In June, the board of directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved a contract with Otterness for 59 bronze sculptures to fill three levels of the proposed subway’s Moscone station.
But I buried the lead. This commission is controversial -- or is about to become so -- because of a 1977 video Otterness made in which he shot a dog to death. This happened in New York City, where I was a teenager at the time, and I can tell you it was a big deal.
Tom Otterness (b. 1952 in Wichita, Kansas) is an American sculptor whose works adorn parks, plazas, subway stations, libraries, courthouses and museums in New York---most notably in Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City and in the 14th Street/8th Avenue subway station---and other cities around the world. He was the first artist ever to have contributed a balloon to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. “…he made a giant Humpty Dumpty suspended in an upside-down tumble, as though he might have jumped from one of the swanky Central Park West rooftops…”...
Known primarily as a public artist, Otterness has exhibited in popular exhibitions in locations across the United States and around the world, including New York City, Indianapolis, Beverly Hills, the Hague, Munich, Paris, Valencia and Venice. His studio is located in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn.
But a lot of people haven't forgotten the canine snuff film. Here's the art critic Gary Indiana in New York magazine in 2005 recounting his years as a critic for the Village Voice covering the East Village art scene." Writing about a show focusing on early 80s work in the neighborhood, he writes:
...I’m repulsed by this show’s inclusion of Tom Otterness, a sculptor of limitless nonentity despite his demonstrated skill at conning public-art commissions and taste-impaired collectors into making him rich. Mr. Otterness, once upon a time, adopted a dog and then shot it to death for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film. I’d like the New Museum’s visitors to keep that in mind while looking at this creep’s work. Mr. Otterness isn’t one of those special exceptions deserving the adage “Lousy person, terrific artist.” Lousy both.
In 2008, the dog shooting became an issue when Otterness created a public sculpture in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle contacted him to talk about the controversy, prompting him to send an apology:
The Brooklyn Eagle contacted the artist’s studio about the issue Monday, and received the following response via email:
“Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me -- Tom Otterness.”
The local blog mcbrooklyn received something similar from the artist:
As you must understand this is a very difficult and painful situation for me. Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.
Otterness was profiled in the New York Observer earlier this year. The dog issue -- it came up:
One of the masterminds of the show was described in the publicity materials as “already notorious for having executed his dog on video tape.” This was Tom Otterness. In 1977, a few years after moving to New York from Wichita, Mr. Otterness shot and killed his dog on camera for a video called “Shot Dog Film.” The piece was too much even for many of his anarchic contemporaries. When The Observer visited the artist’s Gowanus studio, he anticipated our question.
“Oh, let me guess,” he said. “Go ahead. Ask.”
Why did he kill his dog for the sake of video art?
“What the f*** do I do with this?” he said. He grew visibly upset. “Certainly the scene it was part of- it was in the context of the times and the scene I was in.” He began again. “It is something I’ve grown to understand that nothing really excuses that kind of action. I had a very convoluted logic as to what effect I meant to have with that video. Whatever I had in mind, it was really inexcusable to take a life in service of that.”
A foot-tall bronze statue of a dog, done in Mr. Otterness’ comic, through-a-glass-darkly style, sat on a desk facing its creator, not quite smiling.
Some New Yorkers are still mad. Here's an online petition against Otterness receiving a $750,000 commission to "sculpt bronze lions at the Battery Park Branch of New York Public Library." It's been signed by more than 11,000 people.
So what does San Francisco have to say about all this? From the Examiner today:
“Tom Otterness is a world-renowned sculptor who has been commissioned by government agencies around the world to create major permanent public art projects,” Susan Pontious, director of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s public art program, said in a statement. “The Central Subway Artist Selection Panel chose Otterness based on the strength of his proposal and his impressive portfolio of past sculptural work."