J.C. Ravage steps up to the 3rd hole of the golf course and puts his hand to his forehead, squinting as he shields his eyes from the late-afternoon sun. His game is off today, and already he trails by four shots. J.C. approaches the tee, rests his club on the green and slowly rocks back and forth on the soles of his sneakers. Then, in one fluid motion, he lifts his club, arches his body backward and follows through. The ball sails through the air, across an orange carpet, past a spinning flower covered with Cheez Doodles and then grazes the underside of a lazily rotating bunny, also covered with the fluorescent orange cheese snacks. His ball hits the far wall and knocks off an errant Doodle, setting him up for an easy tap-in.
"The Cheez Doodles are a little rancid," says the 11-year-old J.C., wrinkling his nose as he retrieves his ball. "The most difficult obstacle of this hole is the smell."
Putt-Modernism is a par-49 18-hole indoor miniature golf course at New York City's South Street Seaport. Players are challenged to putt around or through, among other weird objects, a White House made of empty bottles of AZT and Zovirax (both arc drugs used to combat AIDS) on the par-2 Blood on Your Hands 7th hole, the sole of a blue-faced homeless man's shoe on the par-3 Hole-in-My-Soul Blues 17th hole, and the 20 waving arms of an inflatable Jesse Helms look-alike clown, into a bed of inflated breasts on the par-3 15th hole, Censorama. An afternoon of culture as well as a rousing round of miniature golf can be had for a mere $5.
The brainchild of Ken Buhler, a painter and a director of Artists Space, a gallery in nearby Soho, Putt-Modernism is on exhibit at the Seaport for a second time, after a successful run during the summer of 1992. During its first installation some 30,000 visitors helped raise more than $85,000 for the nonprofit Artists Space.
"I always thought the potential of a miniature golf course was far from being fully explored. The possibilities of fantasy and of kitsch are fertile material for an artist to play with," says Buhler, 38, who was bitten by the putt-putt bug at eight, when he and his brother built a ramshackle course in their backyard in Wichita, Kans. "I don't want to give the impression that I've been dreaming of miniature golf all these years—not that there's anything wrong with that—but somehow it was in my subconscious."
Although Buhler had no difficulty attracting artists to donate their time and talent to the creation of the course—19 artists were recruited to design the 18 holes—the execution of the task proved to be harder than its conception. Many of the artists were hard-pressed to distinguish a putter from a baseball bat, so getting the holes of such notables as food artist Sandy Skoglund, abstract artist Gregory Amenoff and architect Michael Graves to conform to the laws of physics was an exercise in itself. Even now a misguided putt on the 9th hole may launch a player's ball out the side of Graves's Putt-Hut on a nonstop flight for the huge sizzling woks of the Kam Wan fast-food Chinese restaurant across the hall.
The exhibition remains in New York through February. After that it will tour the country until November 1995. Beginning with Allentown, Pa., in March, future stops include Cleveland, New Orleans, Buffalo and Salt Lake City. Meanwhile Buhler has had offers from institutions to buy the exhibition outright. A Japanese businessman flew in a museum curator to survey the course in an effort to extend the tour to Japan, and artists' groups from Detroit to Laguna Beach, Calif., are co-opting Buhler's idea and setting up postmodern-art golf courses to raise money for their own financially beleaguered galleries. Meanwhile, golf enthusiasts who happen upon Putt-Modernism are enjoying the links as much as the artwork.
"These are wonderful holes, aren't they?" said Eileen Lindsay to her grown son, Andrew. Ducking under one of Jesse Helms's arms, Lindsay looked at the hole's so-called Pleasure Dome.
"What's that supposed to be?" Lindsay asked her son.
"Geez, Mom, they look like breasts, I guess," said Andrew, putting out. "It must have something to do with censorship."
Awash in Cheez, Dave Cohen lined up his shot on the 3rd hole. On the 16th, he took aim at Elvis.