Saturday, January 14, 2012
Savage's "Jurisprudence" by Janet Malcolm
The Queens (N.Y.) Supreme Courthouse was built in 1960 and is an example of the civic architecture of the period, whose pointless ugliness cannot wither, and whose entrance lobby was rendered a complete aesthetic catastrophe by the post – 9/11 array of security equipment brutishly installed across its width. I had been coming to the courthouse for weeks before I noticed the mosaic that covers the space over the entrance leading to the elevators and the adjacent walls. The mosaic is a wondrous sight, but, as people hurry through the security barrier towards the elevators, they do not take it in. I noticed it only because one day, during a long recess, I was walking around the courthouse looking for things to notice.
It is a work of the most extreme complexity and strangeness. Its creator was the artist and sculptor Eugene Francis Savage ( 1883-1978), who did murals for the W.P.A. and for Yale, Columbia, and Purdue universities, and designed the Baily Fountain at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. The piece is a sort of mad allegory illustrating concepts – spelled out along its bottom – that relate to a court of law: Correction, Exoneration, Rehabilitation, Security, Plea, Inquiry, Evidence, Error, and Transgression, along with the deadly sins of Vanity, Envy, Hate, Lust, Sloth, Perdition, and Avarice.
Over “Correction” stands a grim man with lightening coming out of one wrist; “Avarice” is represented by an ugly old woman wearing a blue dress and pearl necklace and bent over a box of money and jewels. Near the grim man, a small mean-looking fellow crouches at the entrance to a tunnel out of which another unpleasant person, carrying tools, crawls. A hooded figure with arms out-stretched, holding a golden tape measure, a naked guy with a bow and arrow, a bare-chested man kneeing near a pile of books on top of which there is a hammer and sickle, a woman with nice breasts, a hideously grimacing black man – these are some of the other figures, set in a sinister landscape crowded with waterwheels and mountains and roads and rainbows and blue bowls filled with gold. The eye doesn’t know where to rest. A vertiginously tipped scale of justice hovers over the allegory, one of its golden pans poised high in the air and the other swinging close to the ground.
Oddly, the pan poised high in the air holds a book with the word LAW on its cover, while the pan low to the ground holds nothing but a sort of peach pit. Is this a comment on the weightlessness of the law? Or is it just Savage exercising his gravity-defying artist’s imagination- secure in the knowledge that the fate of public art is to be invisible to the public that never ordered it?
Iphigenia in Forest Hills; Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm; Yale University Press, New Haven; 2011
No photo of “Jurisprudence” available.