Let's have at least some public art that's fun to be near

I was in New Orleans and it was obvious I was in for a celebration. Even two blocks away from 1515 Poydras, the 27-story office building at whose grand opening I was to participate, I could hear the sounds of a marching jazz band. And as I turned toward the building itself, I could see that the crowd assembled for the ceremony was in a marvelously festive mood.

No wonder! The weather was beautiful, the band was lively and loud, and the huge curtain enclosing one corner of the building's courtyard was flapping tantalizingly - and causing considerable speculation about what lay behind it.

I knew what was there, for I had seen the model for the monumental five-piece kinetic sculpture that was to be unveiled that morning - and had, as a matter of fact, been invited to New Orleans to help in its unveiling and to say a few words about public sculpture.

Even so, I was very curious to see what the actual work looked like, for I couldn't quite imagine how the artist had solved certain problems of scale and color. That Ida Koh lmeyer had won the competition for this project in the first place was an amazing thing - considering that she is primarily a painter and had never before attempted anything even close to this scale.

The technical problems facing her had been immense, and yet she had apparently solved them. I had read that each of the five individual pieces that make up ''The Krewe of Poydras'' is about 43 feet high, about 15 feet wide, and weighs up to 4,700 pounds. A dramatic change for an artist whose canvases seldom exceed six feet in any direction and whose other sculpture tends to be intimate!

I didn't have long to wait. The ceremony was brief, I said what I had to say, and the curtain was drawn back. What we saw was a brilliantly colorful work whose imagery was typically Kohlmeyer, but which otherwise was unlike anything else of hers I had ever seen.

The five pieces, each made of sheet steel and mounted on tall poles with movable sections, are bright, colorful, and enchanting. They are vaguely totemic , with details that include triangles, wings, barrels, paddles, an arrow, a hand , arches, and a crown - and with colors that run the gamut from the hottest reds and coolest blues to the most subtle grays and greens.

It's a happy work that lightheartedly partakes of the spirit of Mardi Gras. I liked it - as I suspect did many others, judging from the smiles that greeted it as it appeared from behind the curtain.

From the courtyard we then moved indoors to view the series of 11 paintings by Krista Jurisich also commissioned for this building. These were tall, narrow paintings, each 3 1/2 feet wide by 8 1/2 feet high, occupying the center of each elevator's rear wall. Each canvas consisted of a mosaic-like surface of small, color-modulated squares into which an illusionistic portal or window had been ''embedded.'' Since each of these ''windows'' suggested wide-open spaces and fascinating landscapes beyond, they did a great deal to make the elevators appear larger than they were.

''Sky Lift,'' their collective title, is a fascinating work whose success will, I hope, cause others to create art for elevators. I cannot think of any other place where art would be more welcome.

Afterward, with the jazz band at full blast and the crowd milling about studying the art or listening to the music, it occurred to me that I had never before seen art so joyously received. This, I thought, is what public art is really all about. Not that I have anything against huge statues of generals on horseback, or monumental steel cubes or triangles. They also have their place. No, what I felt was the need for more public art that was purely and simply celebratory, that enchanted and delighted us, that caused us to smile and to feel good.

I know there are those who will argue that public art should be ''serious'' and uplifting, that it should remind us of past glories and cause us to dedicate ourselves to greater levels of achievement. I say fine and good, let's have that , but let's also have public art that celebrates life, that creates happy moods and triggers gaiety, and that is fun to be near.

It need not be any the less serious for that - as the work of Calder, Miro, and Dubuffet proves. It need only be good.

At the end of my short talk earlier that morning I said something I hadn't planned. I heard myself congratulating the citizens of New Orleans for the art that had been unveiled that day. I felt rather sheepish about that afterward, but I meant it.

Rembrandt rediscovered

I ''rediscover'' Rembrandt every two or three years, generally because of something I hadn't noticed or understood before.

It's happened again, this time because of several drawings of his I had previously thought too sketchy and casual, but which recent study has convinced me are actually perfectly realized and among his very best.

Once that happened, I knew I was in for it, that I wouldn't be able to rest until I had once again looked at everything of his I could to make certain I hadn't missed anything crucial or good.

Well, I had - small things mostly, a nuance or a detail here and there. And yet, as I studied these by-now familiar works, I was totally caught up by them and began to realize - for at least the 20th time - that Rembrandt was even greater then I had thought.

Now that's saying something, because Rembrandt and Michelangelo have always led my personal list of the world's greatest artists. Others have come close (Goya, for one, who just this past year moved onto my list of the top 10 - as I suspect Cezanne may do this year), but none has ever quite matched these two giants in my mind.

I can never get enough of these two. I need them both - Michelangelo for his grand and ennobling vision of man, and Rembrandt for his compassionate acceptance of human vulnerability. And yet, having written that, I realize I've said very little, for both had an ennobling vision of man, and both were ultimately extraordinarily aware of human vulnerability. Perhaps I should just say that Michelangelo fills me with awe, and Rembrandt with compassion.

It is awesome to see how godlike Michelangelo was able to make man in his early and middle periods, and deeply moving to see how profoundly human those ''gods'' became in his later years. And Rembrandt? Well, no one has ever come close to touching the source of human dignity as simply and directly as he.

To Rembrandt, human dignity reflected inner peace, and resulted from placing oneself in spiritual harmony with the universe. To Michelangelo, dignity signified grandeur and nobility - and so, in his art, man struggles desperately until the very end to transcend his existence. And yet, in the end, he always fails.

But what a magnificent failure Michelangelo's very last works represent! And what a perfect foil they are for Rembrandt's more inward perception of what constitutes human reality and greatness.

If Michelangelo, in the end, surrendered his vision of human grandeur and resigned himself to his humanity, Rembrandt realized his vision through an ever more respectful acknowledgment of his humanity. What Michelangelo saw as humbling proof of defeat, Rembrandt came to feel was a humble truth: the concept that human dignity and greatness can only come from an acceptance of man's full humanity, not from any attempt to rise above it.

In the end, Michelangelo's greatness was largely a matter of muscle and will, Rembrandt's largely of heart. By providing painterly evidence that human greatness and truth lie within us, Rembrandt sought to teach us to accept, respect, and love ourselves - and, by extension, all others.

That was his greatest gift to us, more precious as the years roll by. To receive it we need only to respond to his work - most particularly his studies of himself and of his fellow men and women painted during the last two decades of his life. These are magnificent and noble works - no matter how we understand or use those words.

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