Madison’s tall controversy

It’s not a portrait, so this discussion does not really belong on the Portrait Society web site, but I just couldn’t resist: We are so cut off from our sister city, Madison, that I did not know that a major sculpture by a nationally known artist landed in front of Camp Randall Stadium as part of the “percent for art” program. The Madison alumni, Donald Lipski,  was chosen to execute this $200,000 madison 019commission and after the proper design/review/discussion process “Nail’s Tales” was installed in November of 2005. On a recent visit to Madison, the city’s public art coordinator Karin Wolf gave Natanya Blanck and I a quick tour of public sculpture. Before we headed over to view the Lipski piece she said, “We are now going to see Madison’s most controversial work of art.” Hmmmmm. How exciting. I couldn’t imagine what it might entail: A giant piece of plop art? A series of amorphous blobs somewhere? Something too classical or narrative? What kind of art would incite the seemingly liberal and intellectual community of Madison. Interestingly, this sculpture by Lipski is hated by both sides of the often divided constituency. The art people hate it and the public hates it. This is unusual. Most often these two factions (the knowing professionals and the out-of-touch public) are at odds over what they want in their public spaces. 

When we pulled up to the towering 50 foot megalith I gushed with such relief: This sculpture is clearly magnificent in all its weirdness and the city of Madison should be delighted to own it. Lipski’s piece is a jaw-dropping quotation of an Egyptian obelisk, composed of a tapering tower of cast footballs. It’s kitschy, and sexy, and funny and scaled to a height where it pierces the blue sky, causing viewers to gaze upward in reverence to the football phallus. It is a thing of such great beauty and wit. Some people thought Lipski was making fun of the city’s devotion to football, and he was, but in a gentle way. Lipski himself said that when he was at Madison he spent more time protesting the Viet Nam war than rooting for the home team. He actually said he thinks there are far more important things than football. Can you imagine going public with such a statement?

Here is a quote from Lipski’s web site about this piece, which, by the way, was named for his college roommate whose nickname was “Nails.” 

“Seeing football players as modern gladiators, it occurs to me to look to ancient Donald Lipskiforms, and of course the obelisk came to mind. I created the piece to look as though it were a solid block of stone, eroding away, leaving a pile of footballs, as if they were a geological or archeological fact slowly being unearthed. I picuted it standing on a solid base, like a trophy. In fact, the obelisks in the squares and piazzas of Europe are indeed trophies, stolen from Egypt since the time of the Romans. I wanted both a kind of historical grandeur appropirate to the rich and wonderful history of the university, yet ambiguous, light-hearted. Although I understnd that for some people the stadium is the cultural heart of Madison, for me athletics are definitely a side-show. I wanted pomp and irony.

“There was a time when, in the shadow of rude and threatening behavior of some fans at games, there was concern, both by the Chancellor’s office and the Athletic Dept. that my piece was too phallic. I made a prsentation to Barry Alvarez and Donald Lipski, Madisonothers, telling them the history of the obelisk and explaining the thoughts behind my creation….” 

While Milwaukee’s Bronze Fonz certainly has a stake in “weirdness” Lipski takes the overblown and kitschy in a different, more noble, direction and I think he succeeds with great aplomb in making a monument to football that also causes perhaps just a moment of reflection about the things we revere and the role they play in society. 

Another public sculpture that we saw on our tour was Jill Sebastian’s Philosopher’s Grove on State Street by the Capitol building. This is a series of granite, geometric forms that look a little like polished ruins. The good thing about this work is that it is functional. People sit on the granite forms and eat their lunches. This little stone Jill Sebastian, Philosopher's Grovegarden provides a frame for the human encounters, turning the mundane activities of sunning or lunching into performance tableaux.


4 thoughts on “Madison’s tall controversy

  1. This thoughtful and insightful commentary caused me to see “Nail’s Tales” in two entirely new and different lights, one of cultural history and one of artistic irony. Being better informed about the sculpture, I now find more to like in it. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: visual hierarchy » Portrait Society and Madison’s Ugliest Sculpture

  3. I’m so sorry I didn’t see this post sooner! You’ve done an awesome job in analyzing this piece and giving perspective on the artist’s intention.

    My first response in seeing this sculpture was, “That is the biggest phallic homage to football I’ve ever seen! Don’t the people who commissioned it realize that?” Then I felt a little sick. But after reading your post, I feel positively euphoric about it. Job well done!

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