Visual Arts

Mitt Museum of Art

We may never know why sports elevated the ancient Grecian imagination to Praxiteles, and has lowered the current Phoenician one to the art at Bank One Ballpark. But the modern impulse to turn every little sports-related thing into a marketing scheme may have something to do with it.

Diamondbacks spokesmen say there's about a million bucks of art at BOB. Some of it has the whimsy of the supersized baseball bollards that line Jefferson Street and George Rhoads' "Based on Balls," a mechanical sculpture in the stadium's west plaza. But most of it follows the soppy lead of Clarke Reidy's group of bronze figures, "Baseball: A Family Tradition," on the stadium's north side, just off Jefferson Street.

Like the corporate logos and large graphic panels that blight the building's hulking exterior--and must nag the architects even more than bad press about the roof--the message of the art is the medium.

Forget the ugliness of baseball's big business, goes the pitch. Think of the beauty and innocence of the game you knew as a child. Sure, the sport's occasionally been run, hit and erred on by a bunch of petty, greedy heels. But baseball--just the game--is good for you and your kids. And if you take them often enough to the park, you'll seed their future memories with the swoon, "Oh, what a happy day it was when the D-backs came to town."

The D-backs management deserves credit for trying to give the stadium the texture of a cultural venue. Ramon Plaza, a marketing specialist with the team who has become the ad hoc curator of the stadium's art, has done an extraordinary and quick job of filling the stadium's numerous niches with a sports-bar array of baseball art and artifacts. Most of the new stadiums around the country have BOB's mallpark feel. But not many share its cultural bent.

In addition to the Rhoads and Reidy sculptures, BOB has murals by New York artist Richard Haas--completed two weeks ago--some old-fashioned billboard paintings by local artist Mark Switlik, paintings loaned by Jerome artist Jack Guth, and loads of vintage baseball gear and memorabilia, including a beautifully designed minimuseum of artifacts from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown. Designed by the Heard Museum's talented exhibit designer Kevin Winters, and maintained by the Heard, the collection of 90 artifacts is the second Hall of Fame installation outside of Cooperstown. The Texas Rangers' stadium in Arlington houses the first.

Plaza says the idea for putting art in BOB was Jerry Colangelo's. Early in the 1990s, Colangelo had worked with the Phoenix Arts Commission to bring the two high-tech installations by artists Nam June Paik and Jim Campbell to the lobby of America West Arena.

Those projects came about through Phoenix's percent-for-art ordinance. A spokesman for Maricopa County, which controls the stadium, says that although the county has no art requirement for its buildings, a small portion of the public's $253 million share of the stadium's overall cost paid for the bollards and panels. The Diamondbacks funded the rest of the art.

Plaza says Colangelo felt art would be a good way to "reach out to the public and make them understand that this is their team."

That's a big part of the art message in BOB's main-entry rotunda. Its floor has a large, inlaid map of Arizona. The lower walls show Haas' 11-panel timeline of sporting history, from 400 B.C. to the present. And the rotunda's upper-level walls are wrapped with about two dozen Haas panels depicting prominent Arizona landmarks.

Haas, who in the mid-1980s had created a notable mural for the Thunderbird Fire & Safety Equipment Corporation building in Phoenix, conceived the design for the BOB murals. But he farmed out most of the actual painting to a crew of artists from New York. They produced friendly postcard views of places like Havasu Falls and the Grand Canyon.

The Reidy sculpture also had something of a committee origin. Plaza says Colangelo, other D-backs officials and the architects hatched the concept for Reidy's work: "Jerry originally wanted to have somebody in a baseball position, standing there batting, like most ballparks. And the idea was to make it big, about 24 feet tall."

But this being the team's first season, there weren't any big heroes to sculpt. So the idea of getting a baseball Bunyan shrank.

"Some of the architects began talking about getting something a little more lifelike," recalls Plaza, "something that people could walk up to and maybe relate to."

What Colangelo and the art committee came up with, and Reidy executed, is a curious view of the family. Reidy's bronze family features a generic mother with a generic boy and girl seeking an autograph from a generic D-backs player. Where's Papa, you ask? It's the '90s, and single moms rule. Besides, with a major leaguer like Reidy's Number 98 on the scene, who needs dad?

Charles Barkley was right. Professional jocks aren't role models. They're fathers to us all.

This is hardly credible as art. But who cares. It's marketing. And how can you argue with the crowd-pleasing paternalism of the message? Or the new meaning the bronze children bring to the phrase "Jerry's Kids"?

Baseball art is mostly cowboy art in soiled pajamas and cleats. Only a foreigner like Claes Oldenburg, who wasn't raised at the altar of the game's powerful tradition and sentiment, could come up with something like "Bat Column," in Chicago.

American artists too easily fall into the trap of commemorating great moments and heroes of the game. So you get the kind of schmaltzed-up hero worship seen in Jack Guth's painted collages.

Guth's six works at the stadium portray images like Willie Mays' sensational over-the-shoulder World Series catch and game- or record-winning home runs by Hank Aaron, Carlton Fisk, Bobby Thomson and Bill Mazeroski.

For the moment, at least, they're on loan to BOB, and presumably for sale. Guth declined to comment about his arrangement with the D-backs. But he did say, through his wife, that he's working on pending deals with some of the ballplayers.

Though Guth's images, and baseball art as a whole, do little in the way of art, they inevitably highlight the game's own equivalent of great art--those moments when athletes have managed to seize the play, the clock and a bit of immortality.

Despite the advance of women's athletics, Americans tend to view sport and art as polarities of masculinity and femininity--the accomplishments in one having little or nothing to do with those in the other. But the Greeks grasped the link between physical and spiritual achievement and beauty. They knew that masters in each arena share an uncanny alertness about their surroundings--an ability to see and act decisively, to make the remarkable commonplace.

Who knows how many times Willie Mays imagined making an over-the-shoulder catch before he made the one we remember. Or how often Michael Jordan saw his most recent game-winning shot in his mind. But it was probably as often as Georgia O'Keeffe envisioned the pure forms of her early abstractions before she painted them.

We know that Colangelo and other sportsmeisters pay athletes to perform at that very edge of human ability. So why, oh why, do they put up with art that provides little more than flaccid athletic support?

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow