It has been called an apocalyptic hell beast—equally demonic, heinous, and frightening. Will Denver ever warm to the city's most controversial piece of public art?
Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, Luis Jiménez worked alongside his father in a custom sign shop in El Paso, Texas, learning techniques in spray paint, welding, and neon. His father was a talented artist in his own right, but he felt that his career had been a waste of time, and he was determined that his son would not repeat his mistake. In college, however, at the University of Texas at Austin, Jiménez defied him and switched his major from architecture to art. His father disowned him and didn't speak to him for several years.
After graduating from college, Jiménez moved to New York and had his first exhibition within three years. Soon, though, he returned to El Paso. He wanted his work to be accessible to the common man, and he began experimenting with artistic uses for the same techniques he had learned in his father's shop. He worked with fiberglass because it "didn't carry the cultural baggage of marble or bronze." His statue Man on Fire, depicting a burning Aztec warrior, was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1979, and he soon placed Southwestern-themed pieces at other notable museums: the Art Institute of Chicago and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art. Finally, in 1992, Denver commissioned him to create Mustang for the new airport. Intended to be completed in time for the airport's opening, the work was years late; it also turned out to be Jiménez's last work. In 2006, while he was moving a section of the sculpture, it fell and pinned him. By the time he could be extracted and taken to a hospital, he was dead.
This fact tends to sit in the background of the discussion of Mustang's merits, complicating and intensifying people's feelings toward it. Critics often land on the word "demonic" to describe Mustang. On the other hand, Jiménez's death gives the piece the effect of a memorial, and a memorial is a different thing than your usual piece of public art. Changing or moving a memorial seems dangerously akin to rattling the bones of the dead. Moreover, we can only wonder how the debate about Mustang might be different if Jiménez had been alive to offer his perspective and smooth the way for his work.
My feelings about Mustang are weighed with the instinctive sympathy of a fellow traveler. I've been a beneficiary of Denver's sponsorship of the arts. In 2007, the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs chose my novel, Articles of War, for the One Book, One Denver community reading program. There was some criticism after the selection that the book was too literary, and that the author wasn't charismatic enough to draw audiences, and the criticism hurt. I have an instinctive sympathy for the vision of an artist, and for the idea that Jiménez knew what he was doing when he designed Mustang for its current location. Also, any worthwhile work of art will draw some criticism, and the selection of an artwork by a city, which necessarily implies sponsorship, is doomed to take some hits. It's inevitable, it's healthy, and it doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with the work.
But as a writer, I'm also used to showing my work to friends and editors for comment. Sometimes, someone has told me something I didn't want to hear, that I deeply disagreed with, and yet in hindsight it's become clear that that reader was right. Sometimes you're too close to the work, and people with greater emotional distance can see it more clearly. Sometimes, when you finish a work and get it out of your mind and into the world, it looks different there than you thought it would.
I've been inclined, finally, toward Rachel's side in this. Not only because she's my wife, and not only for the reasons that she has articulated. For me it comes down to this: Every time I've been to the airport, I've been struck in the gut with the feeling that the piece is done a disservice by its placement. Mustang is huge and assertive, but from many angles along Peña Boulevard its isolation against the plains makes it look small, lonely, and decontextualized, like a Happy Meal toy on the surface of the moon. And it's just fundamentally preposterous that no one can walk up to it.
In fact, the original intention was to have a parking lot at the base of Mustang, with trails and signs, so people could wander around and get close to the sculpture. But after 9/11, security concerns canceled the parking lot. Consideration was given to erecting Mustang inside the airport terminal, but Jiménez insisted that it had to go on the hilltop location.