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An Icon At 50: NorthPark’s Artworks
by Jerome Weeks 18 Aug 2015

Today, NorthPark Center marks its 50th anniversary. KERA has been looking at how a shopping mall became a Dallas icon. This time, Jerome Weeks takes a walk through NorthPark’s celebrated art collection.

If you listen closely — past the echo-y sounds of NorthPark just getting open, the cleaners still mopping — you can hear the whirr and click of the electric motors that power the Five Hammering Men. These are the larger-than-life, black, metal-and-wood figures created by artist Jonathan Borofsky in 1982. They stand in the South Court at North Park, always quietly hammering away, never seeming to get their work done.

Jay Sullivan, a professor of sculpture at SMU, says no, the artwork is getting the job done. It transforms and defines the space.

“That’s certainly one of the functions of sculpture,” he says. “It has a tremendous location aspect.” You mean, it marks this spot. “It marks, and it places. It places you, it places the piece.”

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Five Hammering Men by Jonathan Borofsky

We often use the Five Hammering Men or other artworks at NorthPark as landmarks: “Let’s all meet in an hour at the big orange tripod thingy.”

The artworks at NorthPark often define spaces like that; together, they’ve defined the mall. Shopping centers had artworks before NorthPark opened in 1965, but few have so many of this caliber.

Raymond and Patsy Nasher, NorthPark’s founders, would go on to create the Nasher Sculpture Center. So it’s surprising that when NorthPark opened, the couple didn’t own a single piece of modern sculpture. Pre-Columbian pottery, yes, they’d collected that for years. But not sculpture.

E. G. Hamilton, the architect who designed NorthPark, says the Nashers decided to bring art to their mall, and sculpture would work best. Over years, they learned what they liked, learned from the artists themselves, learned what worked at the mall.

Patsy Nasher, in particular, Hamilton says, took to sculpture. “Mrs. Nasher was a very brilliant woman. She studied large-scale sculpture and she got into it in a very, very serious way. And she was the one who built this collection to begin with.”

It didn’t hurt, Sullivan explains, that sculptures — even by major artists — tended to be undervalued at the time. In the wake of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, painting held sway.

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Patsy Nasher with Beverly Pepper’s Dallas Land Canal

Nancy Nasher, the Nashers’ daughter and the current co-owner of NorthPark, more or less grew up with a number of these pieces — before they went to NorthPark they were in her parents’ home or garden. “As each piece of art came in,” she recalls, “they were so excited about it. And I think they knew the joy that art gave to them, they wanted to share that joy with others. And they had an opportunity to expose millions of people to art at NorthPark.”

At NorthPark, Stephanie Gabel and Bradon Jones are admiring the series of silkscreen ads by Andy Warhol that line one mall corridor.

“I love the colors and I think he’s a really influential artist,” says Gabel, who studies fashion at UNT. “You see him in fashion still today. Diane von Furstenberg, I think, two years ago came out with a line with his work.”

“But he also really fits this mall well,” adds Jones, who’s a design student at UNT, “because he was talking about the consumerism and stuff and I think he’d really enjoy it, hanging in a mall.”

NorthPark’s artworks have a wide range of styles and materials — heavy industrial steel, bronze, wood, aluminum, even dirt and grass, some works brightly colored, some patinated, some plain — but they aren’t just a jumble. Nor do they seem cautiously assembled by a committee. Jay Sullivan, the sculpture professor, says you can get a real feel for the Nashers’ personal sensibility — shaped by their era and sometimes even by their personal relationships with individual artists. Their collection is clearly postwar, mid-to-late 20th century. Occasionally, the artworks will go big and grand — as in the Mark di Suvero giant striding girder assemblage, Ad Astra, the only work in the center that’s two stories tall, filling up the atrium in front of the food court.

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Raymond Nasher at home with Jim Dine’s The Field of the Cloth of Gold, now at NorthPark

But far more often, their collection is human scaled and often based, however loosely, on the human figure as well. Consequently, many works feel intimate; they share our space as we walk around and shop.  There are no old-school, realistic bronze heroes on horseback here. Neither is there the kind of contemporary art we know so well these days from office lobbies.

“There’s a whole genre of civic and mall art that looks commercial,” says Sullivan. “So it’s usually very big, it’s usually red, it’s usually with an exuberant gesture. You know, that is what it is. The people who are buying it aren’t interested in art – in the way Ray was interested in art and Patsy was interested in art.”

And in the way the Nashers hoped millions of others might come to share that interest.

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