Baltimore’s Public Art Commission will hold a hearing on May 21, 2021 to learn about plans for redeveloping Penn Station and how they might affect the Male/Female sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky that was donated to the city in 2004.
Here is part two of an interview with Borofsky, in which he discusses his reaction to the idea that his sculpture might be moved.
By Ed Gunts
Baltimore Fishbowl: Did you protect yourself contractually from the possibility of this issue arising when you were commissioned, with anything saying the city has to come back to you for consultation the way Richard Serra did for Tilted Arc in New York City?
Jonathan Borofsky: I don’t believe we put that in, no. It was just an understanding. It usually is, that this is going in as a permanent installation. I have large sculptures that I’ve put up around the world, where it’s going in and it’s understood that it’s coming out in a year or two years, it’s a temporary installation. This was understood for this amount of money to be a permanent installation. It was designed and engineered for that.
Q: Is the city supposed to consult you about any changes to the sculpture – graffiti, a car running into it, the heart light going out? Do you have any say in how to repair it if it needs to be repaired?
A: No. What usually happens in the contract, the artist is available for consultation if you have issues. I’m alive, so feel free to call if you’ve got a problem. I don’t own the piece, so all I can do is give you the best solution, if somebody graffitis it or if somebody attacks it. If the piece is disturbed in some way, I would assume they would say, is Borofsky still alive? Well, call him up. Let’s get some opinions here.
Q: In terms of funds for repair, there’s no pot of money for maintenance or upkeep that you know of?
A: The city and the people who brought this piece into being, they’re the ones who have probably provided a fund of some kind for maintenance. You know, every piece needs to get washed down. Once a year would be very nice. Whether you take on a $70 object or a $750,000 object, there’s a certain maintenance you take on. We probably discussed it when we installed it. Then you’re kind of on your own and call me if you have problems.
Q: You didn’t choose the location, is that correct?
A: Right. I was asked to make a presentation with ideas for what could be placed in this circle…I was told that this was really in the early stages but that this whole area was going to be developed and keep that in mind in terms of scale, et cetera…I assumed that was the whole idea, that modernity would be coming.
Q: Some people say they like the sculpture but they aren’t comfortable with the juxtaposition against the train station. They’d rather see it in a green pasture, or an open space out on a pier in the harbor. What do you think about the way it looks on the site today?
A: It’s a bit blah there, you know, between the façade of the station and the circle and the cars and the sculpture. I just assumed greenery and planting and trees were coming in and this was a step along the way, and maybe it was. It’s just that cities take time to evolve. The sculpture will look much better of course if it has planting and some trees and benches around it. Then it would settle in. Right now I find it a little creamy, the color, you know. It’s just roads and cars and a building that could use probably a washing…I was asked to figure out something that would work in that location and that’s what I came up with.
Q: I wondered if it was intentional to give the sculpture as much breathing space as it has, to have it stand alone as much as it does today, and whether the idea of having it in a more parklike setting would still work. You would be comfortable with that?
A: Oh sure. I love trees. They’re the best sculptures, number one. I don’t beat them. But before you end up with 50-foot trees, it’s going to be another 40 years, for one thing. Your trees are going to be whatever they are — 12, 15 feet — when they’re planted. So it’s not like the sculpture’s going to disappear. I think it’s always nice to have a sculpture within a park-like setting. I have two other Male/Females — both of them are smaller pieces and don’t have lights in them, but both are in parks.
Q: And your sculpture in Baltimore could be the same way?
A: It’s meant to just nestle back into hopefully some kind of park situation where people can just walk through, with flowers, maybe a bench or two.
Q: Your piece draws strength from being at a crossroads, at a place of travel, a gathering place. It draws strength from being around people. If you put it in somebody’s backyard or a private corporate setting, it wouldn’t have the same interaction with the people that it’s all about.
A: Like any art, you like to interact with the people. I choose subjects specifically for that reason…Somebody’s backyard is not my first choice. If I sell a piece, then maybe I give in to that kind of location. But I’m trying to make works that interface with people in a good way, in a positive way, so you need the people.
Q: Where else could it be moved that you would feel comfortable with?
A: I don’t know where to begin to answer that question. I worked close to a half year to a year to pull it together for that space, so that’s where I leave it. I’m not going to start making believe. Each space dictates what I come up with. Each piece, it’s site-specific. It can work in other places but I’m not about to venture where. It has to do with scale and color and things like that. I found the color a little pale in this location. In my head, I was reassuring myself that the city would grow in around it. At least that’s what I was told.
Q: You have described it as two energies that come together to create a greater force, which is one thought. You also talk about balance, the idea of creating a balance, whether it’s Democrat and Republican, red or blue, a symbol of balance and unity. Some people read into it a message about sexuality, acceptance of transgender people. How much of that was part of your thinking for this piece?
A: Well, none at all is the short answer. But to expound upon that a bit, first of all, transgender really wasn’t a public discussion the way it is today, when that piece was made. I forget the date, but this was not something that was in the forefront. It’s part of our learning process as human beings. So that was not an issue for that reason. Let’s s put it this way: You, me and every other human being on this planet were made by a male and a female. I have no problem with males being with males and females being with females [but] that’s not what that sculpture is about.
Q: If people read into it their own thoughts, you don’t have a problem with that?
A: No, but always good to hear what the artist is thinking. That’s why you’re talking to me and that’s important, so thank you.
Q: Baltimore has a reputation for being offbeat, untraditional, quirky. Your work is not the traditional man on a horse and it’s not a purely abstract piece. It makes you scratch your head a little bit and do a double-take.
A: I like that because there’s a lot of territory between a man on a horse and abstract art. It has to do with philosophy and psychology and spirituality, and there’s a lot of territory in between to deal with. I tend to use the human figure quite often. It’s just a symbol for who we are. Human beings all of us. Men, women. Again, whether men are with men, women are with women, don’t care. But the bottom line is that you and I and everyone else on the planet and every animal on the planet is made by these two seemingly opposite but really part of the same energy, coming together to form another energy.
But again, it’s meant to be more than just men and women having babies. It’s meant to be a symbol for every opposite that seems to be an opposite is actually trying to work with its opposite to create an energy. The case I gave is Democrat and Republican, but you have ancient philosophies of yin and yang and we have the gravity that holds our planet spinning in the universe. What is gravity? Positive and negative forces holding us all. This is life. I just broke it down to man and woman. If anything I tried to say we’re equals. We’re the same height. I didn’t make the woman shorter in the sculpture. These are symbolic figures of equality and, again the light is the magic moment when things go well and people work well together and get something done.
Q: Are you happy with LED light?
A: It could be brighter. It’s a metaphor for all of us. It’s a metaphor for, when we get really conscious, then left and right, and Democrat and Republication, when we all come together and we get conscious, we get things done. We’re awake. But the more unconscious we are, the more one side fights with the other side. The light is the thing, you have some kind of compassion or feeling for all of humanity and so we’ve got to figure this out together. Not us against them, as we watch every day now. This is where we are as humanity. We’re all learning this together. It’s not just in the United States. It’s everywhere. Humanity learning how to live with itself.
Q: So the heart is the pulling together of the two opposite forces?
A: Well, it’s an ideal that we’re all striving for. I like to say that we’re learning to be free. Will we ever be free? I’m not sure. But we’re learning to be free and it’s a struggle. It’s hard. If you’re angry at people, it’s harder to be free. If one type of people is controlling another type of people, that’s hard. So it’s an ideal. Ideals are what I work with. I’m hoping for the best for humanity and so are you. So are we all.
Q: The message of your piece is very universal, as opposed to being Baltimore-centric.
A: I read somewhere that somebody asked, what does this piece have to do with Baltimore? Hopefully, by now, you get the gist that it has more to do with humanity, and Baltimore is part of humanity. It has to do with human beings. It’s not a big B in shiny metal or something. It’s about human beings. There aren’t a lot of artists that directly deal with this, but there are some.
Q: The focus on human beings is what makes it universal.
A: That’s the goal. I start with the psychology, sort of move my way into philosophy and then if we’re lucky, once in a while it gets a little spiritual. We try to connect things together and that’s all. Different artists have different goals. This is my goal.
Q: Say that again: you start with psychology, then philosophy, then spirituality.
A: I start with psychology: What do people think about? Why do people do this? Then you move to philosophy. Then, if I’m lucky, once in a while I get a sculpture that comes out that has spirituality involved. It’s a learning process. But it goes on and on. And everybody’s doing it. They just don’t know it. Consciousness. There are different levels of consciousness out there. And everybody is trying to raise theirs.
Q: You wouldn’t mind if the current setting were more parklike?
A: Maybe we get lucky and it stays where it is and we get a nice little park setting there. It’s not going to be the main entrance to the place anymore. That’s the best I can hope for.
Q: How strongly do you feel about wanting to see your sculpture stay where it is?
A: How do you rate that? I think it should stay there. That’s all I can say. How do I rate it after that? I’m going to be boiling mad. I’m going to get me a lawyer. You can’t do that! I don’t own the piece. Is somebody going to make a pretty park there but we don’t want this sculpture in it? That’s not enough…Really, the piece is a beautiful idea. It’s a beautiful idea and Baltimore could use some beautiful ideas.
Q: Could you accept the notion of seeing it moved, if you had a say in determining where it was moved?
A: Notion of seeing it moved. We can start parsing words here. I accept anything that happens in my life. But do I like it? No.
Q: Even if you have a say in where it would be moved?
A: The last resort? Then definitely they should be talking to me. If that’s the last resort, if it has to be moved.
Q: But you’re saying it would be easier and better to keep it in place and improve the setting it’s in now.
A: I understand what’s going on. They want to renovate that area. But there are creative ways to deal with a beautiful sculpture that’s standing there, other than to move it.
Q: And less expensive, too.
A: One way or another, if you move something like that, it’s going to cost a lot of money so there better be a good reason. Or else, like I say, get creative and work with it…They‘re landscape designers. You’ve got a three-quarter of a million dollars sculpture standing there that enough people like. Figure out how to use it.