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Public sculpture a canvas for 'conceptual vandalism'

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In its seven-year history, the 54 cinder block columns occupying a street corner in Old Fourth Ward have inspired derision, pride, puzzlement, and, most recently, an anonymous meddler with a bucket of Pepto-Bismol-colored paint.

The columns, for those of you who don't know, are a work of public art, the creation of Sol LeWitt, one of America's premier minimalist artists who once worked alongside I.M. Pei. Cleverly named "54 Columns," the work is intended to evoke Atlanta's skyline. But with a down-at-heels apartment building as a backdrop at the intersection of Highland Avenue and Glen Iris Drive, LeWitt's piece better approximates an abandoned construction site.

Two years ago, in fact, unimpressed neighbors planted among the columns a bunch of dogwoods, which were promptly removed after Fulton County, which maintains the site, ruled the trees spoiled the sanctity of LeWitt's installation.

Perhaps what's most surprising about "54 Columns," given the criticism it's drawn over the years, is that it's largely been ignored by vandals.

Until last week. Sometime prior to the afternoon of Aug. 18, someone -- let's call him or her the bastard child of Marcel Duchamp, the French Dadaist who in 1919 famously painted a moustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa -- slapped a coat of pink latex paint on one of the towers.

Veronica Njoku, executive director of the Fulton County Arts Council, immediately dispatched some staffers to assess the situation after she heard about the paint job from Creative Loafing. "An act of vandalism," she concluded. "Rest assured, Fulton County is doing everything it possibly can to restore the work to its original condition."

Indeed, government workers stripped all but the topmost reaches of the paint off the column on the afternoon of Aug. 22.

Chuck Taylor, whose family paid for the sculpture, has been adamant that LeWitt's wish for towers to remain unpainted be honored.

"It's an awful thing for somebody to do," Taylor says.

Local artist R. Land sees the pink tower as a commentary on the dearth of lively public art in Atlanta. While he doesn't hate the LeWitt piece, he says it doesn't compare with public art in other cities. The single pink tower among all those gray ones strikes him as symbolic. "I'm just not sure of what," he says.

Before it was stripped, the column caught the eyes of passing motorists, including Evan Levy, who directs the Art in Freedom Park program, a series of temporary installations gracing the paths along Freedom Parkway this summer.

Levy considers the pink paint an act of "conceptual vandalism" and doubts a graffiti artist is responsible. A graffiti artist's tags express his or her individual flair; monotone pink on one single tower is more likely the earmark of a street artist, Levy says.

The doyen of Atlanta's graffiti artist community, known simply as Totem, agrees. Totem, who's been tagging since the early 1990s, says the simple pink isn't consistent with the style of graffiti artists.

"If I did it, I would have done a lot more," he says. "I would do something that would basically travel among all the blocks. The things I paint, I use the backgrounds. So not only does [my work] change it, it blends in with the harmony of the area."

He says he would have planned something more complex for the columns.

"Maybe they thought the funniest thing on the planet is to paint it fucking pink," he says. "But it's cute. I condone it."

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