On the trail of missing public art in Philadelphia
September 13, 2011By Peter Crimmins
This is here, we should act like we care about it ... I go to Washington, DC to see Nam June Paik pieces. That's far away, in the Smithsonian. They're guarded. This is beautiful, we should be proud of it.
—Amber Dorko Stopper, Korean Quarterly writer
Question: Whatever happened to the Harry Bertoia fountain with its curved copper flowers that used to dazzle visitors to the old Civic Center in West Philadelphia?
Answer: It's in a cage inside a police tow-truck garage in North Philadelphia.
And whatever happened to Philadelphia's International Sculpture Garden near Penn's Landing? It used to be filled with ancient sculptures from around the world, before a nearby hotel development caused some of them to be removed.
An 8-foot diameter stone sphere from Costa Rica, circa 300. A life-sized bull from India, circa 1500. A pair of 17th-century Korean memorial statues.
Where are they now?
For the last 15 years, they have been in the yard of the George Young Company. "The spheres were removed because the International Sculpture Gardens were going to be reconfigured," said George Young, patting the 24,000-pound sphere. "We're still waiting for that to happen."
The pieces are behind a chain-link fence, resting on wooden skids, in a field in Swedesboro, N.J. The George Young headquarters has been storing some items for 40 years.
"They get a monthly reminder in terms of the storage bill," said Young.
If not exactly lost, sculptures can be forgotten. When they are rediscovered, they seem completely new.
'Lost,' but not forgotten
Inside Young's warehouse is a modern sculpture by minimalist artist Tony Smith. Called "We Lost," it used to have pride of place in the middle of the University of Pennsylvania campus. The deep black edges of the piece outline a 10-foot cube. The 14,000-pound piece has been hidden from the public for 12 years.
Made in 1962, installed in 1966, "We Lost" was quickly embraced by anti-war demonstrators.
"It was installed at the height of protests of Vietnam. Interpretations related to the culture and climate of the time," said University of Pennsylvania curator Lynn Marsden. "When in fact it had much more to do with a previous sculpture that he had been working on and gave up on."
Before Smith created "We Lost," he attempted to make a sculpture called "Cosa Nostra," which failed in the casting process. The name "We Lost" is a bit of an inside joke.
Now, "We Lost" has been rediscovered. As Penn's engineering school constructs a nanotechnology building near Walnut and 32nd streets, the dean, Eduardo Glandt, remembered the Tony Smith piece when it was in the middle of campus.
"One day it disappeared," said Glandt. "It was corroding, taken to New Jersey, and never came back. In the meantime they installed the Robert Indiana LOVE sign. It became a photo opportunity for students at graduation. The president and the university didn't have the heart to take the LOVE sign away. It's so iconic. But Tony Smith’s is a much better piece. It's original and sober."
When Glandt reinstalls the piece in front of his new nanotechnology building, he won't see the sculpture as an inside joke, nor as a comment about war. It will be pure form.
"It's has a subtext of mathematics, of volumes and surface areas," said Glandt. "It's geometrical. It evokes math in my mind. I like the sheer elegance of it."
Frozen in time
In a nondescript warehouse at 25th and Jackson streets, under an I-76 overpass, the City of Philadelphia stores municipal odds and ends: spare lumber, crowd-control fencing, seasonal lamp-post decorations, and pieces of orphaned sculpture.
Next to an old table saw, a bronze nymph is supine, her arm permanently stretched into the air. Called "Water," she used to be in front of the old Civic Center building in West Philadelphia.
A jumble of painted steel plates rests against a wall. If bolted together, they would form "El Gran Teatro de la Luna," a sculpture by Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer.
"There's graffiti, there are peeling areas, other than that it’s in terrific shape," said Margot Berg of the city's office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. "All the pieces are here, it just requires putting the pieces back together."
The sculpture was commissioned by the city in 1982 for Fairhill Square, a park in a Latino neighborhood at 5th and Lehigh. It was installed on top of a small, round municipal shack in the middle of the park. But the park was a pretty dismal place back then.
"It was a time where there was a sharp increase in drug dealing in the community," said Johnny Irrizary who, at the time, was the head of the Puerto Rican social services organization Taller Puertorriqueno. "There wasn't an agency or community that had taken ownership of the park."
Jose Luis Perez, a musician in the area, remembers drumming under the sculpture by day, and avoiding the park at night. "You could see people just popping up, like zombies," said Perez. "They were sleeping there. It was not a nice place."
In 1999, the round municipal building was torn down, the sculpture was removed and it has been leaning against a wall at 25th and Jackson ever since.
Now, the neighborhood has improved and it's ready for art. Sculptural palm trees were installed along the 5th Street corridor, and the city recently received a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to pull that Rafael Ferrer out of storage, restore it, and reinstall it in Fairhill Square.
Sometimes public art doesn't have to be removed to go missing.
At One Franklin Town, an apartment building near 18th and Callowhill in the Fairmount neighborhood, 84 video monitors embedded in a wisteria grove flicker with abstracted imagery.
At least, they are supposed to be flickering.
It's called "Video Arbor," by Nam June Paik, one of the most renowned video artists of the 20th century. With pieces in major museums around the world, the Korean artist is credited for coining the phrase "electronic superhighway."
"It amazes me that nobody knows who Nam June Paik is," said Amber Dorko Stopper, a local writer for Korean Quarterly who only recently discovered the "Andy Warhol of Korea."
"I didn't know until he was dead,” said Stopper. “Ask anybody in Korea and it's a silly question."
Stopper, who recently adopted a Korean son, launched a one-woman campaign to bring back the Video Arbor. More often than not, the monitors are turned off. Sometimes they are dark for months, even years at a time.
"This is here, we should act like we care about it," said Stopper. "I go to Washington, D.C., to see Nam June Paik pieces. That's far away, in the Smithsonian; they're guarded. This could be beautiful, we should be proud of it."
The building manager says faulty wiring sometimes causes problems, but it's supposed to be on every evening between 7 and 11. The original, consumer-grade laser disc player playing the video content has never been replaced. On the rare occasions it is on, many residents don't know what to make of it.
"I never understood the concept of it, or why, or how it affected the building," said Angela Usten. "I think it's ugly."