With Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle’s new blue statue, Urs Fischer’s “Untitled (Lamp/Bear),” arriving at Brown this past summer, public art on campus has become more apparent than ever. Though it may seem as if the statue appeared on Simmons Quad over night, in reality, all statues that appear on campus are the product of intense debate and discussion, occurring primarily within Brown’s Committee on Public Art.
Since it was founded three decades ago under then-Chancellor Artemis Joukowsky ’55 LLD’85 hon. P’87 GP’13 GP’14, the Committee on Public Art has worked “to bring public art to the campus in an organized way,” said Professor of Visual Art Richard Fishman, one of the original members of the committee.
“People often want to make donations,” he said, noting that the committee plays an important role in reviewing the quality of the works and determining their location, if accepted.
History before the committee
There was no such process before the committee, said University Curator Robert Emlen, another original member. In fact, sculpture only became a feature of the campus relatively recently, he added.
Brown’s endowment and other resources have grown rapidly in the last 40 or 50 years, Emlen said, adding that this has enabled the University to commit more resources to public art.
“I don’t know that we had any sculpture on campus in the 19th century. It wasn’t a very big campus, and Brown was never in those years a very prosperous place,” he said, adding that for most of the University’s history, art was acquired only “by individual initiative.”
“Somebody would show up, and they would say ‘I really like this sculpture, and it would be great at Brown, and I want to make a donation,’” Emlen said. “But there was no formal mechanism at Brown for deciding how to do this unless somebody rolled in.”
As examples, Emlen cited several historic statues, works that are now integral to Brown’s campus. Some, like the Caesar Augustus statue in front of the Sharpe Refectory, have been weathered by generations of students.
Gifted to the University in 1906 by alum Moses Brown Ives Goddard 1854, “who felt very strongly about a classical education,” this statue was originally placed in front of Rhode Island Hall at the center of the campus but was moved to Wriston Quadrangle when it was built, Emlen said.
“It was intact until the hurricane of 1938” when an “enormous elm tree” felled by the storm “crashed onto Caesar Augustus’ arm,” he said. “And so then it was replaced, but it wasn’t very secure, and one morning everybody woke up, and someone had run off with the arm.”
Goddard died not long after this donation, and his brother, Robert Goddard, gifted the monumental equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in his memory in the summer of 1908. It has stood in Simmons Quadrangle ever since.
Modern public sculpture
Today, the Committee on Public Art has half a dozen members who regularly meet to discuss donated, loaned and commissioned art.
The committee’s loan program was established with a $100,000 sum from former President Ruth Simmons in 2001. Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the Bell Gallery and a member of the committee, described several sculpture loans funded by the program, which has brought in a sculpture by Alexander Calder, creator of the mobile, and two works by renowned pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein, among others.
Conklin recalled with particular fondness the 2007 installation by Patrick Dougherty, “Square Roots.” Dougherty worked at the University for several weeks alongside student volunteers, weaving together saplings to build a row of whimsical, rectangular shelters on the Quiet Green.
“Every morning I would walk in and pass that piece,” Conklin said, adding that she would often pick up cans and other “paraphernalia” from inside the sculptures every Monday.
Another loan, an enormous photograph of a donkey on a boat by artist Paola Pivi, was mounted high on the west facade of the Sciences Library in 2004. Students appreciated the fact that it decorated the infamously austere, Brutalist building, she said. The image also took on special meaning in an election year that left little to be celebrated for the Democratic voters on campus.
“I think the most exciting part is when the artists come to present their work,” Conklin said. “It’s always really interesting to see what people have come up with to insert into the environment that we live in.”
Conklin also noted that, though members of the committee have very different fields of expertise, “almost 90 percent of the time there is a clear, unanimous consensus” on what works to accept.
“It’s one of those things where you never know what it is, but you recognize it when you see it,” she said.
The glass walls of the pedestrian bridge of the Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences building — “Lines of Sight” by Diane Samuels — is an example of this philosophy.
“A couple of things that made (Samuels)stand out from the other folks was that she had actually gone and interviewed people that worked in the life sciences and thought about how her practice related or connected on some level with what they do,” Conklin said.
To reflect the many hours that life sciences students and professors spend examining “very small parts of very large organisms,” Samuels proposed “something that would be viewed very differently from a distance than it was up close,” Conklin said.
New on campus
The colossal, new blue statue on Simmons Quad, “Untitled (Lamp/Bear),” has inspired a healthy amount of criticism, though Conklin ventured that students seemed to be acclimating to the statue — or at least to its aesthetics.
Various members of the student body have expressed concern over the alleged transgressions of the donor, hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, who was barred from managing money for outside investors until 2018 after his company plead guilty to insider trading violations.
“He’s been a terrific supporter of the University, and we appreciate what he’s done for us,” Conklin said.
Both Conklin and Fishman were very familiar with Fischer’s work. Conklin mentioned various wax sculptures the artist has made with candle wicks such that the statues slowly morph as the candles burn.
The candles are “quite irreverent but in a totally okay way,” Conklin said, adding that Fischer works with “a broad array of things” stemming from popular culture. “There’s a lot of fanciful, childlike references in some of his works,” she said.
Conklin said that she likes the ambiguity of the sculpture. “You take something that should be sweet and lovable and cuddly and make it 24 feet high out of bronze, and I think it really is nice that it can be read either as being childlike and charming and happy or a little bit menacing,” she said.
“This is a very imposing and unusual sculpture,” Fishman said, adding that Fischer is known “for doing unusual work, which makes people wonder what they’re looking at.” Fishman said that Fischer’s work is tied to that of the renowned early 20th century artist Marcel Duchamp, who created nontraditional, divisive pieces that dramatically changed the art world.
“Fischer in many ways follows in those footsteps, and so for him to then put together a child’s toy and a common desk lamp and blow it up to gargantuan scale” draws from that tradition, Fishman said.
Installed on the Main Green, Giuseppe Penone’s “Idee di Pietra” is a far more subtle newcomer. Though it is also mostly made of bronze, the sculpture is almost hidden among the living trees surrounding it, resembling a pruned tree with a boulder suspended in its branches.
Penone’s work emerged from the Italian Arte Povera movement of the 1970s, which addressed the divide between nature and artifice and resisted “the commercial art market,” Conklin said. “His art is really connected to nature.”
Both artists will come to Brown to discuss their work, Conklin said. Though arrangements have not been settled yet with Penone, Fischer will give a public lecture and attend student critiques on Oct. 26.