Those familiar with the work of Jonathan Borofsky might be surprised to know that he has not had a solo exhibition in a museum or gallery since 1991. They might be equally surprised to learn that during the last decade or so his efforts have almost exclusively been devoted to large-scale outdoor public commissions.
The impetus for this radical change is manifold: artists grow, change, adjust and molt old styles, shed old ideas and embrace new ones. The vagaries of the art world also shift and, combined with an artist’s personal life (in Borofsky’s case a move from California to Maine), everything is subject to significant reappraisals and re-evaluations. For Borofsky, this paradigm shift presented him with a shift of scale, from the intimate spaces (gallery walls or museum corridors—“the cave” as he calls them) where he had won great critical success to the public arena. Looking back on his career over the past 30 years, this change seems rather natural.
Borofsky was known in the ’70s and ’80s for installations that combined a plethora of materials and subjects, energetically and cleverly jammed into spaces. These stunning, visually abundant, and thought-provoking exhibitions were presented around the world, from New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis to Tokyo, Rotterdam, and Stockholm. The inventory of works and ideas included lively self-portrait paintings culled from a particular dream the artist recalled; series of small black and white doodled drawings of stick figures, faces, or animals; framed works spinning with the aid of an electric motor; lithographs and screen prints using words and texts; and video or light projections on the walls and ceiling. Mechanical beings such as his lively Chattering Man intermingled with the audience so that the viewer was as much a part of the assembled event as was the art. Borofsky became renowned for his multi-faceted style and razor-sharp inventiveness. Much of his work derived from dreams, dreams about movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor, historical figures like Hitler, or other artists, such as Dalí and Picasso. He was also the number guy, an artist who supplanted his signature with a number drawn or painted on the work like an inventory tag of his own thoughts and musings. Counting had been and continues to be the conceptual link in the work. The combination of dreaming and counting seemed to be the way in which Borofsky could blend the past with the present, feelings with observations, the here and now with memories. But the real key to understanding the work in general comes from a statement made by the artist in 1980, “I think everything in art is a self-portrait.”
Borofsky grew his sculptures large in early commissions for such companies as General Mills in Minneapolis (1987) and works for private collectors such as Head in Trees at 3,013,641 (1985), now part of the Nasher Sculpture Center collection in Dallas. Add to this list of public works the world-famous Hammering Man, the largest of which, a black steel silhouette some 40 feet high, looms above the crowds in downtown Seattle, while another in the series stands adjacent to the Messeturm in Frankfurt, Germany. The man hammers while we work, play, and live out our lives. The image holds universal appeal and evokes layers of meaning: the artist as worker, the myriad of laborers who work with their hands, the model citizen. For Borofsky, it is part of himself: “The worker in myself…if I can get myself moving and start doing something physical, I usually feel good.” This mysterious hammering man stands as a constant reminder, banging out a silent tempo, measuring time with each strike of the hammer. Through it, both the public at work and Borofsky at work stand dignified.
Similarly, Borofsky has adapted his persona and its manifold incarnations (running men, dancers, molecule men, stick men, and men with briefcases) to the outdoors. In this world, art is no longer protected by a small supportive audience of well-wishers, collectors, and dealers: it has now entered the world of CEOs and board rooms, selection committees and juries, politicians, art councils, cultural and municipal agencies, public art administrators, engineers, fabricators, designers, and architects, all of whom are engaged with and part of the dialogue by which the work is proposed, conceptualized, and accomplished. This is a far cry from the studio, with its solitude and self-editing. Faced with this world, Borofsky has condensed his ideas, moving from the pluralistic zeal of his multi-part installations into more specific and determined single statements. “Minimal with content” is how he likes to describe it.
Few sculptors can manage the scale shift from human to superhuman, to take a work that is meant to stand on the floor of a gallery or sit neatly on a pedestal and enlarge that same idea to meet the challenges of architectural space. Calder did, Picasso did not. Giacometti’s figures reached toward this scale, but in the end he, too, limited his ambition. Tony Smith and Ronald Bladen achieved monumental scale, but they adhered to architectural paradigms and Modernist abstract principles. Unlike others of his generation, Robert Smithson or Michael Heizer, for example, Borofsky in this phase of his career did not leave the gallery system in order to work on a large scale in nature. He simply stepped out of the gallery into the urban environment and embraced the setting to make it his own in sculpture that he has called “easily digestible.” Borofsky makes these statues of the common man (and woman) as another kind of self-portrait, gigantic in proportion and scale, taking his message into the traffic and congestion of the city and more directly to the people. The international appeal of these monumental and dynamic constructions continues, as works are proposed and built in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Korea, and the U.S. Native language, cultural differences, and political allegiances present neither barriers nor impediments to the understanding of what Borofsky is expressing through these enormous works. Those who choose a Borofsky piece for their site do so with a knowledge that the nature of the work will be mostly understood and accepted by their varied audiences: sightseers, city dwellers, travelers, the curious, art lovers, even dubious politicians and cynical critics.
The context of these works strongly suggests and influences their ultimate meaning, so that the individual locale and historic character of a place will be entwined within the meaning of the work for those who confront it. Politics aside, the spiritual message is clear and the idiom is not abstract: it is definitely and defiantly representational. Freedom in Offenburg, Germany, is a case in point. Borofsky states that “the sculpture is meant to commemorate the role Offenburg played in the democratic development of Germany. Offenburg was the starting point of the democratic revolution, which took place in Baden. On September 12, 1847, the Demands of the People of Baden were made public in Salmen Hall at the assembly of the Confirmed Friends of the Constitution. Two further publicized meetings were held in 1848 and 1849, both ending in an appeal for revolution. After the defeat of the revolution, many sympathizers had to flee or were ruined economically. Nevertheless, the 1847 demands still hold a significance today. Many of them were used in later German constitutions, and are an important part of the present constitution of the German republic.”
The spiritual nature of Borofsky’s work is tied to social and political views, to a deep regard for the individual and a respect for character—this no doubt instilled in him by his musician father and architecture-trained artist mother who opened the world to him, made it a place to explore and to be actively engaged as an artist. Among his most recent installations is Walking to the Sky, commissioned by Rockefeller Center, facilitated through the Public Art Fund. It is a work placed in the heart of the world, so to speak, Rockefeller Center’s 11-acre site in the middle of Manhattan. With this piece, Borofsky has re-engaged an earlier idea, Male Walking to the Sky, presented at Documenta IX in 1990, a work that comes from an even earlier drawing (1977). In the Kassel work, a solitary man walks skyward. The new version of the tableau is more complex, there are more figures of particular types and characters, different in age, race, and gender—“all kinds of human beings,” Borofsky says. The three figures on the ground appear to act as both observers and observed, as if in a Greek drama: they watch the figures walking toward the sky, perhaps knowing their fate. For many, the image will undoubtedly evoke memories of 9/11, souls rising, people moving on; yet the beings portrayed are marching in an orderly fashion, striving toward goals or destinies, seemingly moving to the future. Borofsky again speaks to his audience through these figures, reminding us that our shared commonality, our humanity, is the knowledge that we are here to achieve. At the same time, his sculpture ensemble serves also as a respite—a place to go and reflect, separate from the teeming crowds and the din that surrounds and fills the site.
Last winter in Toronto’s new international airport, Borofsky completed and installed another group of figures, only this time they hang some 30 to 50 feet above the floor. Like an acrobatic formation, they are sheathed in brightly colored, translucent skins and appear both weightless and buoyant. I Dreamed I Could Fly comes from both a drawing and a painting, but it is also akin to numerous installations in which Borofsky or a surrogate appears to fly. With this installation the act of flying is given over to five figures, suspended below a 40-foot-wide skylight in the ceiling of the terminal. The figures are schematized, simple outlines or streamlined forms. The distinction between figures is more in shape than details, avoiding the issue of nudity altogether. In fact, these symbolic figures have no identifying characteristic or feature that would make their narrative more explicit. They are images of the mind, and, because they are imagined rather than real, they represent the idea of the human, the character or the presenter of a political or social ideal. In Germany, a word for it is “freedom,” in Baltimore, it is “humanity.” But the figures are always some aspect of Borofsky himself, bigger than life, standing, acting, and finally guiding us through his personal thoughts and visualized actions. Art, as Borofsky proclaimed in a 1989 lithographic print, is for the spirit; it is no less true today than it was 15 years ago.
This past spring for the city of Baltimore, Borofsky prepared another vertical piece, a somewhat Jungian archetype of a male/female figure commissioned by the Municipal Art Society and placed in front of Pennsylvania Station. The brushed aluminum sculpture stands 51 feet tall. A pulsating LED sits where the two figures intersect; the light emitted over a 60-second cycle ranges from cobalt blue to fuchsia, denoting spiritual energy. “The whole idea of this piece is two energies becoming one,” Borofsky says, “two energies coming together to create a greater force.” Or, as one passerby shouted with delight as he walked by the piece on the day of its unveiling, “It’s humanity!”
In late 2004, in the town of Verden, southeast of Bremen in Lower Saxony, a bank, Kreissparkasse, is placing another aluminum walking figure in front of its headquarters. Conceived as a single continuous, drawn line, it includes the outline of a figure astride, drawing both into space and around space. The sculpture is industrial in appearance, a grand Léger-like walking machine. The sculpture’s contours are articulated in the shoulders and hips to underscore its motion and mechanized appearance. This piece echoes the determined pace of an earlier six-story Walking Man, completed in 1995 and on view on the fashionable Leopoldstrasse in Munich.
With this growing and highly observable oeuvre, Borofsky continues on a path that articulates his public spirit. Working in the world, outside the confines of the contemporary gallery scene, he is broadening the sense of what his art can be and what mission it can achieve.
Michael Klein is a curator and frequent contributor to Sculpture.