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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

'Allegro' Is an Older Modernist Cincinnati Wall Mural that Deserves Preservation

allegro barron krody(photo by Steven Rose)

By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat
2-12-14

Downtown, Over-the-Rhine and other city neighborhoods are being colorfully transformed by the mural program shepherded by ArtWorks. But a forgotten Downtown mural called “Allegro” — a ghost of murals past — deserves recognition as not just one of Cincinnati’s finest, but also as an enduring piece of public art, period.

ArtWorks, a nonprofit arts organization, began its mural program in response to a request from former mayor Mark Mallory. The location — as well as the effectiveness — of individual murals varies, but there are some particularly strong ones Downtown: John Ruthven’s “Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon,” “Homecoming” (an adaptation of one of the late Charley Harper’s stylized nature images) and narrative painter Jonathan Queen’s overflowing bounty of fruits and vegetables, “Fresh Harvest,” on the Kroger Building. 

Yet within short walking distance of these, near the southeast corner of Race and Seventh streets, is a large mural that I like just as much. It is a little timeworn, but still very visible and very striking. Abstractly geometric but vaguely figurative, it consists of a group of yellow bent bars — boomerang-like — separated by earthy green space. 

Their square ends jut out from the mural’s bottom, as if breaking out from the wall’s flatness. In their glowing orangeness, they almost give off heat. The painted wall that hosts the mural, because of its materials, offers a slightly textural background. 

Looking at the fine print in the mural’s right-hand corner, it’s amazing to see it was created in 1972. It looks so modern. The artist, Barron Krody, was an Art Academy of Cincinnati teacher at the time. 

It is one of the last remaining of the nine original Urban Walls: Cincinnati, a project launched by gallerist Carl Solway and his assistant, Jack Boulton. (Preston McClanahan’s Urban Walls mural of eyes staring out from the rear wall of an old parking garage on Race, between Third and Fourth streets, is still there but hard to see from the street.)

 Their idea at the time was to bring to Cincinnati what they had seen happening in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles — buildings used as “canvases” for large-scale abstract graphics. 

In its heyday, the Urban Walls project was justly celebrated, especially Krody’s mural. As it evolved, some muralists did paint figures and objects. Also, Boulton — who died in 1987 — had to depart from day-to-day activity to become director of Contemporary Arts Center. 

A 1976 book that Solway’s gallery published about Urban Walls (with text written by John A. Chewning) recalls the challenges finding a wall for Krody’s design. Boulton met with executive Fred Lazarus of Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s) to seek money. Lazarus was willing, but wanted to see something painted on a wall that overlooked a small park near his department store, Shillito’s. But the building in question, at 37 W. Seventh St., wasn’t his — it belonged to Willis Music Co. (Willis no longer is there.)

In the book, Boulton recalls the negotiations with a Willis official: “He thought and wanted and assumed we were going to do a 10-story seascape on the side of his building. I had to point out to him that it wasn’t in the realm of our technology to execute a seascape and, besides, that the artists we were working with really weren’t interested in that kind of imagery.”

Even though Willis would not have to pay anything, the company had second thoughts. So Boulton explained that the mural would be called “Allegro” and have a musical theme. 

“For several minutes they scrutinized the design and saw in the four yellow bands the spaces on music manuscript paper, and in the orange shape saw notes and rests and other symbols,” Boulton says in the book. “Everyone was finally satisfied, including Barron Krody, with the name and the readability of the design. The Willis people, in fact, were so satisfied that they had the design printed on all their shopping bags.”

Krody, giving his account in a short video chronicling the project that University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning students created a couple years ago (vimeo.com/24491255), said that the fast-thinking Boulton came up with “Allegro” on the spot. But he went with it — and it worked. 

Speaking today, Solway says he’s a fan of the ArtWorks’ mural program. “I think what [it] has done is remarkable,” he says. “[It] has a different point of view — more figurative — which is fine.”

It would be nice to see ArtWorks adopt Krody’s mural into its collection, preserving and celebrating it.

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