Friday, July 09, 2010

Traditional Stroke

If there are two disciplines graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts value above all else they are drawing and painting. According to Claes Oldenburg, however, similarly inclined artists elsewhere are in short supply.

The Academy and Oldenburg announced recently the famous Pop artist would produce an enormous sculpture of a paint brush for the new Lenfest Plaza planned on the block of Cherry Street directly across from the towering extension to the PA Convention Center and between PAFA's original building and the Hamilton Building.

The sculpture will rise 53 feet and be pitched at a 60 degree angle over the sidewalk fronting Broad Street with a dollop of paint on the ground below and illuminated bristles at night. It is doubtful this looming instant cliche will intimidate pedestrians as some fear, but it seems certain the dollop will eventually take on the color of a palette on which too many colors have been mixed.

In describing the impetus behind the work, Oldenburg decried the lack of interest in painting among today's young artists and expressed the hope his planned piece would remind visitors, students and passersby of its primacy. The guess here is few observers will be persuaded.

Oldenburg is well known to city residents for his Clothespin at Center Square, directly across from City Hall, and the lesser seen Split Button on the campus at Penn. The former has long held a special place for city residents, especially those looking for an easily identifiable meeting spot downtown. Installed in1976, the Clothespin spoke volumes to a culture so imbued with the Pop phenomena that commercial enterprises had already gladly taken over the role of transforming everyday pop icons into consumer goods. Nearly 35 years later, however, this sort of illusionism no longer excites the imagination.

The issue here is hardly one of questioning the value of a foundation rooted in painting and drawing so much as it is the particular kinds of painting and drawing that result from such training. In PAFA's case the emphasis remains squarely on the most academic approach. As such, the proposed Oldenburg sculpture seem more likely to underscore the conservative initiatives of the sponsoring institution that prefers looking backwards than to spur new commitments if not directions.

Follow up:  The reality is far worse than the renderings.  The brush itself is a pasty orange and the dollop on the ground is a huge mound.  It's hard to imagine anyone would willingly set his course for this travesty as a meeting place.