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Words' Worth

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You have to smile at the giant blinking light on top of the Grant Building, Downtown. The 23-foot cone of neon tubes atop Henry Hornbostel's structure, a technical marvel in 1930, flashes "P-I-T-T-S-B-U-R-G-H" in Morse code. But planes back then already notoriously used the light of nearby open-hearth steel mills as a navigational aid. The Grant Building light was not so much a useful device as the photic mating cry of an architectural lightning bug. Since then, our skyline has seen numerous lighting projects, from the idiotically corporate to the obscurely artistic. Only now, though, with Jenny Holzer's new installation, "For Pittsburgh" at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, has the Grant Building's romantically skybound assertion of Pittsburgh-identifying text finally met its match.

 

 

The Convention Center was already a transformational building. Rafael Vinoly's swooping roof form famously and clearly takes inspiration from the nearby "Three Sisters" suspension bridges on the Allegheny, adapting their graceful steel curves into a new armature to make its environmentally conscientious design and postindustrial economic activity into iconically Pittsburgh phenomena.

 

To its great credit, the Sports and Exhibition Authority has reinforced this esthetic ambition with a comprehensive program of public art within the structure, to elevate brows and attendance figures. Holzer's reputation should raise notoriety as well. The New York-based artist achieved fame in the 1980s for oddly trenchant textural epigrams, most often flashed on illuminated signs in Times Square, Piccadilly Circus and elsewhere.

 

"Disgust is the appropriate response to most situations."

 

"Abuse of power should come as no surprise."

 

Even though her work has its basis in words, the artist's affinity for dramatic architecture has become increasingly apparent. Her one-woman retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York supercharged that structure's already dramatic inner spiral with galloping aphorisms. At Mies Van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, a monumentally sparse and fiercely rectilinear steel roof on eight columns with glass walls, Holzer made the ceiling into a river of text, reflected infinitely as if to affirm Mies' unrealized dream.

 

"I only get asked to do a great building about once every 10 years," she allows. At the Convention Center, though, Holzer has seized the opportunity, grasping the building's essential genius and enhancing it. The key is the structure's third-floor outdoor plaza, where a break in the roofline on axis with 10th Street allows walks back and forth from the streetside to the riverside. The curving eaves, literally graspable at their lowest point, flank the open sky and sweep upward toward it. Even during an RV show, it's a curiously ecclesiastical spot.

 

Quite perfectly, Holzer locates her piece here. About 1,500 evenly spaced, 14-inch tubes of blue LEDs, spaced 7 inches apart (though they seem to be closer), stick out perpendicularly from either side, creating in effect a continuous screen for 3-foot-by-1-foot letters to run vertically. The piece is best seen from the Liberty Avenue side of the plaza (though the street level will do), facing the river. The text starts distantly at eye level, moving toward the viewer but inexorably upward. It ends at the highest edge of the roof, but the take-off is so convincing that viewers could be excused if they looked for geese-like flocks of words flying southeast.

 

No longer satisfied with simple epigrams, Holzer aims for the essence of the place through text as well as architecture. So far, three novels will scroll across the building, one on each side, two at a time: Annie Dillard's An American Childhood; John Edgar Wideman's Homewood Trilogy, Sent for You Yesterday, Hiding Place and Damballa; and Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace. Holzer says she is negotiating with August Wilson to use one of his plays as well. With running times of 20 hours or more for a piece that is currently illuminated only at night time, it's not realistic to imagine reading all or even most of a work, though streetside recliners are now a tempting prospect. Still, any impracticality is far overshadowed by a stunning architectural and artistic thrill, subtly reflecting a changing Pittsburgh while reinforcing its constant character.

 

It used to be smoke that wafted continually into the Pittsburgh skies. Then blinking technology. Now a flickering signal captures the best of our culture, a continuing story in upward flight.

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