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Last night in our “twin city” of South Orange, there was a dedication ceremony for the installation of Tau, a monumental outdoor sculpture by Tony Smith. Smith (1912-1980) was a lifelong resident of South Orange, even after achieving worldwide fame as a sculptor his studio was still in his home (and yard). It’s nice to see a local boy make good.

Judy Wikutsch of the S.O. arts department did a great job of setting up the event. In addition to the usual suspects like the mayor, she got the dean of the fine arts department at Yale to speak, and Tony Smith’s two daughters. They’re visible in the photo below, the two heads right in the center.

There were also food stands, live music, and souvenirs.

The story of Tau in South Orange is a sordid one, though, full of the kinds of things said and done that make arts-appreciating people cringe (or worse). The ancien regime in South Orange was notorious for the opacity and general cluelessness of their decision-making. They arranged for financing of the sculpture without adequate public input, outraging the usual anti-tax, anti-art, anti-everything crowd. Then their choice of a site was an absolute horror, even to fans of the project. They wanted to tear down a perfectly fine gazebo and fountain next to the train station, and plant it there next to the parking lot. It would have looked like a bus shelter.

Meanwhile the anti-everything crowd ranted and raved in most embarrassing fashion about the piece itself. It reminded this ex-Clevelander about the fracas surrounding Noguchi’s “Portal,” installed in downtown Cleveland in the early ’70s. “It doesn’t look like anything,” they whined. I’d like to write something clever and graceful about it, but I’ve really got little but contempt for them so I’m not even going to try.

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But finally — and this was just one of many abuses and scandals they engaged in, don’t get us started — they were voted out and better government and art fans prevailed. A beautiful plot of grass surrounded by trees was prepared in the main town park, where (as I hope you can see from the photos) the work can breathe a little.

But the philistines haven’t rested. The night before the dedication it was vandalized. Spray-painted messages complained of the money spent, not a likely subject for local kids or gangsta types up from Newark looking to tag something. They had conservators rush in to do a cleaning and repainting, and by evening there was no trace of the damage.

You know, it might just be time to accept the fact that it’s done. They money’s been spent, the work has been placed on the site, and it’s going to stay. But if we’re lucky, it will be the first of several. While it might cost an extra buck or two (literally) over the course of your life, it enhances life in the two towns by at least that much to have a monument like this on the scene.

3 thoughts on “Tau”

  1. There’s this real difference of opinion in the U.S. between people who want to coddle/preserve and those that would flatten and start over as much as they can. I would guess that the latter group wins more often here then it does in Europe.
    I was a supporter of Noguchi’s Portal back in the 70’s. Now I find it to be something to walk by in order to walk in the east door of the Justice Center. It’s part of the woodwork. Does it enhance the area on a subconscious level after everyone has gotten over it’s novelty? Or not. I dunno but public art I think can when it’s of an excellent quality.
    Are there subjective matters of taste? Always. Tough considerations but necessary in a democracy.
    I think Art and design can enhance life. Personally I’m looking forward to when the predominate focus of projects like this is on the how and not why.

  2. Unfortunately, Tom as much as I share your enthusiasm for Tau (full disclosure- I helped to bring it to South Orange) I have to correct one major error in your post (there are a few, but we don’t have to go there)
    1) The “anti-tax, anti-art..” fellow who started the frakas about Tau, got elected, citing that as his major accomplishment, AND he is running again in the coming May 12 election.
    On top of that, his supporters are the ones who are ready to willy-nilly eliminate our sole cultural arts professional because a savings of say, less than 50K will help with a supposed budget deficit of 5 million – even if it means shuttering all of the arts programs that draw many tax payers to live here in the first place!
    I could go on…

  3. Thanks Susan for the correction. As a Maplewood resident I didn’t pay close enough attention to the details of South Orange politics before shooting my mouth off. Feel free to correct anything else I got wrong.

    My assumption was that the new group’s opposition was more to an OK idea handled badly (like the animal shelter) rather than to a bad idea handled badly (like the quarry development).

    But nickle-and-dime cost saving ideas — not just the arts position but cancelling the fireworks last July 4 — do more harm than good as far as I can tell. You’re dead-on about the arts position. Keeping it would cost every man, woman and child in South Orange, what, $1.10 per annum in taxes? Please. We’re still waiting for the Beifus lot to become a ratable.

    Back to Cleveland, I doubt anyone would claim that “Portal” was Noguchi’s finest hour. But we can only wish that the debate centered around such finer points. Instead it seemed to be driven by the type of people for whom the only useful civic sculpture is that of a guy on a horse. I’m lookin’ at you, Dick Feagler.

    But while you can’t hit a home run every time at bat, you need to get up there and swing anyway.

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