Strolling Among Sculpture on Campus

By Jennifer Sheppard

Published 1995

Many visitors cross Nassau Street to hunt for tigers on Princeton University's campus, and perhaps snap a picture of themselves framed in the hole of the large donut to the right of Nassau Hall. Yet that sculpture, casually acknowledged by passers-by, is Oval with Points, a famous work by Sir Henry Moore, and just one piece in the university's outstanding treasury of twentieth century sculpture. In an afternoon, you can see more of the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection by taking this walking tour of the campus.

Enjoying art outdoors fulfills the vision of the anonymous donor who funded the collection. According to Living With Modern Sculpture by Patrick J. Kelleher, the donor asked that the sculptures not be placed in the museum or in a garden. Instead, they "were to be installed outdoors in prominent sites throughout the campus, so that students and the community would experience these works of art casually and in the normal course of daily living."

Today, residents and students might take the artwork for granted. In 1969, however, when Song of the Vowels was installed as the first of 21 pieces, the placement of large sculpture in a university setting was an innovation. "It was one of the earliest uses of sculpture on a campus," says Allen Rosenbaum, director of the Art Museum at Princeton. Other colleges and universities have since integrated sculpture into their campuses, but Princeton's collection is still considered to be one of the most dramatic permanent displays of major twentieth-century sculpture.

The collection was made possible by a one million dollar gift in memory of Lieutenant John B. Putnam Jr., who enrolled at Princeton University in 1940 but left after two years to enlist in the Air Force. He flew nine combat hours over the Normandy Beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and 53 combat missions before crashing to his death in England on July 19, 1944 at age 23. He was awarded the Air Medal and six silver leaf clusters and, posthumously, the Distinguished Flying Cross "for extraordinary achievement and heroism in aerial combat."

The Putnam Collection was assembled by a Selections Committee consisting of the former directors of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Art Museum at Princeton. Completed in 1974, the collection also includes a sculpture by George Segal which was added in 1979. Funds from the gift are used for preservation, but several factors including cost of sculpture today, has prohibited the addition of contemporary works to the collection. "It was a wonderful gift--my only regret is that it has not remained vital," Rosenbaum says.

By Nassau Hall

The success of the execution of the donor's vision is apparent, as a short stroll from Nassau Street to the right side of Nassau Hall demonstrates. There you will see the British sculptor Sir Henry Moore's Oval with Points. The 11-foot bronze is a favorite of visitors and children, who love to climb through its hole, to the apparent delight of the sculptor. Although it may look like a donut, the inspiration for the work is thought to be an elephant skull given to Moore by the scientist Sir Julian Huxley. Moore was fascinated by the skull's tunnels and cavities, and, Huxley notes in his memoir, Moore "created several pieces of sculpture bearing the unmistakable stamp of his genius fused with an evocation of the skull's construction."

Oval with Points doesn't show it, but last fall during routine maintenance of the sculpture an explosion ripped a tear in the upper left hand side. The conservator was applying a spraying agent to create a new patina, and vapors seeped into the hollow structure. Unaware of the vapor build-up inside, when the conservator used the torch on the exterior, it gave a loud pop, frightening nearby administrators in Nassau Hall.

The tear served as a reminder of the calculated risk involved in preserving art. "Sometimes works of art should be left alone," says Charles K. Steiner, associate director of the Art Museum at Princeton University. "It's not always wise to conserve a piece of art." Oval with Points was repaired by heating the metal and stretching it over the rip. Heavy pressure was then applied and held in place with straps until the metal cooled.

Sometimes conservation efforts have made it necessary to move sculptures. Sphere VI, by the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, was moved indoors to a spot near the Physics Library in Fine Hall. According to Steiner, it was too delicate to withstand air pollution. In addition, student vandalism, in this case rolling the large ball-like structure down a hill, made it imperative to move it away from the dorms where it was originally placed.

Aesthetic reasons motivated the decision to move David Smith's Cubi XIII from the dorms down by the train station. Smith is considered an important twentieth century artist, and no one ever saw the work because it was so isolated. Now, it can be found by traveling down the steps between the tigers and continuing straight toward Dod Hall. The over 9-foot stainless steel piece is polished in such a way that, according to the artist, "on a dull day, they take on a dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun."

Retracing your steps back toward the tigers and turning right to the front of the Art Museum, you will find the 16-foot Head of a Woman by Pablo Picasso. The cast concrete was executed by Carl Nesjar, a Norwegian artist personally chosen by Picasso, from Picasso's maquette of 1962. The recreation on a monumental scale was done over five months in 1971, and Nesjar answered questions from students and other sidewalk viewers. A documentary chronicling the acquisition of the Putnam Collection includes footage of the construction of Head of a Woman. The half-hour film, "Sculpture in the Open" directed by Hugh and Suzanne Johnston of Princeton, was aired on PBS and can be rented at the Princeton Public Library.

By Firestone Library

From the Art Museum, you can walk to the chapel and and find in the plaza between the library and the Chapel Song of the Vowels, a 10-foot sculpture mounted on a pillar. It is one of a series of sculptures by Jacques Lipchitz that explores his "obsession" with the harp. The name of the sculpture refers not to the poem by Rimbaud but to an ancient Egyptian legend which refers to a prayer used to "subdue the forces of nature."

Walking toward Nassau Street from the library you can see Louise Nevelson's Atmosphere and Environment X. An American born in Russia, Nevelson worked primarily in wood to create shadow-box reliefs, considering herself an "architect of shadow" and an "architect of light." The 21-foot structure near Firestone Library was her first monumental outdoor sculpture in Cor-Ten steel, becoming the first of a series of steel sculptures she made in the '70s. Recently, conservation was done to preserve the colors of rust and black.

When the original site for Atmosphere and Environment X was presented to the Princeton Zoning Board, an argument arose over whether or not the sculpture was a building, which would violate building codes, or artwork. The dispute was resolved when the Selections Committee for the Putnam Collection recommended a different location for the Nevelson, a few feet back from the street, on the rise over the underground addition to the library.

Returning to the plaza, and taking the steps down between the library and the Chapel is American George Segal's Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University. The 81-inch bronze was installed in 1979 after it was turned down by Kent State, which found it too inflammatory. The image of Abraham getting ready to sacrifice his own son was met with resistance on this campus as well. The conflict is, however, within Abraham, and not between father and son and bears no literal relationship with what happened at Kent State.

At the Engineering School

Past the Segal and across Washington Road is William Street which leads to Olden Street and the Engineering Quad. The first sculpture you see is Upstart 2 by Clement Meadmore. The masterful work looks like a large bar that has been twisted and bent by the sculptor's hand, creating an impression of lightness. The 21-foot Cor-Ten steel structure is actually made of two pieces welded together. Steiner recalls that he looked at Upstart 2 for a long time when he first saw it. "It is one of the highlights for me," he says.

Not everyone feels the same about Upstart 2. The Princeton Zoning Board also fought the placement of it as originally proposed. A change in the direction of the thrust of the sculpture satisfied the board. Different reservations about the work have been expressed by women, especially engineering students who feel the Engineering School is less than welcoming to females. "No engineer will deny the phallic implications of the statue," writes Donna Riley '93 in She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect.

In the inner courtyard of the E-Quad is Naum Gabo's Spheric Theme. The 8-foot stainless steel ball is seen by many to symbolize infinity. The artist intended, however, to show his perception of space visually. Finding no answer in science, he created an image of continuity. "Instead of indicating space by an angular intersection of planes, I enclose the space in one curved continuous surface," Gabo writes.

In Math-Physics Complex

Down Washington Road to the Fine Hall and Jadwin complex you can see Five Disks: One Empty. This massive 26-foot sculpture by Alexander Calder went through some modifications after it was placed. The steel structure has four disks, one of which was originally painted orange, in a fervor of enthusiasm for the school's colors. The structure was named "Many Disks: One Orange," but then all of them were painted orange in anticipation of the artist's visit in 1971. Upon seeing the structure, he asked that all the disks be painted black, and renamed it to its current title.

You may notice a plaque on the wall of the balustrade from Washington Road. It commemorates two men who gave their lives during the construction of the sculpture. Steel cables of a crane snapped and the boom collapsed on the steel riggers. The completion of the sculpture was delayed one year because of the tragic deaths.

Also nearby in the courtyard of Jadwin Hall is Construction in the Third and Fourth Dimension by Antoine Pevsner, the brother of Gabo. The 10-foot bronze is in memory of Niels Bohr, the Danish scientist and Nobel Prize winner. A quote from Bohr written in a 1950 letter to the United Nations about the policy for an open world, is at the base of the sculpture.

The collection on campus undoubtedly enhances daily life for all visitors and residents. The University is a place to think, Steiner reiterated; the hope is that the "sculpture might provoke thought for those who happen upon them."

For more information, Living with Modern Sculpture by Patrick J. Kelleher (which served as a major resource for this article) or a small guide to the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection can be purchased at the Princeton University Art Museum or at the University Bookstore for $12.95 and $1.40, respectively.

Return to Princeton Patron