When bad things happen to good sculptures, they can end up like those abandoned rowboats that wash up on northern Minnesota lawns -- filled with petunias and surrounded by white-painted rocks.

Until recently that was pretty much the fate of "Protagoras," an often controversial 4-ton sculpture of folded steel that sat for 30 years in front of the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul. Wayward styrofoam cups and litter blew into its crevices, and a well-meaning but misguided gardener tried to domesticate the thing by ringing it with colorful annuals and creeping vines that shimmied up its rusty sides.

Now the trash and posies are gone, and "Protagoras" has been restored as part of a three-year, $70 million modernization of the building. The sculpture by Vermont artist Charles Ginnever was reinstalled this month after being cut apart for storage in late 2006.

St. Paul was always ambivalent, to put it politely, about "Protagoras." Real estate developer John Mannillo recalls that shortly after the sculpture was installed in 1976, someone spray-painted its price -- $42,500 -- onto the piece. Some judges working in the building didn't like it, either.

Mannillo said the judges wanted to exchange the sculpture for the "New York eagle," an 8-foot-tall bronze bird with a 12-foot wingspan designed in the late 1800s by Augustus Saint-Gaudens to grace the top of a now-demolished life insurance building in downtown St. Paul. The bird now sits in a park on Summit Avenue, overlooking the city.

"Everybody has their opinion," he said. "It's art, and there's no reason why we should expect everybody to like it."

The renovation project was handled by the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government's real estate manager.

"This is very good news," said Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art St. Paul, a nonprofit group that promotes and safeguards civic monuments. "For the federal government to come back after 30 years and finish the project is commendable, especially because the presence of significant work by 20th-century modern artists is at risk in St. Paul."

St. Paul 'hasn't been kind to art'

Ginnever's is not the only sculpture to meet rough treatment in the capital city.

"St. Paul hasn't been really kind to art," Mannillo said, citing a "really fine" modernist sculpture by George Sugarman that was once part of the former First National Bank building downtown. Earlier this summer the building's new owner had the sculpture cut up and carted off to Texas.

The problem isn't just that tastes differ or change, but that people don't like having strange things foisted on them without their input, said Podas-Larson. When the GSA commissioned the Ginnever sculpture in the 1970s, artists were typically picked by "blue-ribbon panels" of art experts from museums, galleries or universities without much, if any, public consultation. Partly as a result of that era's controversies, most selection committees now involve building users and community members.

"I've always felt the Ginnever is a very graceful piece; the very idea that you can take this incredibly heavy material -- steel -- and make it into this unfolding fan is incredibly beautiful," Podas-Larson said. "But the community at large has always viewed it as a Rorschach of the place of art in a public context."

Classic abstraction

"Protagoras" is a classic mid-20th century abstraction by a 1970s Vermont art star. Related Ginnever works can be found in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and at General Mills corporate offices in Golden Valley as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

Seeming much younger than his 76 years, Ginnever came to St. Paul this month to oversee the reinstallation. The origami look of his art has not changed much since the 1970s, but he no longer pursues public commissions. Art fashions have moved on, as has his market, which is now primarily private collectors.

His work has always been a tough sell, Ginnever said. The late Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., a crusader against government waste, awarded "Protagoras" one of his famous Golden Fleece awards.

"He gave one to Claes Oldenburg for his baseball bat sculpture in Chicago that year, too, so I was in very good company," Ginnever said wryly.

People sometimes have difficulty understanding the subtlety of his forms, which seem to change shape as viewers move around them. For all their weight and massive scale, his sculptures can seem almost birdlike, their volumes defined by the play of light and shadow on rectangles, triangles, parallelograms. His folded forms were originally inspired by the shapes and shadows of England's ancient Stonehenge monument.

"People used to think sculpture was a tactile thing," he said. "These things aren't tactile. They're to be enjoyed visually, not necessarily through touch."

Born in San Mateo, Calif., Ginnever remembers being fascinated by calligraphy on childhood visits to San Francisco's Chinatown. From an early age he was interested in "the reality of illusion," the way human figures seemed antlike from a distance or roads appeared as zigzag ribbons.

After art school he spent two years in Europe, studying sculpture in Paris with Russian émigré Ossip Zadkine and printmaking with Stanley Hayter at Atelier 17, an extremely prestigious pedigree. In 1959 he finished his MFA degree at New York's Cornell University and headed to Manhattan, where he made sculpture and taught at various art schools until 1974. Then back-to-back grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts fostered the creative breakthroughs that "enabled me to hold my own in the marketplace," he said.

Ginnever admires some of today's popular public sculpture -- Anish Kapoor's enormous silvery "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park, and the sensational "Waterfalls" that Olafur Eliasson recently constructed in New York City, for example. But his own work is of a very different nature, he said.

"Mine is quieter, more contemplative, something you enjoy over time, which is a bit of an acquired skill," he said. "In Vermont I can see them in all four seasons, and they change radically in snow or a green field."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431