High Beam

Using a flashlight to illuminate the public art struggles of ‘Paintbrushes’

This month, Las Vegas looks to “Flashlight,” Claes Oldenburg and Cossje Van Bruggen’s famous sculpture at UNLV. Since March 1981, “Flashlight” has cast its warm glow upon the university’s performing arts plaza. A seminal work representing Oldenburg’s distinctive pop sensibility, the upside-down flashlight looks like a mysterious yet monumental black column. But as one nears it, Oldenburg’s sense of humor takes hold and viewers are able to discern what exactly it is: an understated light in a city where lights are usually designed to dazzle.

On its 30th anniversary, the pride and international esteem that the sculpture inspires seem like a matter of course. The trials, obstacles, accommodations, criticisms, negotiations and cost concerns that accompanied the work of art are now a distant memory.

As we reflect upon this artistic triumph, today’s public art challenge—the incomplete commission of Dennis Oppenheim’s “Paintbrushes”—starts to seem like a case of déjà vu. And with a little scrutiny, the similarities between the two public works allow us to better understand both.

Akin to Oldenburg’s selection, a panel of art experts and community leaders convened and selected Oppenheim to create a gateway to the downtown Arts District. At the time of his selection, Oppenheim, like Oldenburg, had an important international reputation and great success in conceiving and completing public sculptures throughout the world. Oldenburg was renown for works such as a giant ashtray in Paris and a 24-foot-tall lipstick tube at Yale. Oppenheim was known for his large public projects, his conceptual works and his wide-ranging use of media.

Oppenheim’s sculpture consists of two 45-foot tall steel paintbrushes set at opposite corners of Charleston Boulevard, just outside the Arts Factory. When the piece is completed, beams of rainbow-colored light will shoot out of the tips of the brushes, forming a “gateway” in the sky in the Arts District. Like “Flashlight,” there are concerns about the lighting system. Fortunately, “Paintbrushes” has avoided “Flashlight’s” conflict with air-traffic control. Oldenburg had proposed a sculpture of a flashlight inspired by his many flights over Las Vegas on his way to the West Coast. The artist felt that “Las Vegas was a small patch of light in the vast desert darkness, a flashlight seemed to be a proper symbol for that beacon of light in the desert.” Oldenburg had wanted the “Flashlight” beam to shine up, but airport regulations—some 12 years before Luxor—precluded this configuration. Oldenburg and Van Bruggen compromised and ultimately liked the idea that “Flashlight” would shine from the bottom, a clandestine light in contrast to a city defined and riddled by lights.

In 1981, Oldenburg and Van Bruggen completed the manufacture of the 38-foot, 74,000-pound flashlight made out of steel and polyurethane enamel. Fabricated in Connecticut and shipped in parts to UNLV, lore has it that the flat-bed truck transporting the sculpture was stopped a number of times by law enforcement agents along the way because it looked so much like a missile.

Although now revered, “Flashlight” was met with vigorous criticism at the time. Many felt it was too childlike or simply a high-priced lamp. Oppenheim’s “Paintbrushes” has also been the subject of scathing criticism. People say it’s too literal and that it will only show to its full effect at night, when most visitors will visit the Arts District during the day. Since the work hasn’t yet been completed, it’s impossible to know how literal it will be, how successful or how important. In all fairness, critical judgment should not be measured until “Paintbrushes” is finished.

Then there is the issue of cost. “Flashlight” was budgeted at $70,000, but when completed, the project’s expenses were closer to $150,000. Like “Flashlight,” Oppenheim’s “Paintbrushes” costs about double the original budget with a cost of $750,000, unfinished. To put it another way, “Paintbrushes” has cost more than all of the annual arts funding for the city of Las Vegas.

Oppenheim died in January at the age of 72. His wish, along with that of his surviving wife, Amy, and his studio, is for the sculpture to be completed. So much so that Oppenheim and his heirs are coordinating and paying for the final work to be completed. The last steps include: rotating the Casino Center brush; correcting the spotlight beam; installing cooling fans for both sculptures; installing a plaque; and fixing the timer on the Casino Center brush.

Las Vegas is now bequeathed the exciting task of completing the sculpture with the help and close contact of Oppenheim’s studio. We can all be proud that one of the last major commissions by this seminal artist is located here.

But the big question is when. When will the sculpture become a beacon in the midst of an already bright city? The city hopes that it will occur in the next couple months. One can only hope that in 30 years, like “Flashlight,” the memory of this difficult process will have faded, and Las Vegas will honor and embrace Oppenheim’s major work with similar admiration and pride.

Suggested Next Read

Shocked and Awed by Swamplandia!

Book Jacket

Shocked and Awed by Swamplandia!

By M. Scott Krause

Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia! (Alfred A. Knopf, $25), is both magical and menacing. It’s the story of the Bigtree family, a group of eccentrics who run an alligator-themed amusement park in Florida. The park’s main attraction is the family matriarch—Hilola Bigtree—who wrestles alligators while her husband, Chief Bigtree, works both the spotlight and the microphone.