STOP, SIGNS! and MALL BRAWL
From The Village Voice column Scene & Heard
Stop, Signs!, December 8, 1987
When is a sculpture an artwork and when is it a sign? Semioticians are likely to answer "Both, always." But in the case of Harold Lehr's sculpture, Landmark (1979-83), the Superior Court of Connecticut has refused to overturn the decision of the town of Hamden's Planning and Zoning Commission that the work in question is only a sign. As a sign (it bears no words or emblems) it is liable to local zoning regulations, which is to say it's out on its brushed aluminum ear. What inspired this startling exercise in new-speak? Let's first turn our attention to David Bermant, the man who commissioned Landmark.
Bermant is the Lorenzo de Medici of the shopping mall. The president of Rye-based National Shopping Centers, Inc., Bermant has, since 1965, installed over 100 works of art in shopping centers throughout the East. Crowd-pleasing kinetic or interactive sculpture by the respected likes of Nam June Paik, George Rhoads, James Seawright and the Conceptualist architects SITE are typical of Bermant's taste. (Examples of which were visible in Soho last year in P.U.L.S.E., an exhibition that included selections from the Bermant collection sponsored by, what else? The David Bermant Foundation: Color, Light, Motion.)
Over the last decades, National Shopping Centers, Inc. has placed numerous artworks at Hamden Plaza shopping center, including SITE's Ghost Parking Lot. Where art came, business followed. After the completion of SITE's surreal assemblage of asphalt and authomobies in 1978, "six to seven year of no growth were turned. . . around," according to Bermant. The ideal marriage or art and commerce? So it would seem.
Bermant commissioned Landmark--a cylindrical, 32-foot-high, light-crowned work that oscillates from wind or traffic vibrations--in 1981. After Landmark was completed in 1983, it did temporary duty a year later on the lawn of the Wadsworth Atheneum, during that museum's exhibition of the Bermant Collection.
Was that insufficient to establish its credentials as art? Apparently, given Hamden's site-specific position on the matter. Its sign regulation defines a sign as any attention-attraction "device, display or structure." (A streetwalker's garb might fit the bill, although a spotlit billboard during a nocturnal power outage might not.) Reportedly, influenced by Bermant's assertion that the sculpture would indeed attract attention--and distract drivers because of its lights and roadside location, according to Shirley Gonzalez, Hamden's town planner--the commission concluded that the sculpture was a sign. The Connecticut Superior Court maintained that the sign regulation itself was being attacked and that the constitutional issue of artistic speech had not been properly brought before it. The Connecticut Supreme Court, however, will decide whether to hear the case on constitutional grounds, thereby setting the stage for a potentially groundbreaking decision.
The First Amendment theoretically protects visual art as it does other nonliterary forms of expression such as film, dance and music. This has been clearly established in cases of figurative, politically oriented art, where it is relatively easy for courts to make the connection between visual imagery and political speech. But according to Bermant's attorney, Harriette Dorsen (who also served as council for the Voice until this year) it has not been so clearly established in connection with abstract art. "We hope," she said, "that the Connecticut Supreme Court will rule that the First Amendment applies in undiluted form to abstract art. This is an issue raised during the Bork case; whether or not only political speech is protected." Opening arguments are likely to begin early next year in Hartford.
Mall Brawl, May 1, 1990
Developer David Bermant is not your everyday art patron. He's a supporter of P.S.1; the founder of the David Bermant Foundation: Color, Light, Motion; and a shopping -center mogul who studs major American malls with eccentric artworks such as SITE's Ghost Parking Lot. When a long-simmering controversy over a site-specific work at Bermant's Cermak Plaza in suburban Chicago resulted in a referendum on the work's fate, the artist's rights and the patron's responsibilities proved to be loggerheads.
Nancy Rubin's Big Bil-Bored, a 60-ton assemblage-on-a-stick of objects and appliances embedded in cement, has inflamed feelings in Berwyn, Illinois, since its debut in 1980. (Walter Cronkite did a piece about it for the CBS Evening News that year.) Since the work is privately owned Cermak Plaza is not public art, public opinion plays no official role in determining whether it should be exhibited there. But that didn't stop Berwyn officials.
Last July, Bermant's attorney Peter Felice sought a shopping-center-site construction permit for artist Dustin Shuler's Spindle--eight cars impaled on a 50-foot stainless-steel spike. According to Bermant, Berwyn officials pressed him to negotiate an agreement by which the permit would be approved in exchange for a public referendum that would decide the future of Rubin's B B-B. (Berwyn mayor Joseph Lanzillotti and administrative coordinator Larry Zdarsky deny having proposed such a quid pro quo.)
Bermant says he refused any formal trade-off. But his emerging belief that the public should be given its say about the retention but not the selection of highly visible artworks led to a July 20 letter of agreement calling for both the referendum and a subsequent poll of shoppers at the plaza.
When the issue appeared on Berwyn's March 20 ballot, 79 per cent of the voters voted for the removal of Big Bil-Bored. If the besieged B B-B doesn't fare well in the Gallup poll Bermant is commissioning for this fall, it will be destroyed. (Bermant says he will also run an educational ad campaign extolling the work's merits.) Sixty-nine per cent of voters also voted to remove Spindle, although a referendum on that work was not called for in the Bermant/Berwyn agreement. "Did they ever violate my intent on Spindle!" exclaimed Bermant, who believes that public input about the fate of artwork should come only after a suitable period of exhibition--say 10 years.
After a decade, Spindle can be removed from Cermak Plaza, according to the terms of Bermant's contract with Shuler; Rubins got no such contract when B B-B was commissioned 10 years ago. Were L.A. resident Rubins's work sited in a Malibu mall, it could not be destroyed under California's Art Preservation Law, according to arts attorney Barbara Hoffman. (Illinois has no such law.) Rubins observed angrily: "Artists give art to collectors because they love it; not so they can destroy it. It's the controversial works that matter most in the long run."