Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Man on Campus--Part 2

This was not the smorgasbord of sculpture of PepsiCo by a long shot, but I thought these three pieces were very interesting. I first stumbled onto a Henry Moore, Three-Way Piece: Points (1965).

There was a student there who appeared to be sketching this sculpture, but I didn't inquire. It stands on three "legs," one a point, one curved, the third with a straight edge and a rounded one. There's some uniquely bad analysis of this piece going around the web. A lot of it claims with a perfectly straight face that it encourages the viewer to walk around it and look at it from every direction. This is about the most redundant thing you could say about a sculpture, since pretty much all sculpture does that, being a three-dimensional art form. In any case, it manages to work quite nicely against the wildly various architectural backdrops of this part of the Columbia campus.

Much more interesting is that, looking at the base, I was fairly certain it turned, so I gave it a push. It wouldn't budge. One source claims it was powered by a motor until the energy crisis of the 1970s, when it was permanently shut off. Another seems to suggest that it can be rotated by pushing it, which students do, necessitating special conservation measures. If that's true, it clearly requires more than one person to turn it and there were no drunken fraternity boys around for me to ask for help. The student sketching it probably would have been very irritated if I'd changed its orientation, anyway.

Then there's this great piece by David Bakalar called Life Force (1988).

Bakalar is kind of an interesting character. He got a degree in physics from Harvard and metallurgy from MIT. He then went on to work for Bell Telephone Labs, which was a research powerhouse at the time. He was president of Transitron Electronic Corporation from 1952 to 1984. I'm sorry to say I don't think all of his work is terribly successful. A lot of it is way too simplistic and obvious. You basically don't even need me to tell you what Computer Man looks like for you to guess what it's about.

His abstract works, on the other hand, can be a bit better, and I think this is one of the most successful of them. Its form is primary enough to allude to a lot of different things without being blatant. It's a simple piece, but I think that works in its favor here. In fact, I think he's stumbled onto something extremely intense and dramatic. It's located beautifully in the middle of the plaza, as well.

And the last one, which previous photos almost revealed, is over the entrance to Greene. It's Bellerophon Taming Pegasus (1967) by Jacques Lipchitz.

Bellerophon was sent to kill the Chimera, which was thought to be a fatal mission that would cause his demise (long story, you know how those demigods were), so he needed the help of Pegasus. Athena gave him a golden bridle to help, but it was evidently still quite a task taming the winged horse. The law student sitting on the steps told me that the sculpture symbolizes the triumph of man over nature and the imposing of laws, an analogy for what goes on inside the building. His friend was like "really? Is that what it means?" The somewhat sculptural canopy had been there since the building went up in 1961, but there are varying claims as to when Lipchitz' piece was created and installed. Most likely this cast was made in 1973 from a maquette from 1967. It was donated to Columbia in 1977, allegedly by alumni, and shipped to the United States from Europe in eight pieces. It's evidently one of the largest outdoor sculptures in Manhattan.

Despite what I've had to say about Cubist sculpture, I do actually kind of appreciate Lipchitz' work. Obviously he had gone different directions by the late-'60s. It's fascinating to me that any artist would be working with Classical themes as late (or early) as 1967, but I guess those themes have remained timeless. It was only the Modernists who rejected them, and that only lasted about thirty or forty years out of thousands. I'd be tempted to say that this was a very Postmodern choice of subject if it weren't for the fact that Lipchitz had been doing it for years.

At this point I figured I'd better get to doing what I had gone there to do, and headed over to the Avery Library. I did need to ask one person for directions, but it wasn't difficult to find. There's just way too many buildings there and the signage is spotty at best. The girl at the entrance desk to the library was one of these really weird, tweaky Library Science types. If you've never worked with a librarian, it's difficult to explain them, but they are a really strange breed. It's not exactly bad social skills, although it can be that, also. It's more that they have this really strange way of interacting with people.

My first real introduction to this character type was volunteering to work in the library at the Municipal Arts Society. The librarian in charge, Claudia I think was her name, was extremely meticulous and surely would have had her hair in a bun and looked at me over the top of her bifocals if she'd been older. The one thing I'll take away is that she had the irritating habit of referring to it as the "Citicore Building." This is a major pet peeve of mine and everyone needs to please stop it. It's not a "corps," with two silent consonants at the end. It's a "corPoration," with a "P" in it. "CiticorP." I tried saying it properly for her, but she never did get the hint, much to my annoyance.

Anyway, Librarian Girl told me I couldn't get right in with the Metrocard, but I had to go over to the office in the Butler Library to get an access pass. First she assumes I know exactly what that is, even though I'm clearly not a Columbia student. So I say, "I don't know the campus that well, can you be a little bit more specific?" So then she proceeds to give me these really long, convoluted directions about walking along paths and turning right and left and going down stairs, when all she really had to say was that it's the enormous building on the south side of the main quad and utterly impossible to miss. When I got through her directions and realized that was the building she meant, I'm thinking, "THIS is where those directions were supposed to be leading me?"

So I get to Butler. The woman behind the desk in their front office basically took one look at me and instantly decided that she was not going to let me into the library. It's kind of mysterious, really, because I am so very handsome and charming. Barely even looking at my Metrocard, she says with condescension and patronization just dripping from her voice, "ooohhh, nooooo, this isn't going to wooork. Ooohhh, noooo, you need the bluuuuue card." I'm like, "oh, wow, is there anything you can do to help me out because it's not all that easy for me to get up here." "Noooo, this is the wrong caaaard. Oooohhh, noooo, this isn't going to work at aaalllll." Siiigh.

"So you're saying that I have to go all the way back downtown to get a different card and then come all the way back up here again?" Eventually she got around to informing me that there is in fact a regular New York public library branch right around the corner. That was a relief, so I set out for that branch.

After waiting at the public library information desk for about an hour while a big long line of people checked out laptop computers (did you know you can check out laptops for free at the library? I didn't.) I finally got up to the desk. I put on my absolute friendliest, cheeriest tone of voice, asked the desk attendant how she was doing, and explained that I had the wrong card. They don't have the blue cards there, they never do.

Can you see the steam shooting out of my ears?

I decided to go back over to Butler anyway and just beg and plead for some kind of consideration. This time, the first woman was helping someone else. So I went instead to talk to her coworker, a much younger woman who was very likely a Columbia student. I explained my predicament. She's like "oh, SURE, that's no problem, just show me your driver's license." What. She really was my savior. If only I'd been able to deal with her the first time around, it could have saved me about a half-hour.

I take my fancy new access pass and head back over to Avery. Weird Librarian Girl tells me that now I have to have specific call numbers for her to allow me inside. Well, I didn't have call numbers, that was the whole point of needing the blue Metrocard in the first place. I was researching a subject, not looking for specific research materials. But I did manage to find in their computer system a list of drawings that seemed like a good place to start.

Finally, I descend the stairs into what they clearly consider to be the great holy sanctuary of Columbia's Avery Library. The drawings are only available for view by appointment...and I don't have one. Of course.

The woman handling the desk downstairs was very nice, and called back to the drawings collection. Jason, who I had emailed a couple of weeks earlier, and who I soon learned was the person she'd gotten on the phone, quite graciously allowed me to come back to the drawings archive anyway so that I could make an appointment. He was also very nice and helpful and explained what I would need to do so my next trip wouldn't be as ridiculous as the first. I didn't know when I'd be able to return, however, so I just got his contact information and would have to wait for a good day to go back again.

Next up: International Affairs.

All text and images ©2010, Ryan Witte.


Hence72 said...

Hi, pleased to meet you

Loving your artful blog

Please come and let me know what you think about my Travel Art

Ryan Witte said...


Thank you so much for your kind comment. I appreciate it.

Your blog is also really interesting. Great photos with an almost accidental quality to them, in a good way, and yet, intriguingly composed. Taking purposeful photos that look accidental is as challenging as writing natural dialogue for a film or a play. Very few people can do it properly, but I think you have. And I love the idea of drawing on the empty pages of books.