"The purpose of public art is to create a 'dialogue.' I like that word better than 'controversy.'" -- Luis Jiménez
had the commission hanging over his head.
The artist had missed another deadline towards the completion of his sculpture Mustang
, which Denver International Airport (DIA) had been waiting to install for more than a decade. The sculpture wasn't ready when the airport opened in February 1995, and it still wasn't ready now, in June 2006.
"Whatever happened to the horse?" Denver Mayor Wellington Webb had asked during a city council meeting, way back in 1998. At one point, the airport sued Jiménez for the return of the hefty upfront payment that he'd received towards his reported $300,000 commission: a nasty legal battle, which led to Jiménez countersuing the airport, as well. It was agreed, in the course of mediation, that Jiménez would finish the sculpture.
On June 13, 2006, Jiménez headed back into his studio, a former apple-processing plant in rural Hondo, New Mexico, to get back to work on Mustang
, hoping to eventually finish it, and to finally have the completed piece behind him and prominently installed in Denver.
Hondo is located about a three-hour drive northeast from El Paso, Texas, where Jiménez had been born and raised. Jiménez was the son of an immigrant from Mexico; his father operated a neon-sign business. It's said that Mustang
's eyes -- LED lights which illuminate a fiery red -- pay homage to the man who'd refused to speak to his son for years after young Luis chose a career in art over architecture.
However, Luis A. Jiménez, Jr. had proven successful in his chosen field: He'd tasted success in the New York art world; and, then, when that insular, East Coast milieu proved unfulfilling to him, he'd gained acceptance for his public art commissions, where his works were more visible to the public (including outside the entrance of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
in Washington, D.C.). His work blended European influences together with the colors and vibrancy of Latin American art, incorporating, at times, politically charged (see Abu Ghraib
and the NSFW Bomb
) as well as Chicano
subject matter. His sculptures were noted for his use of fiberglass, which was then considered a "lowbrow" material more attuned to hot rods than fine art.Luis Jiménez at the Smithsonian with his "Vaquero."
Jiménez, 65, had health issues which trailed him wherever he went, these days. As a child his left eye had been shot by a BB gun; surgeries had corrected his vision at one time, but now, after persistent migraines, he'd been fitted with a glass eye. As a young adult, a painful back injury resulted from a car accident. In his late fifties, he'd had a heart attack. His hands, the tools of his trade, had recently required surgery, as well. He was keenly aware of his own mortality: A 1996 self-portrait
(completed while DIA was still waiting for its sculpture) depicts a mirror image of Jiménez, his skull visible through his flesh.
As one of the large sections of Mustang
was hoisted above him that day -- some reports say it was the torso, others the hindquarters -- the tragedy occurred (an "industrial accident," according to the sheriff department's press release). The fiberglass and steel section, weighing hundreds of pounds, fell onto Jiménez, pinning him down like small rabbit caught in a giant owl's grasp (a scene depicted by another of his other sculptures
), severing an artery in his leg. Jiménez bled to death, long before ever being wheeled DOA into the nearest hospital 28 miles away.
Governor Bill Richardson ordered the flags to fly at half-mast in New Mexico for the major American artist who had been killed while working on one of his own sculptures. Nationally, obituaries were penned for the man who'd detailed the corporeal -- the sweat, bones, guts and gristle of everyday existence -- in his work.
Who would complete the ill-fated sculpture now? Would DIA ever have its long-promised (some would say "cursed") Mustang
A vista from afar
In February 2008, the 32-foot tall, 9,000-pound sculpture Mesteño/Mustang
(the largest sculpture of Jiménez's career) was officially placed on a median next to Peña Boulevard at DIA. A plaque reads, "Completed and installed posthumously by his family and studio staff." Jiménez's wife and two of his sons had finished the piece with the help of others.
But not everyone thought the statue should be completed. At the time of his death, one friend had suggested leaving it in an unfinished state like Mount Rushmore. Another thought it should be cut up and destroyed, because it would never match Jiménez's intentions. Indeed, a 1997 lithograph
by Jiménez on display at Denver's Art Hotel
depicts the equine figure rising up from a ground covered with "historical artifacts": what appears to be an animal skull, an arrow head, a spur, among other objects. That's how Jiménez envisioned the completed sculpture, as well. At DIA, the horse's back hooves are planted on a bed of stones.
At a dedication ceremony
attended by airport and city officials, in addition to members of Jiménez's family, speeches were made about the artist, and about the significance of Mustang
While acknowledging that Jiménez's aesthetics weren't to everyone's liking, Manager of Aviation Kim Day said, "It is a sculpture of action and power, which symbolizes where we are headed and what we love about Denver and the West: freedom, a sense of wilderness, natural beauty and, most of all, determination."
Denver had been determined to have its sculpture -- and now the airport finally had it.
Michael Hancock, then president of Denver City Council, hit the nail on the head when he said, "It will forever incite dialogue."
Detractors have said that the statue looks "possessed," that it's "horrible," "disturbing." It's been called a "Demon Horse," the "Blue Stallion of Death," "Satan's Steed," and, of course, "Blucifer." One 2008 letter writer to the Rocky Mountain News
derided the statue as "hideous," adding, "That is about the last thing on Earth I would want to see greeting travelers to our wonderful state."
In 2009, then-real estate broker Rachel Hultin created a Facebook page, which more or less reflected her feelings of Mustang at the time: DIA's Heinous Blue Mustang Has Got To Go. Hultin says, "I started a Facebook page not realizing it would become national news. It was an accidental success." Today, Hultin no longer sees red when she views the blue sculpture: "I like the piece, I hate the placement." She calls it a "powerful," but says, "It's a little lost when you go past it at 60 miles per hour." Although she could have petitioned the city to move Mustang
elsewhere in 2013 (as per city regulations governing public art), Hultin declined to pursue that initiative.
"There's no location to be able to get intimate with the work," artist Lawrence Argent
, who created the sculpture of the blue bear at the Colorado Convention Center, told the New York Times
in 2009. "It's a vista from afar, and to many it's a frightening vista from afar."
Far away in Washington, D.C., E. Carmen Ramos, the curator of Latino art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, calls Jiménez an "important artist," saying, "He drew on his interest in popular culture, and really worked to rethink and reimagine classical sculpture from a contemporary perspective."
On October 15, Jiménez's sculpture Vaquero
will be placed once again outside the Smithsonian's art museum, following a recent restoration of the piece. Ramos says the work, depicting a cowboy holding a pistol and riding a fierce, bucking horse with red eyes (not unlike Mustang
), has become a "very popular" symbol for the museum. However, a version of the same piece in Houston's Moody Park was reviled by some in the Latino community as an insulting depiction -- and by one Latino politician for "allegedly inciting violence," according to Texas Monthly
"But, the thing with public art is that it really depends on the context," Ramos says. "I think a lot of the controversy that has come up around [Jiménez's] work has a lot to do with where things are placed and the public expectations around those environments for communicating an identity -- whether it's the identity of a neighborhood, whether it's an identity of a city. So, I think the fact that we've placed Vaquero
so prominently in front of our building, I don't think it's viewed as strange, because we're an art museum."
Dance on the bones of the pastUp close, the statue's physicality stands out.
The white Chevy Tahoe exited the roadway at DIA, riding up and over the dirt and dried grass, coming to a stop directly next to the blue sculpture. The man commandeering the vehicle, DIA's Senior Public Information Officer Heath Montgomery
, has occasion to take members of the media to see Mustang
up close about four to five times a year -- a vantage that very few members of the public are ever afforded. In this instance, Montgomery was playing host to a Confluence Denver reporter
Like others with similar reactions, the reporter had never liked Jiménez's sculpture. Most of the time, his travels to the airport are in the early a.m., when Mustang
is lit from the bottom and presented in what could be best described as "horror-movie lighting." The illuminated red eyes shine ominously in the distance. It can be a disconcerting sight. Air travel, with its security lines prior to the flight itself, can be stressful enough without first staring at, in effect, a memento mori
for a deceased sculptor on the route to the main terminal -- the sculpture itself having been the instrument of the artist's death.
Accompanying the group that day was DIA Director of Arts and Public Events Heather Kaufman. Kaufman commented on the public art at DIA, and specifically Mustang
: "We have about 40 pieces in the permanent collection
out here, and I think he's one of the most beloved pieces -- especially by the airport."
The reporter asked who had jokingly posted a close-up photo online
's face in honor of National Selfie Day about four months ago.
"Guilty!" said Montgomery. He added, "We like to have fun. But that goes back to the whole discussion about people really loving him -- and us really loving him. We take every opportunity we can to embrace the great things of this airport. Mustang
is one of the great things."
DIA even posted an April Fool's Facebook message
, suggesting that a color change was in order and asking people what hue they want the sculpture repainted. Kaufman gives away buttons with a head shot of Jiménez's horse. (Spoiler alert: Someone at DIA might even be wearing a Mustang
costume for Halloween.) The DIA staff come off as militantly cheerful about the piece.
At the sculpture's 2008 dedication ceremony, then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper commented on the horse's orbs: "Many times, those eyes are perceived as warding off evil spirits. And, certainly, if there's one place we want to make sure we have no evil spirits, it's right close to an airport."
That comment did nothing to assuage conspiracy theorists, who perceive there being a host of bizarre and nefarious activities taking place at the airport. (This video
as being the "Pale Horse of the Apocalypse, mentioned in the bible"). In fact, the art gallery within Jeppesen Terminal is currently hosting an exhibit called "Conspiracy Theories Uncovered"
in time for Halloween, which features the "cursed" Mustang
among other citations: "From tunnels that connect the airport with secret military installations, to lizard people lurking below baggage claim, no airport in the world has been the subject of such persistent and widespread conspiracy theories as DEN."
With the circus tent-like Jeppesen Terminal in the distance, Mustang
, the loneliest piece within DIA's public art collection, loomed overhead.
Up close, the sculpture felt more approachable, less menacing to the reporter, who doesn't stand nearly as tall as one of Mustang
The statue's physicality stood out: its veins running along its ribs and its hooves, which are as big around as some tree trunks. There's the welding that holds its three segments together, as well as an odd circular patch in the center of its chest. (Could that have been an area that needed to be fixed after the fatal accident?) From the side, it appeared more majestic than it does from a distance. The red, illuminated eyes don't appear as spooky in the light of day, either, the effect diminished by the bright, mid-morning sun. One can see where the underlying sculptor's clay was layered for the horse's mane.
Humorously, from behind, the statue strikes a, well, vulnerable pose, with its scrotum hanging down, beneath its rounded anus. (Let's face it: The statue already has a certain phallic quality to it.)
From head on, the piece appears a lot less ghoulish. Rather, it's somewhat gawky -- as well as funny. The sculpture appears to be laughing at preconceived notions about it. Its mane of hair resembles a punk rocker's Mohawk with liberty spikes
seems to be saying, We're going to be penned in, we're going to be trampled by disappointments; we're going to be plagued by health-related issues; we're all going to die. Raise yourself up! Dance on the bones of the past; express wildness in the present, despite your less-than-ideal circumstances! Do you want to tussle? Let's mosh!
"Animals in the wild reveal truths about ourselves. They remind us about a part of ourselves that we often try to hide or have forgotten." -- Luis Jiménez
The multifaceted subject of Luis Jiménez and his sculpture at DIA deserves a broader treatment. Luckily, Boulder filmmaker Erika O'Conor is at work on a documentary film, due out in 2017, with the working title of
Mustang Mesteño. O'Conor writes: "It is an exploration of the life, work and legacy of Luis Jiménez, and the controversy, misinformation and conversation surrounding his final piece,
Mustang, at the Denver International Airport."
See and hear more: video and audio of Luis Jiménez. To hear Jiménez's widow, Susan, discuss Luis and
Mustang, call the city's public art hotline 877/DEN-ARTS, extension 7.
Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.