It was never meant to last, really, but Red Grooms' wildly popular installation Philadelphia Cornucopia - a great ship of state created for the city's 1982 tercentennial, featuring Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and a zonked George Washington, with Martha as bosomy ship figurehead - is a survivor.
Grooms assembled Cornucopia with a bubbly, parade-float aesthetic. Yet this slapdash construction - later purchased by admirers who gave it to the city - has weathered five mayoral administrations, a city near bankruptcy, the obliteration of the Office of Arts and Culture, and the demolition of the Civic Center complex in West Philadelphia, where it had been "temporarily" stored in the late 1980s. Of late it has rested comfortably, like an elderly pensioner living with its memories, in the bowels of City Hall.
But now Cornucopia is rising again.
The city has transferred ownership to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which will shortly take over stewardship, restoring the wood, chicken wire, Mason-jar-top, cloth, canvas, plastic, house paint, and string assemblage to some measure of mock grandeur, and eventually placing it on exhibition for the first time in more than two decades.
"I'm very pleased," said Grooms, now 72, who has not seen the piece since the late 1990s, when it was in storage in West Philadelphia.
"The last time I saw it was at 30th Street Station" in the late 1980s, said David R. Brigham, academy president, heading deep into City Hall's innards one day last week to take a look at his institution's latest foray into cultural-rescue ops.
"That was the last time it was installed," said Randy Dalton, who helped Grooms install the piece in the early summer of 1982 in the old gallery of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
Janet Kardon, then ICA director, persuaded Grooms to create a big piece specifically for the gallery, then on 34th Street. The artist had earlier scored a terrific New York hit with a giant piece, Ruckus Manhattan, and he found Philadelphia's quirky monumentality appealing.
"He created some of [Cornucopia] in the studio and some of it on the spot," recalled Paula Marincola, then ICA assistant director and now head of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.
"I remember as a young curator watching him, and it was like magic. His facility was enormous. There was magic in his brush and line. Wonderful scenes would just materialize from his brush. I was blown away."
The 2,000-square-foot Cornucopia filled the idiosyncratic gallery space and infused it with an august loopiness. But the show only lasted through the summer of 1982. How could the city let go of such a work of art?
A group of citizens, corralled and egged on by Michael Pakenham, then a member of The Inquirer editorial board, banded together to buy the piece and bestow it on the city. They eventually raised about $100,000, and in 1983, Cornucopia was installed in the old Philadelphia Visitor Center, Third and Chestnut Streets, where it stayed for three years.
"It really was a very good time for Philadelphia, and this piece was just a marvelous thing," said Pakenham, now retired. "Grooms was, at that point, creating a kind of breakthrough wonderful art - a walk-through-and-have-a-drink kind of art."
Dalton worked with Grooms taking the piece down at ICA, and putting it up and taking it down at the visitor center. Each time, Cornucopia changed.
Grooms painted figures in - including a plaster-cast-encased Pakenham, who had broken his ankle just before the Visitor Center installation.
"It's not a piece of art, it's a process," Dalton said to Brigham, as Margot Berg, director of the city's public art program, opened a basement City Hall storage room and snapped on the lights.
"It was installed at 30th Street in 1987," Dalton continued. "We rigged it up on scaffolding there, and homeless people used to live under it."
"I didn't know that," Brigham replied, entering the storage room.
There, flat on its back on the floor, was the great, slightly bloated, 11-foot-tall Thomas Jefferson, complete with red mottled robe. George Washington's large behind stuck well out into the room from a wall near the door; his arms lay on the floor of a second room; his torso stretched out next to Jefferson.
Ben Franklin sat with his back turned to his fellow Founders, nose pressed up to the wall, like a naughty schoolboy.
Gazing over at Jefferson from another wall were a tall, nude model and a female art student, allusions to Thomas Eakins' scandalous use of nude males in mixed-sex art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy.
Next to Franklin stood a wary, hunched prisoner in the dock, his cheeks heavily shadowed with beard (Grooms always insisted it wasn't Richard Nixon), and next to him a bailiff. Backdrops to the piece were rolled on the floor.
Missing and presumed lost: the actual ship of state. (The 20-foot-high cornucopia, from which the ship sailed forth, was discarded by Grooms himself. It was simply too big and rickety to use in most venues, he said.)
Grooms has not seen the entire piece exhibited since its 30th Street Station stint from 1987 to 1989. He did see it in one of its several Civic Center storage locations in the late 1990s. Cornucopia was moved from one basement room to another over the years - too elaborate to exhibit, too well-loved to discard. But though mildew set in, some backdrops were torn and paint chipped away, city and Penn officials kept tabs on the piece.
Maybe, Grooms suggested by phone, a procession might be arranged to accompany the giant figures on their way up Broad Street from City Hall storage to new life at the academy.
"They'll have to take them out in an ambulance," he said. "That would make quite a procession."
It would, he said, be somewhat like a Renaissance procession to a church - "a jubilation."
"This would be a kind of hopeful jubilation," he said. "We know there's been some wounding, but they can be brought back."
Grooms was in the area last week to attend Thursday's screening of three of his early movies at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute; a show of his paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures also opened Thursday at Bryn Mawr College's Canaday Library for a run through June 5.
Needless to say, he is delighted by the prospect of new life for Cornucopia.
"It shows that somebody did take care all these years," he said. "These big pieces are always handled like what they are akin to - carnival props or theater [set] pieces."
Grooms has done several urban environmental installations, what he calls "sculpto-pictoramas."
"These larger works have been a big part of my career," he continued. "They're probably the most unusual things I've done so I'm concerned about their survival."
Brigham, whose curiosity regarding the whereabouts of that funny installation he saw at 30th Street led to the transfer of Cornucopia to the academy, said students will be involved in studying and conserving the work.
"We want to protect what's there and do a responsible job evoking the whole," he said.
Penny Balkin Bach, head of the Fairmount Park Art Association, which helped Cornucopia lovers acquire the piece and give it to the city, said simply: "It survived - that's what art does!"