Photograph by William Auten, courtesy of the University of Virginia Art Museum
Since last March, a new presence has dominated one of the most heavily trafficked spaces on the grounds of the University of Virginia. The monumental, 12-foot-tall Tripes, which now stands near the entrance of Peabody Hall, was made in 1974 by renowned American modernist Alexander Calder. Even today, it resonates with echoes of conspiracy and innovation that once characterized its maker and his oeuvre. It also recalls the once notorious and now mostly forgotten presence of another Calder sculpture, Steel Fish, which briefly stood in front of the Rotunda more than 60 years ago.
The current installation of Calder’s Tripes, on long-term loan from the Calder Foundation, represents the latest phase in the University’s efforts to integrate public art into its historic grounds. The tree-like sculpture piques the imagination with its biomorphic shape that appears to change as viewers move around it. The sculpture is made of painted sheet metal, and when the sun passes overhead, its “arms” appear to crawl across the ground in shadow form. It seems quite at home in a landscape full of iconic imagery, secret symbols and quotes about the power of knowledge. At its dedication last spring, Tripes was celebrated as representing the University’s founding principles of “innovation, invention and freedom of thought.”
Calder was born in Philadelphia in 1898, into an artistic family. His grandfather and father were sculptors, and his mother was a painter. Yet his initial inclination was more technical, and he earned a degree in mechanical engineering; he studied, among other things, the ways in which free-moving bodies react to applied force. It was not until 1923 that Calder seriously began exploring his artistic talents, painting in New York and, a few years later, exploring sculpting in Paris. By 1930, he was producing mobiles—abstract sculptures featuring free-moving hanging shapes. He also attracted attention for his grand abstract sculptures, which combine the stability of solid sculpture and the kinetic freedom of a mobile—a form he cleverly named the “stabile.”
When his stabile Steel Fish arrived on the UVA grounds on January 4, 1950, it received a less-than-warm reception. The sculpture was one of 28 mostly abstract works by various artists in a temporary exhibition, “Calder and Sculpture Today,” assembled by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Fifteen feet high, Steel Fish was the largest of the works and, as a recent acquisition of the VMFA, garnered the most attention. Displayed in front of the Rotunda, whereas the other artworks were presented inside, Steel Fish was composed of red, yellow, black and silver-colored steel plates, balls, wires and pipes, all dangling from moving limbs.
The night of the sculpture’s debut on Grounds, unidentified vandals stole large portions of the artwork, leaving only small pieces and the base intact. The pranksters returned the parts 24 hours later, and the sculpture was restored, but the incident exacerbated already strained relations between contemporary art enthusiasts and anti-modernist groups.
Throughout the exhibition’s earlier tour in Richmond and on college campuses, including UVA, Mary Baldwin College and Randolph-Macon, there was always the eternal question: “But is it art?”
Both the question and its answers were often tinged with rather dark insinuations. Cold War rhetoric shaped the discussion of abstract art in the mid-20th century, in both Virginia and the broader national discourse. One viewer wrote to the Richmond Times-Dispatch to denounce the modernist artworks in the exhibition as products of intellectual Bohemianism at best and as subversive Communist tools at worst. In Washington, D.C., that summer, Rep. George A. Dondero (R-Michigan) argued on the steps of the U.S. Capitol that abstract art “destroy[ed] the high standards and priceless traditions of academic art.” The congressman condemned any artist who succumbed to impulses such as Dadaism, cubism and surrealism as a “soldier of the [Communist] revolution.”
Despite the raging culture wars and the ensuing McCarthyism, which blacklisted numerous contemporary artists in all media, the late 1950s saw a burgeoning embrace of modern art as something distinctly “American.” Rather than questioning the modern art form as something secretive and duplicitous, American audiences eventually began to regard modern artworks as embodiments of the liberated American spirit and as products of a freethinking democratic society.
Calder’s work continues this conversation today, as Tripes reclaims the artist’s relevance to the local and national political and cultural climate. The university’s renewed effort to integrate public art into the landscape of learning underscores the way an aesthetic object can not only delight but also prompt critical thinking. And today’s students, pondering the question posed 60 years ago, can respond that yes, indeed, it is art.
Meghan Holder is a 2008 graduate of the University of Virginia, where she earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Art History. Holder currently works as the research assistant in the archives of the Valentine Richmond History Center in Richmond.