Perceptive students returning last week might have noticed something new in front of the University Art Museum; the three rows of super-sized bronzed figurines, headless and armless, in regimental formation were installed over the summer. These large outdoor sculptures, titled “Big Figures” (there are twenty in all), occupy what was an empty grassy knoll after the museum’s renovation last year. They are the work of Magdalena Abakanowicz, a Polish-born sculptor, 64, whose other recent works include the “Manus Ultimus” in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris and the “Figure on Trunk” at the Met in New York. Ms. Abakanowicz interprets her own works as dealing with “problems of dignity and courage” of “the countless.”
At a cocktail party for museum donors several weeks ago, coinciding with the installation (the muted fanfare from the party being moved indoors due to predicted rain), became an out-and-out protest once the sculpture was unveiled. Of course, most donors were please with the piece, but a voluble, salt-and-pepper-haired few fussed and fretted at the appearance of Abakanowicz’s militia.
Paul Wallace ’67, wants the sculpture to be moved or removed. He is an outdoor installation artist of minor fame, having earned commissions such as the Kidz Town Clock outside the Children’s Museum of Discovery in downtown Wellfleet, Mass. and the restoration of the imposing bronze Andrew Jackson battle statue in Jacksonville, Fla. Wallace does not consider the Art Museum’s recent acquisition to be either attractive or artistically worthy of his annual write-off. He has called the piece “cowardly and traitorous” and “unfit to serve” as the centerpiece of Princeton’s outdoor sculpture. In the days following the event, he telephoned several comrades from his Princeton days and together they founded a group to uninstall the statues, Outdoor Sculpture Artists for Truth.
This group began not long ago a campaign of relentless advertising in Princeton Alumni Weekly and the Daily Princetonian to tear down the sculptures and keep the campus looking “proper.” At first, the aims of the Outdoor Sculpture Artists for Truth were purely aesthetic, but recently more troubling contentions have surfaced. Richard Stetler ’65, now an art dealer, spent 5 months as a journeyman blacksmith in the same studio foundry where the “Big Figures” were crafted. He questioned whether they are even an original work, and called Ms. Abakanowicz a “spinelessness liar” who is “too French.”
“I was there when she conceived of the idea, it was Christmas 1968.” Stetler says that Magdalena was “most certainly not” standing in front of street-level window of Bloom’s General Store, and that she “was in a completely different State” that day. The Nassau Weekly as done some investigation into Stetler’s claims and he appears to be correct, to a point. The headless and armless mannequins that were said to have inspired “Big Figures” were nowhere to be found in Gloomy Hollow, Ohio at all, but did, however, turn up in Dismal Mountain, West Virginia. These towns, in fact, are nearly indistinguishable sister cities on opposite sides of the Ohio River, connected at the narrowest crossing point by the Benjamin R. Hockney Memorial Friendship Bridge.
Additionally, the credentials of a few accusers are suspect: one is only sort of an outdoor sculptor (more of a garden gnome painter and purveyor); another owns several golf courses in Marietta, Ga., which he considers “landscape art galleries.”
Several members of the Outdoor Sculpture Artists for Truth say that they have nothing personal against Ms. Abakanowicz, but that they would just prefer to have a nice bush, perhaps a shrub in place of “Big Figures.” At press time, neither Susan M. Taylor, the director of the University Art Museum, nor President Tilghman have taken steps acknowledge or refute the allegations, or halt the feuding alumni (the President has been unavailable during much of the media storm, as she was on vacation at her ranch in Crawford, Ontario).
The figurines, in spite of their controversy, bring to mind two other (usually unrelated) pieces of art: the Korean War Memorial along the Mall, which depicts a platoon of marching GIs for a similar visual effect; and the closing scene of Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” where following an urban firefight, several grunts brandish their automatic rifles and all join in to chant the Mickey Mouse Club song. The first reflects upon and enshrines fallen soldiers, the other satirizes and flaunts the true absurdity of war. The installation aims for both outcomes at once, which might explain one’s primary reaction to it—melancholy. Hardly beautiful, only mildly poetic, the headless troop guarding our Art Museum bears the mark of the spirit of age; it is a work rooted in our country’s coffin-free quagmire against an enemy we sought to liberate, even though history, sound judgment, and most Earth citizens reasoned that war was just an answer, but never a solution.