply pose among the sculpture's three earthbound figures, which seem to observe the ascent nonchalantly, as if scaling a girder into the heavens were a natural occurrence.

"I'm crazy about it," says Ashlea Ebeling, who is meeting her husband, an NBC lawyer, for lunch. "I'm really glad he brought me here to see it," the Forbes magazine writer and reporter says. "This is one of the greatest things we've seen here. It's very playful and approachable."

Tom Eccles, director of the Public Art Fund, is gratified by the response to Walking to the Sky, a temporary installation presented by the nonprofit Fund and Tishman Speyer Properties, co-owner and manager of Rockefeller Center.

"It is such a humanistic work, such an optimistic work in some ways ... the response has been overwhelmingly positive," Eccles says.

The same thing, of course, can't be said of the reaction to another recent Borofsky sculpture: Male/Female, the 50-foot aluminum figure installed at the entrance of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station in June.

Borofsky's symbolic illustration of the masculine and feminine traits within each individual, commissioned and donated by the city's Municipal Art Society, has drawn a hefty dose of scorn as well as praise. It has also prompted vague mutterings about having it moved.

(So far, the effort amounts to little more than "idle chatter," says Abell Foundation head Robert C. Embry Jr., who has received requests for grants to relocate the work.)

Playful works

Walking to the Sky, which was installed on Sept. 14, will stand until just Oct. 18. It is the latest in a series of large-scale, playful works to be displayed annually on the Rockefeller Plaza complex.

In 2000, Jeff Koons' enormous topiary, called Puppy, loomed cutely over the plaza; the next year, three bronze spiders by sculptor Louise Bourgeois claimed the space. A laser display by Nam June Paik in 2002 was followed last year by Takashi Murakami's Reversed Double Helix, which featured Mr. Pointy, a crowd-pleaser from the artist's stable of anime-like characters.

"The idea is to show artists of very different types of aesthetics and approaches, but an artist who can create a large, iconic work for the center," says Eccles.

The work must be conceived to appeal to a broad audience, says Eccles, who notes that 250,000 people traverse Rockefeller Center daily. "You have both the kind of cultural world of New York, you also have ordinary New Yorkers and many visitors as well." Because the Today Show is also aired from there, the artwork is "kind of visible for all Americans in some ways," he says.

Like Male/Female, Walking to the Sky is partly inspired by stories told to Borofsky as a child by his father, about a friendly giant who lived in the sky. The artist says the new piece is a "symbol of our collective search for wisdom and awakened consciousness."

"The piece in Rockefeller Center is possibly more public-friendly, at first, anyhow," says Borofsky from his home in Ogunquit, Maine. "Because of the idea of recognizable figures that are life-sized, a little girl, a businessman; these things are easier for the non-art-going public to associate with," he says.

"The piece in Baltimore at the train station is maybe a little tougher to respond to at first. It's not so colorful ... and the idea is a little more sophisticated."

Male/Female and Walking to the Sky share a theme, he says. In part, both are about balance. Of Male/Female, Borofsky says, "You walk around one side and it's a male, and walk around the other and it's female." It's an attempt at perfect balance, he adds. The figures in Walking to the Sky must balance as they ascend the pole into the unknown as they search for collective wisdom, he says.

When Baltimore's Municipal Art Society first planned to commission a work of art for Penn Station, members consulted New York's Public Art Fund for the portfolios of possible artists. Borofsky was on the group's short list. But it wasn't until more recently that the Public Art Fund itself asked Borofsky to create a piece for New York City.

Size matters

The relative scale of each piece may have something to do with the way they have been received in their respective cities. Though impossible to miss, Walking to the Sky is still dwarfed by its surroundings and submersed somewhat into the city's 24/7 hustle. Male/Female, on the other hand, has drastically altered Baltimore's cityscape, and the company it keeps depends mainly on the Amtrak and MARC train schedules.

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