Public spectacles

As a city, Philadelphia is proud yet passive about its public art.

At midtown, there’s Calder’s Billy Penn, up the Franklin Parkway at Logan Square there’s Calder’s Swann Fountain and over at the Art Museum hangs the Calder mobile. Three generations of Philadelphia sculptors — grandfather, father and son — all named Alexander.

Another example, although residents may mock it, is a piece of modern sculpture that has made its way into the folklore. Who has never heard the phrase, "Meet you at the Clothespin?"

But South Philly has its own traditions of public art and architecture. Some of these are in small, semi-private pocket parks, others stand out over the skyline and still others have become symbols of the area.

No public art in South Philadelphia, however, has achieved widespread acceptance as quickly as the Philadelphia Beacons, the four imposing light towers — one on each corner — at the intersection of Washington Avenue and the Avenue of the Arts. Actually, in South Philly, it is still known as Washington and Broad, demonstrating that neighborhood residents abide by the notion that many are called but few are chosen.

The Beacons made their debut on New Year’s Eve 1999 after a typical Philadelphia brouhaha involving the sculptor, Ray King; the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Office of Arts and Culture, the Streets Department, the Americans with Disabilities Act, several lawyers and a good portion of the arts community. Some disclosure seems to be in order: King was a South Philly neighbor for years.

First the Beacons: They are massive, 42-feet high and about 20 tons each. They are made of black granite, stainless steel, aviation cable and bolted sheets of laminated glass with holographic film sandwiched inside. At night the interior is lighted by metal halide lights and during the day, the film reacts to multiple light sources to reflect pure transmitted colors. Each beacon comprises 1,000 squares and triangles of glass. They are also elegant, vaguely high-tech and European.

King, a 52-year-old native of Philadelphia, has studios in Northern Liberties and has been commissioned for such massive steel and light constructions across the country. But make no mistake, the Philadelphia Beacons — costing some $525,000 — were conceived and constructed with South Philly in mind. King notes the glass latticework is derived from a Venetian glassblowing pattern he calls "lattocini bambini" (lattice babies). He has been quoted as saying the name is a reference to the Italian-American population in the neighborhood.

Also referenced are the Mummers and their trademark outlandishly colored costumes. King again: "This glass is going to look outrageous, and the Mummers work with sparkle and color — sequins, which are all reflection and shimmer. The holographic film will refract all kinds of color, sort of a confetti-like spectacle, which will change as you move around it."

Second, the brouhaha: As part of the original 1994 contract with King, the city was to drill 40-foot-deep holes to secure the footings for the Beacons. Two of the holes were moved because of utility lines without notifying King. The relocations would have encroached on curb cuts for the disabled, opening up legal liability for King. The issue of resolving the mess took about six years, a long delay for what has been designated as the southern gateway to the Avenue of the Arts.

King had been selected from among 476 applicants for the commission managed by the city and funded by the "1 Percent for the Arts" legislation.

As it turned out, finally, the huge and colorful Beacons (criticized by some as not avant-garde enough and by others as too forward-looking) were a perfect match for the location. It had to be something bold enough to overcome the bulky buildings, open lots and the intersection itself, which measures 100 feet (Washington) by 113 feet (Broad). There is great comfort in those lights as they balance off City Hall at the north end and reflect the diversity, strength and richness of the neighborhood’s population. Plus, they were put up by union labor.

South Philly shows off

Public art may abound in South Philadelphia, but the majority of art is made indoors and displayed in some of the city’s oldest and most unique institutions.

The Fleisher Art Memorial, 709-721 Catharine St., founded in 1898, is the nation’s oldest tuition-free art school. It is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its Challenge Exhibitions, one of the region’s finest venues for up-and-coming artists. Tomorrow, the season’s second show opens. It features Rebecca Rutstein, Emma Varley and Barbara Woodall, all of whom share an interest in geographic and mental mapping.

The American Swedish Historical Museum, 1900 Pattison Ave., is a unique institution located inside FDR Park that chronicles and showcases the cultural heritage of Swedes in the United States. The current display is "Nobel: Celebrating a Century of Nobel Prizes."

A membership art gallery, the DaVinci Alliance, 704 Catharine St., was founded by a group of South Philadelphia artists some 70 years ago and is enjoying a recent renewal. Opening tomorrow is "Pollock to Puri: Five Decades Later," an exhibition of new paintings by Antonio Puri. DaVinci director David Foss, meanwhile, is having his own exhibition of new work through Nov. 24 at the Philadelphia Art Alliance satellite gallery, 210 W. Rittenhouse Square. *