ART REVIEW : Exploring Comic Potential of Immensity With Botero


In Beverly Hills, there is something distinctly unholy about fat. Thus, the ever-snaking line at the Beverly Drive outpost of Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, home of the low-calorie Ice Blended Mocha, which has lately become the drink of choice among the obsessively fit.

If you are one of the unlucky ones at the end of the line, you can crane your neck toward Santa Monica Boulevard to the north and just possibly catch a glimpse of the forbidden: flesh--literally tons of it--as sculpted by the popularly acclaimed Colombian-born artist Fernando Botero.

Here, in Beverly Gardens Park, between Rodeo and Rexford drives, are 15 of Botero’s monumental bronze sculptures: reclining female nudes with thighs thick enough to flank a Roman temple; a dowager out for a Sunday stroll, her delicate handbag dangling from a forearm only a tow truck could budge; a baby with fingers as thick as Virginia hams--actually, thicker; and a bird so massive it seems like the wish fulfillment of hungry pigeons in parks around the world.

Botero has long been attracted to the comic potential of immensity. His work, however, is far from contemptuous of its exaggeratedly corpulent subjects. While one could argue that his figures would be perfect standard-bearers for what the politically correct call “anti-configurationism,” these are a distinctly apolitical bunch--just a bunch of heavy-set giants (each weighing more than a ton, and some taller than 12 feet) out to have a good time.


These impressive proportions demand that you step back a few paces, making it rather difficult to see the works without plunging off the curb into Santa Monica Boulevard. These sculptures are in fact best seen by car, framed, however asymmetrically, in the passenger’s side window. In this context, they provide a diversion from the annoyances of traffic. Seen for only a moment or two, their kitschiness doesn’t yet have the chance to become oppressive.

Champions of the work argue for its light-handed approach to the sanctimonies of art history: from the heroic proportions of Roman imperial statuary to the massive figures of both Picasso’s and Leger’s neoclassical periods. Among other things, Botero is obviously riffing on Pre-Colombian art, and one might even make a case for the work in the context of Surrealism, except for the fact that it lacks any semblance of perversity.

These sculptures--like Botero’s better-known graphic works--are in fact anti-psychological. Their purpose is celebration, and their wit, where it exists, lacks all nuance.

Sponsored by New York’s Marlborough Gallery, this exhibition has already been seen in Paris (along the Champs Elysees in 1992), New York City (along Park Avenue in 1993), Chicago, Madrid and Florida, and is slated to travel to Israel and Japan in 1996.

In light of PaceWildenstein’s recent exhibition of the work of sculptor Henry Moore, staged in this same outdoor location, one wonders about the poles that public art occupies in Los Angeles. If the state and locally funded work tends overwhelmingly to be identity-based, politically charged and focused upon community involvement, the work that is privately funded tends toward mind-numbing pleasantries. I suppose this shouldn’t be all that surprising. But it is, nonetheless, lamentable, and quite probably an insult to all sorts of publics.

* “Botero in Beverly Hills,” Beverly Gardens Park, on Santa Monica Boulevard between Rodeo and Rexford drives, Beverly Hills, (213) 622-8602, through Jan. 31.