You can’t fault the intent to honor Arthur Ashe in as many ways as possible. The United States Tennis Assn. already holds an Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day here in Arthur Ashe Stadium each year before the U.S. Open.
And now the USTA has added something to the U.S. National Tennis Center: the Arthur Ashe Commemorative Garden.
Its centerpiece is a 14-foot statue of a man--not Ashe--tossing a tennis ball, about to serve.
Except there is no ball. There is no racket. And there are no clothes.
As one observer said, “Whoever heard of playing tennis without any clothes?”
Other comments: “I think it’s ridiculous.” “Arthur Ashe wouldn’t like that.” “I think it’s stupid.” And, “That’s a strange statue.”
Somehow the USTA managed to miss on this easy, overhead smash. It almost would seem impossible to do wrong in the name of Ashe, but the USTA found a way.
The sculpture, although beautiful, doesn’t work in this setting. It is offensive to some and requires too much explanation to make its point, all of which detracts from the mission.
It is effective only in that art should provoke a reaction--and it does in almost everyone who passes by. You could get your money’s worth on a $40 grounds pass by spending the day watching as people see it for the first time, then open their mouths, curl their lips and squint in that unmistakable facial expression that says, “What the . . . ?”
Why is the racket broken off above the handle? The sculptor, Eric Fischl, said he wanted the object to represent not only a racket but a baton, that is passed from generation to generation.
He also said that to have a specific racket would date the statue.
So would clothing.
“I wanted that feeling of timelessness,” Fischl, 52, said. “As a nude form, the body gives you that.”
It also gives some observers a bad impression.
“They need to take it down, really,” said Lamont Bryant, who runs a tennis academy in Chicago along with Janet Wright.
“It doesn’t represent [Ashe] to me. If I had kids here, and they would ask me who is this? And I would tell them that this represents Ashe? I would have to go into a long . . . “
“ ‘Why is he playing tennis with no clothes on?’ ” Wright said, anticipating the kids’ questions.
“I don’t understand it, really,” Bryant said.
“It’s awful,” said Sue Ciccarone, of Baltimore. “I think it’s disgusting. They’re going to honor Arthur Ashe? Why can’t they have a statue of him? Always things like this. It’s awful.”
Her friend, Margie Busko, said, “I don’t think they need to introduce that type of thing here. I mean, they can just have some sort of a tribute to Arthur Ashe in another form. I think it’s in bad taste.”
The statue does have genitalia, although not anatomically correct.
Even those who like the sculpture, such as Todd and Jackie Rappaport, find its message baffling.
“I’m kind of confused a little bit,” Todd Rappaport said. “Is that him or is that supposed to be a depiction of what he stands for?”
There is an accompanying panel that explains the concept.
“Arthur Ashe embodies dignity, powerful determination and uncommon grace,” it reads. “While not a likeness, this sculpture was inspired by those qualities.”
The inscription also recounts Ashe’s accomplishments, such as becoming the first African American man to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and his off-court achievements that included battling apartheid in South Africa and advocating children’s causes.
Because the garden is situated inside the main entrance to the tennis center grounds, where thousands of people pass on their way to Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium, asking everyone to pause and read the inscription would be like asking motorists to stop and read the fine print on a roadside billboard.
The statue of Ashe in his hometown of Richmond, Va., conveys the message much more quickly and effectively. It depicts him holding a racket in one hand and books in the other.
Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Arthur’s widow, has voiced her approval of Fischl’s sculpture. And she was on the USTA panel that selected it from more than 100 submissions. The panel saw a miniature version of Fischl’s piece during the selection process, so it’s not as if they were caught off guard at the unveiling Monday night.
“I was, frankly, amazed that the USTA went for it,” Fischl said. “And I think they were incredibly courageous to do that.”
At the unveiling, USTA President Judy Levering said, “It’s provocative, but that was Arthur Ashe.”
Fischl said he was asked if he could put clothing on the sculpture, but his arguments that it would dilute the meaning of the piece were accepted. He even had used a computer program to gauge the effect of clothing on the statue, and didn’t like the results.
The sculpture is called “Soul in Flight”, but because it is situated in the Arthur Ashe Commemorative Garden, the automatic assumption is that it’s “The Arthur Ashe Statue.”
“It wasn’t a portrait,” Fischl said. “I was trying to bring to life a spirit in which he functioned.
“The difference between illustration and art is that illustration gives you something that you already know, whereas art gives you something that you haven’t seen before. It’s a way of rethinking something so that it stays alive.”
But part of being an artist is dealing with the critics.
“I’m not a tough or courageous kind of person,” Fischl said. “I fear and loathe criticism. I try not to set myself up for it. At the same time, I do try to pursue something that’s inspiration
“I would love people to love that piece. I would love people to embrace it and not think about it but about things that are related to Arthur Ashe and be inspired.”
He has two fans in the Rappaports.
“I like it,” Todd Rappaport said. “I guess some people have a problem with nudity or something, but I think it sort of strengthens it.
“It’s pretty impressive,” Jackie said, listing the qualities it suggested. “Strong, power, achievement.”
They get it and they like it.
They’re in the minority.
J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
French Open champion upset in first round by qualifier.