There is something idiosyncratic yet inevitably traditional about the Princeton University campus, famous as it is for its bronzed tigers, towers, and gargoyles. Though additions to the grounds appear regularly, the university, from the imperial FitzRandolph Gates to the Gothic halls that seem caught in an eternal ivy embrace, exudes the comfortable stability of an institution. Yet just 40 years ago one event changed the appearance of the campus in a very special way.

In March, 1968, then-Princeton president Robert F. Goheen announced that an anonymous donor had made a contribution for Princeton to procure a series of sculptures. The collection was designed to memorialize a Princeton undergraduate, Lieutenant John B. Putnam Jr., Class of 1945. Putnam enlisted in the Air Force and completed 53 missions before a fatal plane crash in 1944.

In the next five years, sculptures by influential modern masters were installed on campus. The group, known as the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, contains 22 works. Though we might never discover the identity of the mysterious benefactor, the Putnam collection has become so much a part of campus that one might hardly suspect how recent its acquisitions have been.

Picasso’s celebrated “Head of a Woman,” which greets Dinky passengers today and was originally located in front of the Art Museum, belongs to the collection, as does the iconic “Oval with Points” by Sir Henry Moore that stands in front of West College, just behind Nassau Hall. Notably, Moore’s sculpture at Princeton is one of only two of the sculptor’s works in the state of New Jersey.

While the Putnam Collection’s sculptures are familiar sights, some of their stories remain mysterious. Many of us see these works regularly, but how much do we really know about them?

For instance, that famed Picasso on the lawn by Spelman Hall is not entirely “a Picasso.” That the work is associated with Picasso says very little about the sculpture’s origins. Picasso’s version stood only slightly more than 12 inches high. The 15-foot monument we see today was actually the work of Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar, who executed the sculpture in consultation with Picasso. This nuance of Princeton’s “Picasso” is but one of the many stories about the Putnam collection that have been forgotten.

One of the donor’s stipulations for the Putnam collection involved a principle of spontaneity. Placement in museums or sculpture gardens was expressly forbidden. Rather, the sculptures were to be installed so a passerby would encounter them casually, perhaps unexpectedly. In that spirit, I shall linger with just a few of pieces from the collection.

Along the way, I had the privilege of speaking about the works with the artist Sherman Drexler, who knew many of the sculptors who contributed to the Puntam Collection personally. I have included some of his commentary here. Drexler’s own work — which extends from large-scale paintings on canvas to tiny figures on found objects — has inspired comparisons to Picasso and Bonnard. In fact, a recent New York Times review placed Drexler, a former Guggenheim Fellow, in a continuum of masters that reaches from Matisse to Rothenberg. Drexler spoke about his own work and the current state of the art world at Molly Barnes’ New York City “Brown Bag Salon” lecture series in August, 2011.

Read along and the next time you come across one of these campus landmarks, perhaps more will come to mind than their metal exteriors and remarkable (and sometimes remarkably uncanny) appearances.

#b#Alexander Calder: Five Disks: One Empty#/b#

Towering over the Fine Hall Plaza at 26 feet, Calder’s steel “Five Disks: One Empty” is especially difficult to overlook. Though it may be hard to imagine, the sculptor of “Five Disks: One Empty” had an artistic vision that expressed itself in a variety of ways. Calder fashioned children’s toys, tiny circuses, and “mobiles” (as Marcel Duchamp christened them), in addition to “stabiles” such as this one.

The history of this sculpture’s installation is complicated by two matters, one tragic. During its initial installation, the cables of a crane snapped, killing two steel riggers at work on the project. The sculpture was consequently retired to storage for a year before its installation.

Less grim is the tiny ‘color war’ that took place after the sculpture’s installation. In an early version of the work, Calder envisioned the piece painted entirely black. Calder’s friend Alfred Barr — who had enticed Calder to create the piece on Princeton’s behalf in the first place — proposed that a disk or two be painted orange out of allegiance to “Old Nassau.”

Calder pushed this idea further and suggested that all of the disks be painted orange, but soon changed his mind and stipulated that only one small disk could bear the Princeton color. When Calder arrived at Princeton in 1971 to survey his work, however, he discovered that all of the disks had been painted orange! After a careful appraisal, Calder discreetly issued orders to the painters. One by one the disks were painted black and the sculpture took on the appearance it has today.

#b#David Smith: Cubi XIII#/b#

Smith’s stainless steel sculpture stands over nine feet tall and can be found between McCormick and Whig halls. Though it seems to channel the human form, it is fashioned entirely of basic geometric motifs — rectangles, cylinders, and the like. The work, like the human traits it evokes, is full of nuances and textures. The polished stainless steel surface is covered with light-catching tracks that resemble a painter’s bold brushstrokes. “He did away with generals on horseback and conventional, monumental sculpture,” Drexler observes. “He made abstract shapes out of heavy iron and slabs. He made us realize the possibilities of using any material.”

The sculptor himself — famed in more intimate circles for his avid pursuit of female companionship — was once employed as a welder and continued to assume the appearance of a laborer even after he became a world-renowned artist. Though a fatal car accident put a tragic end to Smith’s life at the age of 59, the artist’s work represented a breakthrough in American sculpture during the 1950s and early 1960s.

#b#George Segal: Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University#/b#

Installed near Firestone Library in 1979, George Segal’s “Abraham and Isaac” was the last addition to the Putnam Collection. The sculpture constitutes a dramatic departure from Segal’s typical works. An example of a more conventional Segal sculpture, “Circus Acrobats,” is currently suspended above the entryway to the Princeton Art Museum. Typically, Segal takes sculpture, an art form traditionally reserved for commemoration of significant deeds and historical figures, and immortalizes the most forgettable actions of daily life. (Drexler’s wife, the playwright, novelist, and pop artist Rosalyn Drexler, served as a model for one such sculpture.)

In “Abraham and Isaac,” Segal exchanges his usual medium, plaster, for bronze. If Segal generally makes a monument of the prosaic, his “Abraham and Isaac” takes biblical figures and sets them in ordinary, modern dress, thus reversing his typical artistic program. Segal originally created this piece as a memorial for four unarmed students who were fatally shot by members of the National Guard at Kent State University while protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Kent State deemed the sculpture too controversial and refused it.

#b#Isamu Noguchi: White Sun#/b#

“White Sun,” a luminous sculpture of Vermont white marble, greets all who enter the lobby of Firestone Library. Noguchi’s work is a balancing act, a negotiation between elements of Eastern and Western traditions. Noguchi, a Japanese-American, spent nearly a year in Asia, steeping himself in traditions such as calligraphy and the Japanese craft of ceramics. Drexler describes Noguchi’s work as both “exquisite and monumental” and calls Noguchi “a master who makes you look at what you wouldn’t otherwise see.”

“White Sun” has a sister sculpture, “Black Sun,” in the Seattle Art Museum. With these pieces, Noguchi says, “it has been my conceit to think that I have spanned the continent.” He admits that Princeton’s “White Sun” is one of his favorites.

#b#Reg Butler: The Bride#/b#

In the courtyard of Rockefeller College’s Hamilton Hall stands Butler’s “The Bride.” The setting perfectly suits a sculpture that was conceived of and created entirely outdoors. The seven-foot bronze figure of a pensive bride seems to emerge from the earth itself. The legs of the figure resemble a trunk, and the work is crowned by a bowed, veiled head that forms an elegant, anthropomorphized foliage.

One might notice that “The Bride” sits on a square base. Not part of the original composition, the base was added in recent years to protect the work from lawn fertilizer, which had begun to corrode the sculpture. Butler once remarked, “one builds with the edges of one’s vision.” That statement fits the experience of viewing “The Bride,” a work that becomes at once monumental and more intimate, at once more a work of nature than art, the longer it is studied.

#b#Tony Smith: Moses#/b#

The sculpture seems to glower as it crouches on the lawn facing Prospect House. Tony Smith’s 15-foot “Moses” is an example of minimalism — the reduction of artistic forms to basic shapes — on a grand scale. Smith’s work gains impact by creating a certain poetic composition from what would otherwise seem unprepossessing shapes. Smith was known for his ability to create intriguing visual forms from simple elements. As Drexler exclaims, “he could create excitement about rectangles!” As with many of his other pieces, Smith chose the title “Moses” after the piece was created.

The sculpture’s “horns” reminded him of Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of a horned Moses. Michelangelo crowned the biblical figure in such an unlikely way because the artist had followed a description of Moses that contained a mistranslation (the Hebrew word for “shone” was rendered in Latin as “horn”). In looking at the Putnam Collection’s “Moses,” one might keep in mind Smith’s own observation: “If you think of space as a solid, my sculptures are voids in that space.”

#b#Gaston Lachaise: Floating Figure#/b#

Pieces from the Putnam Collection can be found even on the outskirts of campus. Lachaise’s “Floating Figure,” located in the court of the Graduate College, is one example. The piece is the bronze figure of a woman with dramatically emphasized breasts and hips. Despite this, the work has a sense of weightlessness — it seems indeed to “float.” Notably, Lachaise’s work is more traditional, less abstract than many others in the Putnam Collection, but like much of his work, “Floating Figure” blurred the lines between traditional and modern sculpture and even inspired surrealism.

This piece, like most of Lachaise’s works, takes his wife, Isabel Nagle, as its model. Lachaise met a then-married Nagle in Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens between 1900 and 1905. He dedicated both his life and his art to her ever after. Though Nagle refused to divorce her husband for nearly a decade after that first meeting, Lachaise made her his muse, mistress, and a symbol of the eternal female figure.

I was particularly struck by Drexler’s reaction to this statue. Drexler, who is noted for the female nudes he has painted over the last 60 years, has often talked about the time Andy Warhol and his entourage visitedDrexler’s own studio. Drexler recalls Warhol’s remark: “Look at all the portraits of female nudes…They are marvelous! Where did you get the idea?” This is a question to which Drexler admits he has never adequately responded. Drexler poignantly characterizes Lachaise’s sculptures as “love poems in homage to Woman.”

There are many, many other stories to tell about these and the 14 other members of the Putnam Collection. I could mention how Louise Nevelson, the sculptor of “Atmosphere and Environment X,” which stands between Firestone Library and Nassau Street, is not only the lone female artist included in the Putnam group, but was also an avid hostess of flamboyant parties in decades past.

Or perhaps I could recall how Clement Meadmore’s overtly phallic “Upstart 2” provoked protests amongst the female student population when it was first installed. But those are discussions for another day. In the meantime, perhaps you might keep the Putnam Collection in mind when next you find yourself on campus enjoying a bright Saturday afternoon. Whether the works inspire joy, provoke dislike, or seem just plain puzzling, discussions of sculpture make for great picnic conversation.

A booklet, “Sculpture of Princeton University,” provides an informative introduction to sculptures at the university both in the Putnam collection and beyond. It is available at the Princeton University Art Museum Store.

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