Terry Allen (artist) and Philip Levine (poet) 1990.
During the 1960s, the fascinating people were the beatniks and hippies who questioned the status quo, who opted out of the capitalist system by adopting alternative non-materialistic life styles, who investigated different paths to spiritual fulfillment, who experimented with their minds, and explored the pleasures and power of their bodies. When they transformed their beliefs into politics, they ended America’s immoral participation in the civil wars of Southeast Asia, destroyed the pernicious institution of segregation and broke down long standing economic barriers based on gender, race, religion and sexual orientation.
The 1980s, however, were dramatically different. The heroes of society, the people with the enviable life style, were work driven, richly compensated investment bankers, stockbrokers, accountants and lawyers who worked in high rise office buildings. The presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush defined a decade in which the pursuit of money, rather than commitment to public service was the measure of the common good. “Supply side economics,” enthusiastically embraced by President Reagan because it justified generous tax benefits for the nation’s wealthiest citizens and the elimination of government programs that benefited the middle
class and poor, bankrupted the nation within twelve short years by quadrupling the national debt from $1 trillion to $4 trillion. Calling government the “enemy,” the Reagan and Bush administrations proceeded to sell off America’s precious public resources to the highest bidder. One of the most egregious consequences of the abandonment of a sense of community was the ill-conceived support of deregulation of the Savings and Loan industry by the Reagan administration, which saddled the American taxpayer with a $500 billion bailout. As ethics took an extended holiday during the 1980s, fiscal irresponsibility at the highest level was joined by a pervasive nation-wide moral bankruptcy. Even at Berkeley, the students not only cheered when Wall Street financier (and later an admitted felon) Ivan Boesky proclaimed “Greed is all right…everyone should be a little bit greedy,” they invited him back to deliver the business school commencement address. Against this background of economic decline and moral decay, “Corporate Head” was dedicated.
By taking aim at the values and ethics of the foot soldiers and icons of the Reagan-Bush years, “Corporate Head” instantly became one of the most popular works of public art in Los Angeles. Though small in size, it raises large issues with its critique of the greed and the lack of moral direction that define corporate mentality. Allen depicts a businessman leaning over, bowing and burying his head into the physical and corporate structure symbolized by the building. Combined with Levine’s poem (which must be read by imitating the posture of the statue), this portrait is also sympathetic to the individual, who is subjected to economic pressures in order to survive.
They said I had a head for business.
They said to get ahead I had to lose my head.
They said be concrete & I become concrete.
They said go, my son, multiply, divide, conquer.
I did my best.
In 1989, Kathy Lucoff, Prudential Realty’s art consultant, contacted Allen and invited him to participate in the “Poet’s Walk.” She described the project as involving collaboration with a poet, but told him that he would be responsible for selecting the site for the work. Allen subsequently visited the office and retail project, took pictures, and was struck at how “ugly it was.” After being advised he could not install his work off the property, Allen focused on placing it at the front of the building, where it is highly visible, capped by the building’s address, and invites interaction by people entering or leaving the building.
The collaboration between Allen and Levine was unique at the Poets’ Walk because they were the only team with prior contact, having met during the 1970s when they both taught at California State University, Fresno. Though Levine was only one of several poets that Lucoff proposed as collaborators, Allen called him and invited him to join the project. Levine agreed to participate and flew out to Allen’s home in Santa Fe, where they considered various concepts. One of the least serious concepts was placing a washing machine in front of the building as a symbol for the laundering of money. Allen’s renderings of other concepts included a businessman upside down on a pedestal, and a businessman with his briefcase open and papers flying out. However, as soon as he did a doodle of a figure bending over, Allen knew it was right. Levine and Allen informed Lucoff that the bending businessman was their proposal, but she reported later that Prudential Realty found the proposal unacceptable. Allen, however, insisted that Lucoff submit a drawing of the proposal to her client, rather than just describe it. When Lucoff resisted, Allen informed her that the design was their only proposal, and he and Levine were leaving the project if it was not accepted. Lucoff then submitted the design to Rolf Kleinhans, Prudential Realty’s representative, who loved it and immediately approved it.
With the basic design accepted, Allen refined it by using a friend and lawyer as a model. Allen took photographs of his friend dressed in corporate business attire, carrying his briefcase, and bending over toward a wall. An armature was constructed from the photographs and covered with clay. After shaping the slightly larger than life figure and finishing the fine detail, Allen made a wax mold for casting by the lost wax method.