The Kent State University site where four student anti-Vietnam War protestors were shot to death by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, is about 440 miles from Princeton University.
But it is a spot less than 50 feet from the Princeton University Chapel where visitors can find the nation’s most significant memorial to the Kent State tragedy — something worth recalling 50 years after the shooting.
The memorial — just one of the numerous pieces of public art found on the university campus and throughout the region — is by the late George Segal.
Based in South Brunswick, Segal was an internationally acclaimed master of 20th-century figurative sculpture. He had also been a member of Rutgers University’s art faculty and taught sculpture at Princeton University from 1968 to 1969.
The work, “Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970,” was commissioned by Peter Putnam through the Mildred Andrews Foundation, named in honor of Putnam’s mother, in 1978 as both a commemorative statue and a gift to Kent State.
The saga of the sculpture’s creation for one university, its rejection, and its way to another bring back the tensions of an older era and the situation of an artist creating a public work.
Putnam, who received a PhD in physics from Princeton in 1960, is also the patron of Princeton University’s Putnam Sculpture Collection located throughout the campus (U.S. 1, May 30, 2012).
The son of a lawyer father and art collector mother, Putman became wealthy through a mixture of an inheritance and shrewd stock market investments.
Preferring a Spartan-like existence, Putnam preferred to contribute his money to causes and interests, including Princeton’s Putnam Collection, named after his brother, John B. Putnam, Jr, a fighter pilot killed in World War II.
That collection includes work by some of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, including Pablo Picasso, Louise Nevelson, and Alexander Calder.
The Kent State protests were the reaction of anti-war students to President Richard Nixon’s announcement that in addition to a presence in Vietnam the United States was planning to invade Cambodia.
After a weekend of ongoing and disruptive protests that included the burning of university property, the National Guard was called in to restore order.
Then on Monday afternoon a demonstration that began peacefully turned violent, with some students hurling rocks at National Guard members.
Then, for some unclear reason, several guard members fired back into the crowd, killing Allison Krause, Sandy Lee Scheuer, Jeffrey G. Miller, and William K. Schroeder and wounding nine others.
The shootings shook a nation living with the nightly reports of a seemingly endless war killing young Americans and innocent Vietnamese people on a daily basis.
It also deepened the divide between those who wanted to continue the war and those who wanted the United States to end it.
Several years after the Kent State shootings, the socially minded Putnam wanted to memorialize the event, and in January, 1978, he contacted Kent State officials to say the foundation he set up to honor his mother (using her maiden name) would pay $100,000 for Segal to create a commemorative statue to be presented to Kent State.
Putnam’s mother was an art collector who admired and had collected works by Segal.
Born in the Bronx in 1924, Segal moved with his parents to South Brunswick in 1940 where he forged an artistic relationship with Rutgers University and its cutting-edge avant-garde art department.
Originally a painter, Segal moved to sculpture as a way of moving the human figure in an actual physical space and exploring how subjects interact with their surroundings.
He was also part of two erupting art movements whose proponents also happened to be instructors at Rutgers: pop art and Fluxus. The latter was a daring exploration of art that favored process over product and introduced artistic happenings, including those that took place on the chicken farm that Segal’s family had established.
Eventually Segal pulled from both movements and developed his signature style: seemingly unfinished white plaster figures in everyday environments.
He later painted the figures and had the sculptures cast in metal. He also worked in printmaking and photography.
When the Kent State administration received Putman’s offer, they unofficially accepted the offer and began communications with Putnam and Segal.
During those early discussions with university president Brage Golding, Putman said Segal “would be happy to work with you on such a commission, which would be a group of people, life size, in bronze.”
The university immediately shared the idea of the commemorative project with the parents of the four slain students and found they “did not wish their children to be memorialized by paintings or figures.”
Golding communicated such to Putnam, who responded that Segal was looking beyond a work depicting students and the National Guard and “was exploring various ideas for creating a piece which would involve the theme of ‘life.’”
Golding responded by stipulating that the placement and design of the work would have to be approved by the university, that the university would be the recipient of all preliminary designs and models, and that the Mildred Andrews Foundation handle all financial actions.
By the end of February, 1978, the project was officially in motion. However, six months later, Kent State officials and Segal found themselves in another type of standoff.
Segal had made his own artistic decision. He saw the killings a part of a problem related to the generational divide between the young who questioned the Vietnam War and the older generation who blindly followed the idea that the younger generation needed to serve its nation.
To do so, he decided to use the story of Abraham, whose spiritual devotion is tested when God asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. When Abraham reluctantly begins to comply, God has mercy on him and stops the sacrifice.
As Segal later put it, “There is a strong connection in my mind between the image of Abraham and Isaac and the killings at Kent State. It is an attempt to introduce difficult moral and ethical questions as to how older people should behave toward their children.”
To make the image relevant, Segal put both figures in contemporary clothing and depicted Isaac as a bare-torso college student with his hands bound.
However, the university saw it differently. In an August communication between the university’s contact person, university president executive assistant Robert McCoy, Putnam writes, “On about July 27, you assured me the university’s acceptance of the Segal sculpture was unqualified. As you will remember I brought up the point explicitly, asking if your concern over the word of the Biblical quotation involved any uncertainty of acceptance.”
McCoy followed with two communications showing that he had visited Segal’s New Jersey studio to try to get him to change the theme from “Abraham and Isaac” because the university administration does “not believe it appropriate to commemorate the deaths of four persons and the wounding of nine, on its campus, with a statue which appears to represent an act of violence about to be committed.”
Then, according to a newspaper article, a group of Kent State students had been in communication with Segal who reported that Golding had found the theme to be “controversial” and suggested an alternative: a semi-nude young woman using her “feminine charms” to deflect a young soldier from firing his rifle.
While the university officials denied the accusation, one article quotes McCoy as admitting to bringing up the idea with Segal during his July visit to New Jersey.
Kent State students complained about the sexist approach and pointed out that the young women who were killed were protesting against a war they believed unjust. However, the administration was not moved, and the memorial was in limbo.
Putnam then approached then Princeton University Art Museum director Fred Licht about accepting the design already created in Segal’s signature plaster style and creating a bronze sculpture version.
He agreed, and the decision to have the work created at the Johnson Atelier added another regional dimension to the work.
As past atelier caster and Hopewell-based sculptor Rory Mahon, who worked on the sculptures, says in a PUAM statement, Segal’s “original plaster figures were fragile and extremely valuable, so he was placing a lot of trust in us. In fact, his work was one of the rare instances in which the original was still more valuable than the finished bronze. As we took the plaster works through the casting process, we developed new ways to ensure the safety of his originals.”
Meanwhile, Segal selected the Princeton Chapel location in order to reinforce his work’s connection to the Biblical story.
“I chose the image of Abraham and Isaac despite its sexual sadomasochism, and in spite of the conflict of the generations, because it deals with mercy and compassion and has a happy ending. There are reasons for that on which we should reflect,” said Segal during the work’s October 5, 1979, dedication,
His sentiments were echoed by shooting victim Allison Krause’s father, Arthur, who said, “The statue shows that the older generation and the younger generation share God’s mercy, and that He can stop sacrifice.”
And while the statue’s voice may have been faded some over the past several decades, it still has the power to speak to those who have ears to listen.