GSA Pulls Nude Art From Federal Building : Sculpture: Complaints by congressman, judges prompt agency to review artwork by renowned artist at new downtown structure.
Within hours of a complaint by Rep. Edward R. Roybal, the federal General Services Administration removed portions of an anatomically explicit sculpture at a downtown federal building that will bear Roybal’s name when it opens next month.
Two female figures created by renowned sculptor Tom Otterness were removed from the central plaza of the high-rise building after dark Monday at the direction of GSA Regional Administrator Edwin Thomas.
“The congressman . . . expressed his opinion that it (the sculpture) should be removed or modified,” said Mary Filippini, the GSA’s Western regional spokeswoman. “But the decision is not his; it is the GSA’s.” She added: “It is fair to say that it is GSA’s opinion that (there are) elements of the artwork we find to be unattractive.”
Removed were figures of a woman squatting and a baby girl lying on her back, legs open, holding a globe. Both show genitals and are typical of Otterness’ nude figures that resemble the “Pillsbury Dough-Boy.” The two sculptures have been placed in storage.
Filippini said a decision had been made by Administrator Thomas to remove the work to determine whether it matched initial drawings and mock-ups approved by the GSA. Thomas had not seen the portions he ordered removed, she said.
Otterness was in Germany on Tuesday setting up an exhibition and could not be reached for comment.
Roybal, 75, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the GSA, commended the agency’s action.
“We had a lot of complaints, including from federal judges, so I called GSA and said either modify it or take it out,” Roybal said Tuesday. He said he decided to complain after he saw two young boys walk across the courtyard where the sculpture was installed and touch the baby’s genitals.
“This is an attractive nuisance,” Roybal said. “It would attract the homeless that come in, perverts, graffiti artists, everything.”
UCLA Art Department Chairman Henry Hopkins, a member of the panel that, along with GSA, approved the selection of Otterness and his proposal, said he was surprised by the GSA’s move.
“I did not see the finished piece,” he said. “But when do federal judges and congressmen start dictating the art life of Los Angeles? I can only say that the Tom Otterness’ work is a major and important piece that was reviewed by an art committee made up of local authorities selected by the GSA. . . . It is of very great disappointment that the piece is being looked at in fragments.”
Still, he said, he was withholding judgment. “Since I have seen the piece only in maquette form, I’m trying to keep an open mind too, saying, let’s have a public debate, let’s discuss it rather than simply remove it on the basis of the judgments of a few people.”
The new building, which will house federal courtrooms and offices of other federal agencies, will be called the Edward R. Roybal Building and Center. It is located at the corner of Temple and San Pedro streets.
One of the jurists who complained most loudly about the artwork was U.S. Dist. Judge Dickran Tevrizian, who in a letter to Roybal called the baby sculpture a “shrine to pedophiles.”
“Congratulations,” he told Roybal Tuesday, shaking his hand when they met in the hallway of the main Federal Building, where both now have offices. “It’s commendable you took such action.”
The sculpture in its entirety includes a 300-foot-long pergola structure with classical motifs carried out in a series of friezes high atop columns. The work as a whole, for which GSA paid $266,000, is called “The New World” whose theme includes a battle of the sexes that results in the coming forth of new life, as represented by the baby.
Otterness’ sculpture often represents birth, life, conflict, resolution, death and rebirth. The ensemble under dispute recalls the revolutionary conflict that led to the birth of the United States of America.
Sources close to the project said that Otterness’ work had undergone tedious review by both government and civilian panelists who asked the artist to make some changes largely unrelated to the issue of nudity. When Tevrizian first complained last week, the GSA’s director of arts and historic preservation, Dale Lanzone, praised the work.
“This art stands for all the best things of this country, the unit of man, America’s commitment to freedom and creativity,” he told Copley News Service. “The thing about pedophiles, I don’t get it at all. There have always been nudes in art and public places . . . and there’s absolutely nothing provocative about any of the pieces.”
Reached at home Tuesday night, Lanzone said the quote was accurate, but declined further comment. Unlike GSA administrator Thomas, who is a Reagan political appointee, Lanzone is a career bureaucrat who oversees public art in federal facilities. Regional administrators have broad discretionary powers within their own areas.
The abrupt removal of Otterness’ work is likely to create controversy similar to one in 1984, when a GSA regional administrator in New York ordered artist Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” removed because the huge steel wall obstructed a federal plaza.
His order sparked a public hearing, and the work was eventually removed. A federal judge ruled that the work was federal property and removing it did not deprive the artist of his right to free speech.
Partly in response to that controversy, Congress passed an artists’ rights bill in 1990 specifying that certain procedures be followed if an artist’s work is altered. The bill requires that artists be notified in some situations and gives them standing to sue if their work is diminished by the alteration.
Filippini said GSA attorneys determined that there was no legal requirement that Otterness be given advance notification of the removal of his work. No such notification was given because the sculpture is owned by the federal government, she said.
The GSA also came under criticism Tuesday from another federal agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, which helped select the panelists who nominated artists for the Roybal center project. Of those candidates, GSA selected Otterness.
“GSA selected this artist with full knowledge of the nature of his work,” said one NEA official, who requested anonymity. “They are a political entity, divided into regional administrators who are political appointees and much more attuned to political demands than to art.”
Unclear is whether Otterness’ work--or a substitute--will be in place when the new federal building opens in January. A lecture series about the artwork had been scheduled at the nearby Temporary Contemporary Museum.
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