Arts Beat

'Unmentionables' Sculpture Is Hung Out to Dry

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Managers of a downtown office building yanked a sculpture called "Unmentionables . . . then and now" from an exhibition last week after tenants complained that the art was inappropriate.

The offending art, by Joyce Zipperer, was installed with other artwork in the lobby of the Washington Square building at 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW. "Unmentionables" consists of 10 styles of women's underwear -- from old-fashioned bloomers to a skimpy thong -- all made out of metal and strung along a clothesline.

"It had been shown so many times and everybody just said they loved it, so this is quite a shock," Zipperer says. "It's funny when you think about it, because clotheslines used to be something you'd see in everybody's yard with all their laundry."

Shortly after the installation went up on Aug. 3, a group of tenants complained to the building's manager, Cynthia Muller. Muller wouldn't say which tenants objected to the art, but the artist and curator say they were lawyers from two of the building's resident law firms.

"The comments I heard were, it was too personal," Muller says.

People were upset about the last three garments on the clothesline: a brief and two thongs. The last one, which Zipperer calls "a tongue-in-cheek piece," had a copper fig leaf attached to the front.

Of all the office buildings downtown, Washington Square is perhaps the oddest place for an underwear-art controversy: One of its tenants is Victoria's Secret. The lingerie store, under renovation until fall, is just a few feet from where Zipperer's installation once stood. Victoria's Secret is known for its racy window displays of scantily clad mannequins.

A receptionist at the Arent Fox law firm, Joan A. Palmer, says that "Unmentionables" was inappropriate for a corporate lobby but that she would have loved it in the window of Victoria's Secret.

"I really didn't think it was artistic, and I taught art for nine years," Palmer says. "It didn't show me any value."

Despite her own objections to the artworks, Palmer thinks that it was "going a little far" for someone to complain to the management.

At first, Muller tried to broker a compromise between the parties involved. Zipperer whipped up two pairs of more conservative metal underwear to replace the controversial ones, even though "with the original pieces gone, the timeline becomes moot and compromises the statement of the piece." "Unmentionables" is about cultural change, the artist says.

A week later, Muller told Zipperer that the whole clothesline had to come down.

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