Designed for Public Viewing

Henry Moore’s Oval with Points.

The campus art collection is always open — no tickets required

By Ilene Dube | Photography by Weronika A. Plohn and Charles R. Plohn

While the Princeton University Art Museum will be closed for the next several years as construction on the new Sir David Adjaye-designed building is underway, there are still plenty of ways to experience its offerings.

As part of its commitment to maintaining a presence on campus, the museum opened Art@Bainbridge at Nassau and Vandeventer streets in 2019. Closed during the pandemic, Art@Bainbridge is expected to reopen this summer.

Alexander Phimister Proctor’s Pair of Tigers.

Last year, when stores were closing, the museum partnered with merchants to create Art for the Streets, showcasing reproductions of works from the collection in shop windows in Palmer Square and the Princeton Shopping Center. QR codes link to more information about artwork by Albrecht Durer, Edward Hopper, Edouard Manet, Ana Mendieta, Mario Moore, and Zhang Hongtu, as well as works from the Qing Dynasty, a beaded African tunic, an Edo-period Japanese print, and a sculpture of a Mayan god.

The museum’s virtual offerings of lectures, workshops, and symposiums have become so popular, quintupling museum membership, that Director James Steward plans to continue making them available. “We’re not putting that genie back in the bottle,” he said.

But for year-round enjoyment, nothing beats the outdoor sculpture collection. With 47 works already in the Campus Art Collection, additional commissions are underway. (The museum plans to announce these sometime in the future.)

Not only is the campus itself an arboretum but nestled within its archways and allees are works by significant artists including Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Michele Oka Doner, Isamu Noguchi, Frank Gehry, Kate Graves, Sol LeWitt, Maya Lin, Louise Nevelson, Odili Donald Odita, Richard Serra, Ai Weiwei, Beverly Pepper, George Segal, Shahzia Sikander, Ursula von Rydingsvard, and more.

The Campus Art website (artmuseum.princeton.edu/campus-art) helps viewers navigate a self-guided tour. Walking tours can be broken down by neighborhood, and there is an audio component – curators and other experts take you behind the scenes to learn about the history of the sculpture, the artist, and the relationship of the artwork to the University.

The core was assembled for the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, funded by an anonymous benefactor and named for the World War II fighter pilot and member of Princeton’s Class of 1945. As stipulated by the Putnam gift, the sculptures were installed outdoors so that students and the community could experience the works in the course of their daily lives.

Picasso’s Head of a Woman, between University Place and Pyne Drive, was one of the first acquisitions made by the Putnam Collection. It was executed by Carl Nesjar, from a one-foot-high study model Picasso made in 1962 from a folded and painted sheet metal, inspired in part by the paper cutouts he made for his sister as a child. To create the large sculpture we see on campus, Nesjar built wooden forms and injected them with liquid concrete. This was undertaken for an open seminar of undergraduates, in which they could observe and participate in the on-site re-creation of a master’s work. 

Antoine Pevsner, Construction in the Third and Fourth Dimension.

Made for Interaction

Arnaldo Pomodoro’s shiny golden polished bronze sphere, just outside Fine Hall, looks like a planet that has eroded in parts, opening up a view to its jagged edged interior. In a 1974 interview he said, “I can enjoy my sculptures in a park, in an ancient public square, like Pesaro, or on a great university campus … I like to see people lean their bicycles on the sculptures, and pigeons come to rest, to see them humanized.”

Unless you have a flying bicycle, you won’t be able to lean it up against Sol LeWitt’s multicolored Wall Drawing #1134, Whirls and Twirls (Princeton) – it’s up on the ceiling of Bloomberg Arch in Bloomberg Dormitory. LeWitt’s practice was to write out instructions and diagrams for executing his artwork, outsourcing the making of it. You can listen to a project assistant talk about this process:

“It was summer, and it was very hot and stifling crammed atop the scaffolding…. The project was literally a pain in the neck – we had to crane our necks to work overhead – but it was an important experience for me as an artist and directly influenced my own art-making practice. Specifically, it gave me the patience and persistence to conceptualize, design, plan, and execute my paintings.”

James FitzGerald’s Fountain of Freedom.

Sublime Ecstasy

Unveiled on campus in the spring of 2017 were two site-specific installations by Shahzia Sikander. Soaring above the forum of the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building on Washington Road, home to the Department of Economics, is Quintuplet Effect, an intricately layered painting on glass. Nearby, as one climbs the stairs in the Louis A. Simpson International Building, a shimmering, 66-foot glass, marble, and ceramic scroll, titled Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector, takes visitors “on a journey from the mortal bonds of humanity to the realm of abstraction,” according to the museum’s description. Sikander says it is about life and death, about imagination and lack of imagination, and represents her first foray into glass.

“I think of imagination as a soaring and empowering space that is free from constraints,” she said at the time of the installation. “And if you’re thinking in terms of inter-connectivity, imagination is what ties all of us together.… Imagination is very much about taking ownership of the narrative; it is a fundamentally political stance.”

Historical figures, spiritual events, and natural elements are intertwined. A 2006 MacArthur Genius Award recipient and the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York this summer, Sikander weaves together iconography from South Asian, European, and American contexts.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Sikander trained under master miniaturist Bashir Ahmed and was recognized both for her technical mastery and for her radical transformation of miniature painting through experimentation. You can view Sikander in her studio in a video on the Campus Art website.

Richard Serra’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, located between the Lewis Library and Peyton Hall.

“One Great Thing”

Another interactive sculpture is Richard Serra’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, located between the Lewis Library and Peyton Hall. It invites visitors to walk between its sinuous walls of Cor-Ten steel, where one can experience different perspectives of its curves or the sky, or just contemplate your place in the universe. The title refers to an essay by Isaiah Berlin, who quotes from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one great thing.” Ponder that while sandwiched between its walls!

It’s hard to reconcile that the Serra of today, referred to as the best-known living sculptor in this country by the New York Times, was a subject of controversy in the 1980s, when his work Tilted Arc outside the Federal Building in lower Manhattan was hauled off and dismantled by the General Services Administration. People objected to its hulking appearance.

Fortunately, Serra’s reputation did not rust, like the surfaces of his sculpture – his massive works can be seen in major collections from Doha, Qatar, and Bilbao, Spain, to St. Louis, Missouri.

Several of Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads. 

Social Justice

Internationally acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei’s 10-foot-tall bronze heads on pedestals, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, is sited across University Place from McCarter Theatre, near Dinky Bar and Kitchen. Ai Weiwei has reinterpreted the 12 bronze animal heads representing the traditional Chinese zodiac – the snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, and dragon.

The Zodiac Heads are based on those that once adorned Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing. In 1860, Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops, and the heads were pillaged. In re-interpreting these objects on an oversized scale, Ai Weiwei focuses attention on questions of looting and repatriation, while extending his ongoing exploration of the fake and the copy in relation to the original.

Different editions of the heads, some in bronze and some in gold, have been making a world tour. An anonymous Princeton University graduate made this a gift after an extended loan.

Born 1957 in Beijing, Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, one of China’s most respected modernist poets whose work appeared in nearly every literature textbook until he was branded a rightist and exiled to a remote outpost of western China. Growing up in exile laid the groundwork for Ai Weiwei’s future as a social activist and spokesperson for freedom of speech and against injustice. He has been openly critical of the Chinese government’s stance on democracy and record of human rights violations, and was held for 81 days at an undisclosed location in 2011. Since 2015 he has lived, sequentially, in Germany, Britain, and Portugal.

Another interactive work is Maya Lin’s The Princeton Line, at the heart of the Lewis Center for the Arts complex just south of Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads. Here, the earth undulates in wave-like craters.

Like quirky hillocks with straight edges, they beckon a visitor of any age to climb to the top, walk the line, and roll down sideways, just as a child might. Nearby is a second Lin commission, Einstein’s Table, made from jet mist granite with a base that forms an oblate spheroid. Stone bollards connect the two pieces, like celestial bodies in a galaxy.

The table’s elliptical shape was inspired by diagrammatic drawings of the Earth’s orbit around the sun and is an allusion to the work of the one-time Princeton resident and physicist. A video on the Campus Art website shows an aerial view of the project, which is perhaps the best way to view it.

Designed by artist Walter Hood, Double Sights, in front of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, is considered a marker, yet can be seen as art on campus. 

Soulful Material

From a distance, Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Uroda looks like a torqued tree trunk that might extend to the heavens were it not abruptly ended in a plane. It’s a 19-foot beacon made from 3,000 hand-hammered copper pieces, sited at the entrance to Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, a building designed by architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams. In 2015, when it was installed, James Steward called the piece a “heroic and layered work of art by one of the greatest sculptors of our time.”

“Copper is so soulful and responsive to all kinds of climate,” said von Rydingsvard. “It instinctively felt like the right thing to do.” She wants people to touch it and interact with it — some of her installations have welcomed weddings. The Campus Art website includes the one-hour lecture she gave on campus in 2015.

Although technically not a part of the Campus Art, Double Sights, in front of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, is considered a marker, yet can be seen as art on campus. Designed by artist Walter Hood, it addresses Woodrow Wilson’s complicated legacy.

The vertical sculpture of two columnar elements, one leaning on the other, is wrapped with surfaces of black and white stone. The exterior columns are etched with quotations of Wilson, representing all aspects of his beliefs and actions. At the sculpture’s center, the two vertical planes face each other; one is reflective stainless steel with quotations by Wilson’s critics and the other is a glass lenticular surface with images of the critics.

If you want to see some of this summer’s sensations in outdoor art, such as the site-specific sculpture Fallen Sky by artist Sarah Sze; Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted, star-shaped I Want to Fly to the Universe; or Alex Da Corte’s Big Bird-like As Long as the Sun Lasts, you’ll still have to go to Storm King Art Center, the New York Botanical Garden, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Roof Garden. But if you don’t care to drive or take public transportation, or get tickets and wait in line, Princeton University’s Campus Art Collection provides a plethora of world-class sculpture in a magnificently designed setting. There’s no place like home.