August 2007 Issue
Take a tour a Cincinnati's public art for an insight into the city's creative life.
"I always start with the pigs."
In a city that has borne the nickname "Porkopolis" for more than a century and a half, that sounds like good advice. Yet art historian Ceil Dorger directs us not to a butcher shop, but rather to the winged porkers atop the Cincinnati Gateway sculpture in Bicentennial Commons.
There, four whimsical flying pigs raise their cloven hooves in civic salute, part of the sidewalk smorgasbord that is public art in Cincinnati.
With dozens of public pieces free for the ogling from water's edge at the Ohio River, the Queen City becomes an outdoor museum without walls. Dorger leads her art history students from the College of Mount St. Joseph on walking tours of the sculpture, from old-fashioned William Henry Harrison astride his bronze horse to free-form contemporary pieces.
"My impression of our city is that it's very art-friendly compared to other cities its size," Dorger muses. Many of Cincinnati's outdoor pieces were commissioned by private donors for the city's bicentennial in 1988, gifts that built upon a civic tradition stretching back to the 1871 Tyler Davidson Fountain, now the city's symbol.
"I think the discourse about public art is very interesting, too, even if people are getting mad or don't understand the pieces," she says. "It makes a fun day to take a walk and look at it all, and ask ourselves questions. Sometimes the pieces we find most difficult have the biggest payout later: If it takes a bit of thinking, we may embrace the piece more later."
Dorger chooses 10 pieces for special consideration, starting, naturally, with the pigs.
1. The Cincinnati Gateway sculpture in Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point was, of course, a bicentennial initiative.
The flying pigs, by Briton Andrew Leicester, stand rampant atop four columns. Cincinnati was famous for its assembly-line pork processing in the mid-1800s, and a mosaic on the Gateway shows a local pork-processing plant from that era: The town's been Porkopolis ever since.
Yet some Cincinnatians heaped vitriol on the pigs when the design was first unveiled. "When you go back through the archives, you find that it was roundly hated in the beginning. But now the flying pigs give their name to the Cincinnati marathon, and the flying pig has become a symbol of the city," Dorger says. "It's all taken off from Leicester's sculpture."
2. In 1917, poor Abraham Lincoln's bronze in Lytle Park was just as reviled. "People talked about how insultin g it was to Lincoln, with its large hands and feet," Dorger says. "But George Grey Barnard, the sculptor, was a student of Rodin's, and Rodin's The Thinker has enormous feet and hands. It helps root the person to the ground, and this statue shows how grounded Lincoln was.
"We're very luck to have this piece," Dorger says of the gift to the city from Anna Sinton Taft and Charles Phelps Taft. "It looked very modern in 1917, a little bumpy and roughed in. It looked as modern as nonrepresentational pieces look to people now."
3. After 28 years, some locals still haven't warmed to Two Rectangles Vertical Gyratory II, Variation IV by George Rickey. But the kinetic art at the corner of Fifth and Main remains "an engineering feat that I think is so cool," Dorger says. "It sits on a pin and revolves depending upon which way the wind's blowing, and it spins, too. It looks heavy but is so light — it's a series of contradictions. The brushed stainless steel reflects and refracts light. It never looks the same twice."
4. Metrobot made quite a sensation when the video robot took his giant stance on East Fifth Street in 1988. The monument to video art was the result of a private commission to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Contemporary Arts Center and the city's 200th birthday. Metrobot's wristwatch tells time for passersby and the public telephone in his leg was a pre-cell phone public service.
Nam June Paik, born in Korea, was adopted by Cincinnati collector Carl Solway, "who gave him backing to grow into the artist he became," Dorger notes.
5. The 1871 Tyler Davidson Fountain, located on Fountain Square and immortalized by the TV show "WKRP in Cincinnati," is another heartfelt private commission. Henry Probasco selected the fountain design in Munich as a memorial to Davidson, his deceased brother-in-law and business partner. The theme is water, flowing from the fingertips of the Genius of Water. "She is our own allegorical figure, like the Statue of Liberty," Dorger says, "and very much beloved."
6. Louise Nevelson painted her steel forms matte black, the better to play up sunlight and shadows on her Sky Landscape II at the Public Library. "Why did she call it that?" Dorger asks. "It's a good one to ponder. The answers are not written anywhere, and I think that's all to the good."
7. Cincinnati native Jim Dine gave his old town a Venus bigger and bolder than her ancient namesake, Venus de Milo. Cincinnati Venus and her reflecting pool are tucked into a courtyard at Centennial Plaza, where "she appears to be striding. There's a twist in the torso — I just love the size," Dorger observes.
8. William Henry Harrison in Piatt Park is a good contrast with later public art. This 1896 pose is classical: The horse's raised front leg means his rider was wounded in battle.
9. The title, Amelia Valerio Weinberg Memorial Fountain, gives no hint of the whimsy here: a stack of books overflowing with the waters of knowledge, bubbling in front of the main library. Michael Frasca fired clay over concrete to create the illusion of leather bindings. "It's almost like a big Pop Art piece," Dorger says. "It too fun not to like."
10. If it starts with pigs, it must end with Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the city's namesake. The Roman citizen-soldier is portrayed as a marble statue in a vast trompe l'oeil painting on a Central Parkway building. Artist Richard Haas set the statue under the dome of the Pantheon, surrounded by Renaissance columns and a Baroque staircase. "Trompe l'oeil means ‘fool the eye,'" Dorger says, "and I love to be fooled."
More Outdoor Sculpture
Just north of Cincinnati lies Hamilton, City of Sculpture. The story of the Butler County seat's transformation into a showcase for outdoor art can be found here.
While You're in Cincinnati
Check out these exhibits and festivals that will keep you busy all weekend long.
Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship, through Jan. 2 at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, is a 15,000-square-foot National Geographic exhibit devoted to the Whydah, the first duly authenticated pirate ship discovered in U.S. waters. 1301 Western Ave., Cincinnati, 513/287-7000. www.cincymuseum.org. Daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Adults $16.50, seniors $14.50, children $10.50.
Pete: The Exhibit, through spring 2008, focuses on the career of baseball’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose. The exhibit covers Rose’s career from 1963 to 1986, spanning the years from Crosley Field to Riverfront Stadium. Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, 100 Main St., Cincinnati, 513/765-7923. cincinnati.reds.mlb.com/cin/ballpark/museum/index.jsp. Call for hours and admission prices.
Ohio Renaissance Festival, Sept. 1–Oct. 21, invites visitors to discover a re-created, 16th-century English village, where there are hundreds of costumed performers, musicians, dancers, full-armored jousts and plenty of hearty meals. St. Rte. 73, Harveysburg, 513/897-7000. www.renfestival.com. Sat.–Sun. 10:30 a.m.–6 p.m. Open on Labor Day. Call or visit Web site for ticket prices.
MainStrasse Village Oktoberfest, Sept. 7–9, features a mix of German and international foods, music and arts. Historic MainStrasse Village, Philadelphia and Main streets, Covington, Ky., 859/491-0458. www.mainstrasse.org. Fri. 5–11 p.m., Sat. 12–11 p.m., Sun. 12–9 p.m. Admission free, beer wristband $1.
Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati, Sept 22–23, North America’s largest Oktoberfest, celebrates southwestern Ohio’s German heritage with German-style music, food and beer. Fifth St., Cincinnati, 513/579-3124. www.oktoberfest-zinzinnati.com. Sat. 10:30 a.m.–midnight, Sun. 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Free.
Fall-O-Ween & Farm Festival, Sept. 29–30, heralds the fall season with floral displays, interactive events, rides, musical entertainment, harvest markets, autumn-inspired exhibits, a Halloween Maze and much more. Coney Island, 6201 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati, 513/232-8230. www.coneyislandpark.com. 12–7 p.m. Adults $9, children under 12 $6. - Ashley Harrington