Before an alleged drunken driver – or was it an art critic? – turned the Fort Wayne Museum of Art's celebrated mass of tangled metal into, well, a mass of tangled metal, “Helmholtz” did not always enjoy the kind of acclaim its misfortune has inspired.
“We'll return it to its glory. It will rise from this state and look beautiful again,” vowed museum Executive Director Charles Shepard III, who called the incident “the most dramatic and shocking art incident I've ever seen.”
But judging by contemporary news accounts, others might reserve that distinction for the day 27 years ago next week when Mark di Suvero's sculpture honoring German physicist Hermann Helmholtz was dedicated in front of the Performing Arts Center on Main Street with the help of Rea Magnet Wire Co.
Art dealer Tom Smith, who today represents the 1st District on City Council, wrote at the time that he found "Helmholtz" easy and natural to like, but acknowledged that contemporary art “baffles many people . . .DiSuvero is a classic risk-taker. His sculpture has been anything but safe.”
“We either like (modern art) or we don't. There is nothing in it to understand . . . it serves no end, demands to be experienced only in terms of its own self-defined reality in which form becomes content,” added News-Sentinel Editorial Page Editor Leo Morris.
“Di Suvero seems to thrive on shocking the public,” the paper's arts critic William Carlton stated.
The News-Sentinel's associate editor at the time, Craig Ladwig, was even more direct. Those responsible for bringing the likes of "Helmholtz" to Fort Wayne, he wrote, “would be surprised and hurt if they were told that some of their neighbors consider them arrogant, self-satisfied members of a pretentious elite afflicting this community with a particularly meaningless form of radical chic.”
So at the risk of being branded a Philistine, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek, may I suggest that civic leaders consider a few alternatives before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore something that doesn't look all that different than before it was hit by a vehicle:
Mayor Tom Henry wants to move the statue of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne from its spot in Freimann Square not far from Helmholtz to the corner of Main and Clinton streets. But the move would cost an estimated $100,000 which, given the city's well-publicized budget problems, might be politically difficult to justify.
So why not use some of the insurance settlement from the Helmholtz accident to pay for the Wayne move? Some of the sculpture's loose girders could even be fashioned into an attractive but highly visible red guardrail to protect the relocated general from drunks swerving through the busy intersection. It wouldn't be much of a stretch: As a 1986 News-Sentinel photograph showed, there was a remarkable resemblance between "Helmholtz" and a common parks department wooden barricade placed nearby.
But if the museum is determined to keep "Helmholtz" on its property, it might at least consider returning the sculpture to the spot it occupied in front of the Performing Arts Center before being relocated to Freimann Square on the west side of the building in 2002. Clearly, the present location is simply too vulnerable to confused motorists. But that would be a problem, because ground at the original sight was so soft the 8-ton sculpture would have sunk below the grass into some sort of aesthetic hell, or at least purgatory, by 2112.
The solution is obvious: Drive a few of the loose girders into bedrock to support what's left.
But there are far simpler and less-costly options.
As any student of history knows, the German Army littered the beaches of Normandy, France, with steel barricades in a futile attempt to prevent the allied invasion of June 6, 1944. Painted an appropriate shade of military gray, Helmholtz would be a dead ringer for many of those barriers and could provide an invaluable prop the next time Hollywood tells the story of “The Longest Day.”
The easiest solution, however, would be to leave the reconfigured Helmholtz as it is, turn the drunk's fine into a commission and simply declare it “art.”
Sure, that would “baffle” some people. But, as Smith urged all those years ago, “Give yourself some time to appreciate Helmholtz.”
Unless you enjoy looking like a Philistine, of course.