Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Truth About the Di Suvero Sculpture

By - Nov 19th, 2001 09:38 am
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It’s been amusing to see all the hand wringing by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as to whether we dare move the Di Suvero sculpture. Architecture critic Whitney Gould and art critic James Auer have spoken in reverential tones of how the sculpture must stay where it is, right in front of your view of the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. After all, Auer has instructed, the Di Suvero is “a site specific, designed, crafted and placed for maximum effect in a particular spot.”

That is complete nonsense. It is perhaps forgivable for Gould to buy this notion, since she was in Madison when Di Suvero’s “The Calling” was installed in Milwaukee (though she might have made some inquiries). But Auer was the art critic here when the sculpture arrived and he knows the truth. Before there was ever talk of securing the work for Milwaukee, “it was done and sitting in Di Suvero’s yard,” recalls Paul Krajniak, who served on the City Art Commission at the time. “There were pictures of it.”

Indeed, I can remember art commission members at the time complaining that Di Suvero was simply dumping an old sculpture of his on unsuspecting Milwaukee rubes. And when the sculpture did arrive here, the original plan was to place it on 3rd and Wisconsin, Krajniak recalls. “If you think of that orange sculpture against the blue federal building, and the scale of the work in that setting, you start seeing that as making more sense.”

Now, it is certainly true that the artist eventually approved its placement at the end of Wisconsin Ave., and to that extent it is “site specfic.” But that site changed completely long before the Calatrava addition was built. The construction of O’Donnell Terrace about a decade later largely obscured the view of Lake Michigan. Before that, the Di Suvero stood like an orange sunburst against the blue of the lake. Most of that contrast was obliterated by the preposterous, monolithic concrete of Fort O’Donnell.

Around that same time, the sculpture was also imbedded in the concrete so that its “feet” were essentially cut off, something that Di Suvero certainly didn’t specify. All told, the current siting bears little relationship to what the artist approved in 1982.

Then there is the question of what Calatrava thinks. Gould and others have noted Calatrava has said he likes the sculpture where it is. Anyone who buys that notion is a wee bit wet behind the ears. The sculpture stands in front of Calatrava’s signature effect, the flying wings of the art museum’s addition. You can bet that Calatrava would love to see the Di Suvero moved, but is too diplomatic to say.

I would vote for moving it. In fact, it would be great to replace those turd-like boulders in front of the federal building with the Di Suvero; maybe we could send the rocks back to their artist.

But I don’t think it would be outrageous to leave the Di Suvero in place a while and ruminate on the matter. There are certainly aesthetic arguments to be made in favor of keeping the sculpture where it is. And frankly, the discussion is good for the city. But please, can we stop the claptrap about its hallowed site specificity?

Downtown Duel to the Death

You have to admire attorney Frank Gimbel‘s tenacity. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men want him to share the tax base of the Wisconsin Center with the Bradley Center, so the latter can finance renovations that are intended to enhance the revenue of the Milwaukee Bucks. But Gimbel continues to negotiate a very hard bargain. The conflict pits the more public Wisconsin Center, which runs the Midwest Express Center, arena and auditorium, and has a board with several public officials, against the Bradley Center, which is a non-profit but is run more like a private company with business leaders on its board. Yet the Bradley Center wants to grab the public purse, specifically the Wisconsin Center’s hotel-motel and car rental tax.

The blue bloods of the Bradley board have enlisted every possible power to dislodge Gimbel. Most recently, they have managed to get state Administration Secretary George Lightbourne to stick his nose in a local dispute and raise questions about Gimbel’s plan to renovate the auditorium. And Marcus Center president Paul Mathews has written a letter saying that his board has worries that a renovated auditorium could steal away some of the touring Broadway shows that use the Marcus Center.

Several months ago, I asked Mathews about this and he said it was no problem. “We have a long-term agreement for three to five years with SFX theatrical group [which books the shows], so we don’t anticipate an impact on that.”

I doubt that the situation has changed since then. More likely, the Bradley board members called on their friends and associates on the Marcus Center board and asked them to join the anti-Frank bandwagon. That may be why Mathews’ letter said his board (rather than Mathews) was worried about losing the shows.

Personally, I have some misgivings about whether a renovated auditorium makes as much sense as the Bradley Center’s plan to create a new free-standing, state-of-the-art, 4,500 seat theater. But that’s just a guess. No one can make an informed assessment because the Bradley Center refuses to discuss its plans in detail, and offers no financial or architectural details to the public. Meanwhile, its board has carped that Tim Krause and the group proposing a professional soccer stadium haven’t offered enough financial details about their plan. Irony isn’t something that troubles the Bradley board.

Gimbel, according to one informant, is going to demand that the Bradley Center disclose the details of its plans. I hope he does. The public deserves a full hearing of this issue. Then, along with the Di Suvero, we’ll have another juicy controversy to argue about. Hey, pretty soon we’ll be just like the big cities.

Short Take

Attorney General Jim Doyle‘s demand that Gov. McCallum allow him to sue legislators to stop them from paying legal fees for its caucus workers has placed the governor at a disadvantage. If he agrees, Doyle gets to make headlines on this issue. If he disagrees, McCallum looks soft on the obvious political corruption of the caucus system. This is just the latest example of how Doyle has kept an incumbent governor on the defensive, placing the challenger in the position of defining the crucial issues. Doyle isn’t pretty, but he’s been a very solid campaigner with an aggressive strategy. McCallum, meanwhile, continues to come off as the milquetoast of the GOP. Very nice but rather limp.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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