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Fabric-covered Fort Duquesne Bridge resembles Christo projects

| Tuesday, May 25, 2004

New York City may have Christo, but Pittsburgh art lovers have the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The Bulgarian-born artist and his partner, Jeanne-Claude, are celebrated wrap artists. They swathed the Reichstag in Berlin in brightly colored fabric in 1975. They encircled a group of 11 islands in Biscayne Bay near Miami with floating pink polypropylene in 1983.

"Running Fence," completed in 1976, strung 2,050 fabric panels together to create a white serpentine ribbon that looked not unlike the Great Wall of China. It wound for more than 24 miles through the rolling grasslands of Marin and Sonoma counties in California.

Christo's latest project, "The Gates," will festoon Central Park in New York City with 7,500 saffron-colored fabric sheets.

On the other hand, PennDOT's latest installation, "Bridge Work," drapes the Fort Duquesne Bridge in immense billows of pink, bisque and pearl gray fabric nearly three stories high. Seen from the approach to PNC Park on the North Shore, the fabric resembles a fleet of gigantic, flamingo-colored schooners under full sail.

The drop cloths have been erected to protect cars while the bridge undergoes a $15 million repainting.

But while many praise the sweep and scale of the work and its cunning use of negative space, critics found it to be too derivative of Christo.

"It's certainly derivative of what he was doing in the Whitney show in New York," says painter Rochelle Blumenfeld of Highland Park.

It takes more than pretty fabric to make art, says Thomas Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum.

"It's like saying a bikini and a nun's habit are the same thing because they're both dresses for women," he says. "It's the intention of the piece in the way it was conceived and what it's trying to do. "

PennDOT spokesman Dick Skrinjar counters the criticism by pointing out that Pittsburghers can enjoy their public sculpture nearly a year before Christo's much-anticipated project, which won't be unveiled until February.

"We're way ahead of New York," he says. "We're pioneering new avenues of expression. We're bridging that gap between art and reality."

Skrinjar says he would put Fort Duquesne Bridge up against any of PennDOT's more popular works, such as "Hint of Lilac," the repainting of the Hulton Bridge in Oakmont.

"It's the third work in a trilogy," he says, that began with the painting of the upper and lower decks of the Fort Pitt Bridge.

But others say that the latest project does not pack the power and immediacy of "Repaving Again," the award-winning 2002 project in which PennDOT erected three miles of orange barrels in a stark geometric pattern on Interstate 79 near Cranberry.

"I think it's great that PennDOT is finally noticing the need for more public artworks," says artist and cultural engineer Corey LeChat. "Although this piece does seem to be a bit more limited than their earlier works, such as the 'Infinity Barrel Project' and, my personal favorite, the highly interactive 'Pothole-la-Palooza.'"

No reviews of the Fort Duquesne Bridge project have appeared in Art News or ArtForum, two of the most influential art journals in the country.

Art critic and boulevardier Harry Schwalb says he passed on reviewing the Fort Duquesne Bridge out of professional compassion.

"Rather than embarrass the party involved, I will not review it," he says. "I do not want to be destructive."

Skrinjar defends PennDOT's artistic vision.

"We'll let the motorists judge," he says. "What you like in a painting is in the eye of the beholder."

He says he hadn't considered entering the project in the Three Rivers Arts Festival. But mention of the idea seems to intrigue him.

"I think I'll give them a call," he says.

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