The Ballerina Clown Turns 25

Above the entrance to the CVS Pharmacy is a sight 

that will persuade you to get back on your meds.


By Delores Hanney

It’s as emblematic of Venice as Mickey Mouse ears are of Disneyland. The 30-foot tall jester in a tutu is peculiar, to be sure, but its consummate oddness somehow makes it a suitable avatar for this its unconventional hometown. 2013 is the silver anniversary of its flamboyant reign.

It stands there at Main Street and Rose Avenue, a full story above the sidewalk on its kitty-corner Renaissance Building perch. Designed by Santa Monica architect Johannes Van Tilburg and built by first owner Harlan Lee, the building is home to commercial enterprises – such as the CVS Pharmacy – to pricey condos, vacation rentals, and housing for low income seniors; in addition to its function as way-visible display space for the kitschy Ballerina Clown.

Created by Jonathan Borofsky in his Topanga Canyon studio, the wiggy sculpture is constructed of aluminum, steel and painted fiberglass. It was fitted with an electric motor that allowed the right leg to kick back and forth – ballerina fashion – until the mechanism was turned off in order that the hum not be a botheration to the lawyer lady living right behind it. Along with the tutu, its quirky ensemble includes a pair of white elbow-length gloves that some say look more like washing-the-dishes gear than glamour wear. Two barely noticeable tiny red tears appear to slowly slide down its face.

The sculpture was commissioned by the aforementioned Harlan Lee. Borofsky offered him three suggestions: one traditional, one less so, the third – and chosen one – clearly over-the-top. It therefore conformed to what Borofsky termed Lee’s “flair for stirring things up.” Demonstrating success for this very thing, it seeded a whole bunch of controversy including a petition to have it removed circulated by a little assembly of aspirant taste arbiters. The petition was countered by a review written by L.A. Times art critic, Christopher Knight, reeking with respect for the statue.

The piece is hardly typical of the artist’s work, which tends to be spare, streamlined and dynamic. Using names like I Dreamed I Could Fly or Human Structures, Borofsky has spawned ginormous public installations around the world: in Switzerland, France, Germany, England, Norway and Canada; in Japan and South Korea and China – not to mention all the stuff in private collections – thus staking out for himself a claim to art big kahunaship. Weirdly enough, he was not so famed here in the United States till around 2004 when a temporary installation of Walking to the Sky went up in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

Born in Boston in 1942, his interest in art began percolating to the surface early on: a predictable symptom of his DNA given that his mother was a gallery owner, an artist and an architect. Dad was artistic, too, but his field was music. As a child Jonathan Borofsky was especially inspired by a Paul Gauguin painting that hung at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; well, less by the image than its title: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It triggered in him philosophical musings he would glom onto as the overarching theme of his future work, in which he seeks to explore these heady, meaning-of-life questions.

He received a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University, an MFA from the Yale School of Art and Architecture, between which he sandwiched in study at the Ecole de Fountainebleu in France. In 2006 Carnegie Mellon conferred an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts.

Early in his career, he taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Later he taught at the California Institute of the Arts, living, then, in a small funkadoodle apartment on the Venice boardwalk, there to soak up – he told me – the lightness, brightness and energy so different from the more muted tones of the east. Though unimpressive, the dwelling boasted a beach view from the window and outside the building’s front entrance the eccentric accumulation of amusement makers and vendors swirled and twirled like organisms in a tide pool.

The Ballerina Clown was always a salute to those gaudy habitués of Ocean Front Walk and – more deeply – a psychological “resolution of opposites.” At 25 familiarity with the bi-gendered statue and greater societal acceptance of sexuality as a continuum have reduced some of its original outrageousness factor. Today its symbolism may even be seen to have broadened, transmogrifying the sculpture into a visual celebration of diversity: that quintessential element at the core of the Venice, California experience.

Categories: History, Venice