Berlin Wall Art Lives On
Artists are using pieces of the Berlin Wall to create works that help to continue the tradition of public protest that grew up around the wall
BOSTON — EVER since the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, people on its Western side have painted miles of protest art on its cold, barren face.The wall and the art are gone, but artists are again painting messages of hope on the remaining fragments. Using 100-pound chunks of the wall, American artist Gerald Geltman is currently creating a work of art, not as a salute to the wall's demise, "but rather as a sad reminder of the artificial, man-made attempt to limit and confine the human spirit," he says. Robert Indiana, a leading Pop Artist, has reproduced his famous 1965 "LOVE" image on one of the rocks, and several prominent Soviet artists have used the stones, instead of canvas, for their creations. The unwieldy fragments, pocked, and pierced by rusty reinforcement rods, come from Calvin Worthington, an American businessman who purchased 170 tons of the Berlin Wall from the East Germans last year. Mr. Worthington recently retired from civilian work for the United States Department of Defense in Berlin. Worthington, who now lives in Freeport, Maine, got the idea to save parts of the wall for artists after a conversation he had with Rainer Hildebrandt, director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Dr. Hildebrandt was lamenting the loss of Keith Haring's gigantic 1986 painting and other wall art to "wallpeckers enthusiastic celebrators and souvenir seekers who attacked the wall with chisels. "It occurred to me at the time," says Worthington, "that if we couldn't save the original art, we could save pieces of the wall, and give artists from all over the world an opportunity to paint on it, artists who might never have gotten to Berlin." He is not the only one who purchased part of the Berlin Wall: Ronald Reagan, members of the Kennedy and Churchill families, the pope, and the City of Jerusalem are among other buyers, according to Hildebrandt. Worthington says his interest in the wall was sparked by his former work for the defense attache system at US embassies in Moscow, Budapest, and The Hague. He admits to being "closely associated" with the Defense Intelligence Agency, and to having colleagues in international intelligence organizations. Though he has no art background, his preoccupation with art made up of the coldest of cold-war memorials is, perhaps, understandable. With the help of Hildebrandt, who verified the fragments' authenticity, Worthington invited three Soviet artists who were in West Berlin at the time to paint more than 100 chunks, which would become the inaugural pieces of the "Berlin Wall Art Collection." "Here were artists who had felt the oppression of communism as much as the East Germans had experienced it in being blocked behind the wall," Worthington says. The Soviet artists' work is on view at Boston's Sohy Gallery through August and will be traveling around the US thereafter. The chunks of wall, painted by Andre Aksenov, Tamara Dubinovskaja, and Vladimir Smachtin, each have jagged edges, cracks, and protruding iron rods. Prices range from $4,750 to nearly $11,000. Worthington makes no apologies for profiting from the sale of the works, first displayed in April at the Artexpo in New York. Proceeds go to the artists and to his organization, the American Verification Association, which owns the fragments. Over time, Worthington plans to invite more artists to create art with the blocks, resulting in a limited, one-of-a-kind collection. "Perhaps more than anything else, what caused the Berlin Wall to fall was the love of the freedom of free enterprise," Worthington sa ys. "If I were to bring this project here and give it away, it would be very un-American." ARTISTS can also donate their creations to charity auctions that Worthington plans to host yearly. Mr. Indiana's piece and nine pieces from the Soviet artists - representing roughly $100,000 - have been set aside for the first auction next year, Worthington says. Money raised from those 10 works will be donated to the Emergency Help For Children Foundation Inc., which helps children who are victims of the Chernobyl disaster. "It just seems proper that after all of the heartache and tyranny this wall caused, that in some way, it should make restitution," Worthington says. Five thousand people escaped over the wall, but 80 died in the attempt. Mr. Geltman, an artist in Bergen County, N.J., says he feels making money is not Worthington's overriding purpose. "When he mentioned it to me, I had a sense that he thought there was an important historic significance." Geltman estimates it cost Worthington $500 "just to bring me 1,000 pounds of stone ... and another $500 to send it back.... The undertaking is immense." (Worthington declines to say how much he has spent on the project, which involved shipping eight cargo containers of stone.) Known primarily for his sculpture, Geltman is pondering what to create. "I don't think it will be pretty," he says. "I see the wall screaming out as a protest to man's folly.... What I hope is that [the finished work] will strike in the minds of the viewer some sense of shared experience."
After another show in November at Sohy Gallery, parts of the Berlin Wall Art Collection will be on view at the ASN Gallery in Johnson City, Tenn. (Sept. 1); Corporate Art International in Atlanta (Nov.9); and the Cafritz Galleries of Meridian House International in Washington (Nov. 9-January 1992), in conjunction with a Berlin Wall joint exhibition by the German Historical Museum and Checkpoint Charlie Museum.