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?
Blue Mustang, a gleaming, blue, fiberglass beast rearing 32 feet high, rippling with muscles, ribs, veins, and salient masculinity, crowned with a spiked mane and pierced by glowing ruby eyes, has stood for more than a year on the low hill where Peña Boulevard reaches Denver International Airport. The work, by Luis Jiménez, has generated simmering controversy ever since it was unveiled, and the debate recently exploded in the media, earning coverage as far away as Canada and France. You can thank my wife, Rachel Hultin, for the global argument.
It began in January, when Rachel created a Facebook group for people who wanted to remove Mustang from its location outside the Denver airport. The page, simple and short, is titled "DIA's Heinous Blue Mustang Has Got to Go," and explains that Rachel is "mortified and offended" by the horse, which is the "least welcoming public art exhibit imaginable." Rachel also joked on the page, "Maybe if we drum up enough people we can go push the thing over in the middle of the night as an act of civic duty." She didn't have much expectation for it. A Facebook page is usually a shout into the winds of indifference. If you're lucky, a few faint calls of encouragement come back.
But to Rachel's shock, her group quickly began drumming up support, adding nearly 300 members in a week. Now excited, she posted a haiku challenge to the group—she would personally deliver all submitted poems about Mustang to the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. She was a little surprised when she actually got submissions. She knew someone at the Denver Daily News, so she asked if the newspaper would consider printing a few poems. Instead, a reporter called back for an interview.
The Daily News ran an article the next day, and the snowball started rolling. I happened to be out of town, so the blow-by-blow came to me over the next 48 hours in increasingly nervous e-mails and phone calls from Rachel, as the coverage spread to local TV, radio, and the Internet and was picked up by the Rocky Mountain News, Westword, Viva, 9-News, 7-News, KOA, KCFR, and others. The media splash rippled far outward, generating articles by the New York Times, the Associated Press, and MSNBC. At one point, Rachel called me, her voice unsteady: "It just picked up on the CNN.com news feed." The following weekend, I had the surreal experience of picking up the Wall Street Journal in Portland, Oregon, and seeing my wife's face rendered in the paper's iconic stippled style.
The national coverage inspired further paroxysms in the Denver media. Mike Rosen penned an anti-Mustang column in the Rocky ("I'll confess that my layman's tastes favor the traditional, the grand, the uplifting, and the tasteful," he said.) Denver city councilman Charlie Brown penned responses in favor of Mustang in the Rocky and the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, as I write this, Rachel's Facebook group has collected more than 10,000 members.
Much of the public argument so far fits into two themes: Those who support Mustang are snobbish elitists, and those opposed to it are idiotic philistines. (The hate mail Rachel has received has also included some curious variations, accusing her of being a right-wing Christian fundamentalist crusader bent on imposing biblical beliefs, or that she's a lefty plotting to replace Mustang with a statue of President Obama.) This ad hominem attack and counterattack is disappointing and does little to address the art itself.
The tone of the discussion obscures the subtlety that lies between the poles of (A) love Mustang versus (B) hate Mustang. Rachel's position is actually (C) Mustang is a challenging, aggressive work—she has told interviewers that she finds it unpleasant to look at but not necessarily an artistic failure—deserving a location where the viewer can actually spend some time with it, examining it from different angles, observing its place in the landscape. Instead, it's stuck between curving highway lanes, impossible to approach on foot, viewable only from a car window as you pass at 45 mph.
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.
It's too bad—Mustang would have made a terrific spectacle inside the airport. I would also love to see it somewhere downtown, set deep among tall buildings, where one could turn a corner and discover it suddenly and massively overhead like a great glaring ghost, a reminder to city dwellers of Denver's fierce Western history.
In 1998, Jiménez told Texas Monthly, "The purpose of public art is to create a dialogue." By that measure Mustang has certainly been a triumph. But the mere provocation of debate doesn't seem a very satisfactory purpose. Jiménez himself understood that the purposes of art are more complicated than this; at another time he said that art "belongs to the people. It has to come from the artist, but the people have to be able to identify with it."
Denver's Public Art Policy documents a long list of purposes: to enhance civic pride; to "activate" public spaces (a maddeningly vague criterion itself); to broaden citizens' understanding of art; to celebrate local history; and on and on. Some of these aims conflict with one another, and it will be a rare, perhaps impossible, piece of art that resolves those tensions successfully for every viewer. In arguments about public art, the conflicts between these purposes are what we're really arguing about.
Art, as the writer Lewis Hyde has pointed out, resides uncomfortably in an economy as relentlessly capitalistic as ours, because great art arises not out of a motivation for buying and selling, but for gifting. An artist is gifted, he speaks of his inspirations as gifts, and only in matters of art does "selling out" become a bad thing. Works of art move a society's cultural dialogue forward and provide elements for ever more complicated interrogations of the spirit and soul. But these are vague promises and can be accepted only uneasily, at best, in a society as commodified as ours. Instead we turn instinctively to more familiar terminologies of cost and value (arguments about Mustang often turn to its $650,000 price tag), or perhaps of class and politics. These issues aren't completely irrelevant or uninteresting, of course, but a work of art, by its nature, will tend to evade meaningful evaluation in these terms. And most of us don't have a lot of experience talking about art on its own terms, having abandoned art back in school with the rest of the electives. We hardly know how to begin; we don't have a vocabulary for it.
Yet, art has a way of creating its own vocabulary. A cultural vocabulary, after all, isn't just a list of words in a dictionary; it's a collection of shared references. When one sports fan says to another that Mustang's introduction has been "like Elway's rookie season," and both people know that means No. 7 struggled during his first year, the discussion can immediately move into deeper subtleties and distinctions, and so weave a richer tapestry.
An art controversy can provide a similar point of reference, and it's one that many older, larger cities already possess. The Eiffel Tower was widely despised by Parisians when it was erected (according to legend, Guy de Maupassant, the French author, ate his lunch at the base of the Eiffel Tower every day because it was the only place in the city where the structure didn't ruin the view); today, it's the very image of France. The untitled Picasso "baboon head" in Chicago roused the ire of many when it was installed in 1967, forcing the mayor to mobilize a PR campaign that included giving it birthday cakes; today, it's a generally beloved icon of the city. Richard Serra's Tilted Arc in New York became the subject of years of bitterness and epic litigation in the 1980s but failed to win the public's heart; it was eventually dismantled in the dark of night and hauled away.
Regardless of whether a consensus can be reached about Mustang, under the terms of the city's Public Art Policy, nothing can be done with it for five years after installation. It was only put in place in 2008, so Rachel has talked with the mayor's office about ways to help viewers frame Mustang in some context: brochures on the counters at rental car agencies, displays in the concourses, information for taxi and shuttle bus drivers to give to their passengers. My favorite idea is a set of cards, like baseball cards, with pictures and information about pieces of public art around the city, to be given to children arriving at DIA.
It's impossible to know whether Mustang will ultimately be adored like Chicago's Picasso or ignominiously abolished like New York's Tilted Arc. Most likely, it will end up somewhere in between. But whatever the outcome, Mustang is forcing Denver to engage in meaningful debate about public art, and when the next controversy arrives upon us, Denver will have this one as a point of common experience, a term in the vocabulary, and Denver will have a better understanding of what public art means to Denver. As I've worked through my own internal discussion, as I've researched Jiménez's art and his background (the previously mentioned Man on Fire work is fantastic, a combination of lurid colors and elegant shape, it simultaneously evokes Aztec history and the self-immolation protests of the Vietnam War), and as I've spent more time looking at Mustang (in photos; I haven't been driving in circles around DIA), I have found my opinions fluctuating, my respect for Jiménez's artistry growing, and my opposition to the location eroding a little. I'm not ready to give it up yet, but I can imagine that I might feel differently in 2013, when the ban on moving Mustang expires. I might, or I might not. I'm happy to give it time and see what happens.
Nick Arvin's first novel, Articles of War, was published in 2005. E-mail him at email@example.com.