A Walk Through UMass Boston’s “Arts on the Point”
October 07, 2010
Members of the UMass Boston community may not realize that a campus often derided for its Brutalist architecture is home to great works of contemporary art by Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, and other 20th-century masters.
"The more that people are aware of these works—that's what they're for!—the better," said Professor of Art Paul Tucker, who founded Arts on the Point in 1997.
New: Paul Tucker talks about Arts on the Point with Channel 5's Chronicle. Click here to watch.
For students, it’s "an opportunity to become familiar with works from the leading artists of the 20th century," Tucker said. The works have made their way into university curricula, studied by not only art students but English classes and even, Tucker said, a biology class that assigns a sculpture question as extra credit on an exam.
The university itself doesn't pay a penny. After making a splash curating two Monet exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts, Tucker said, "I decided to cash in my art world chits." He raises money from patrons of the arts—"Friends of Paul," he joked—to cover installation, fabrication, transport, and related expenses. To keep the program both affordable and dynamic, the works are on loan, not bought: A Sol de Witt sculpture that long held pride of place and an Alexander Calder mobile have both moved on.
He takes pride in presenting only the best. "They're works of art that are the highest levels of quality," Tucker said, adding, "we've been offered tons of things" that didn't make the cut.
Tucker thinks the works humanize the campus, and a stroll across the plaza with Tucker pointing out the works and their settings has a subtle beautifying effect: Everything starts to look like art. You notice, for instance, the row of pointed skylights that allow light to enter offices in the Campus Center. Even the cracked rear plaza, with its crumbling black brick, begins to look a bit like a historic Greek agora. Maya Lin was interested in creating a sculpture for that site, Tucker said, but unfortunately the plaza isn't strong enough to support significant extra weight.
The project makes a statement about UMass Boston's reputation and image as well, declaring that this urban, public university is home to innovation and intellectual discipline. When museum administrator Ben Garcia was a student at UMass Boston in the late 1990s, he found that beyond historical figures and ducklings, "there was just very, very little" great sculpture in Boston. "Arts on the Point felt like such an amazing step forward," he said. "What a gift it is for the city."
Some of the sculptures may seem opaque and forbidding at first, but Tucker speaks of them like old friends. Here are some of the stories behind them.
Artist Roy Lichtenstein wasn't known for sculpture. He built only a few during his lifetime, concentrating instead on paintings that often paid homage to pulp comics. So perhaps it's not surprising that one of the small models he made honored the key element of painting: the brush.
Tucker discovered the piece through good old-fashioned connections. "I had become friends with his lawyer," he said, who told him the Lichtenstein Foundation had decided to create a full-sized version of the artist's model for "Brushstroke Group." UMass Boston seemed like the perfect place to unveil the piece: With his focus on popular imagery like the comic strip, Lichtenstein believed in accessibility. A small patch of dots on the sculpture's base refers to the artist's use of newspaper-ink-style dots in his comic-strip paintings.
From there it was a made-in-Massachusetts production, fabricated in Seekonk at a factory that used to make aluminum boats. A company right down the street from UMass Boston created the concrete base--a nerve-wracking experience, Tucker said: "You pour the whole thing, you set the bolts and you pray." Arts on the Point paid to install, light, and insure the piece but not to fabricate or transport it, said Tucker, adding that if a private citizen wanted to buy the piece for their front yard, it would cost several million dollars.
Now, the sculpture welcomes people to the Campus Center, and highlights the natural setting: the blue brushstroke looks like a wave, and seems to gesture to the natural gas tanks, painted by Sister Corita Kent, across the bay. "The fact that… we have one of [Lichtenstein's] largest and best pieces of sculpture should say we have something serious going on here," Tucker said.
If the Lichtenstein is light, this sculpture is dark. Again, it's a rarity in the artist's body of work—William de Kooning created only a few large three-dimensional works.
The piece, brawny and muscular, is a puzzle, changing as you circle it. How many figures are there? What are they doing? On one side, water pools in the shape of a heart. It practically glistens; a professional conservator cleans and rewaxes the sculpture twice a year. To student Winslow Homer, it looked like "something from a volcano, distorted… where the heat has made it smooth." But you can also see the artist's touch: He cast the piece from a small model he made by clenching clay in his hand.
The sculpture's time at Umass Boston shows Tucker's sensitivity to campus life. When it first arrived, it sat by the Quinn Building, which at the time was “front door” of the campus. But with the opening of the Campus Center the area became less travelled, and far fewer people passed "Reclining Figure." The sculpture seemed lonely and unloved, so tucker moved it to its current location at the front of the arcade, so that people walk by it all the time.
The cylindrical sculpture of rebar, netting, and Christmas lights hangs in an unexpected place on the campus—under the Healey Library—and arrived in an unexpected way. "There was no money to ship the sculpture," said alumnus Ben Garcia, so he and a fellow art student "drove down to the studio in Brooklyn one day in a rental truck." The task was complicated by the truck, which was so big that the drivers "had to do a U-Turn at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge" and find a bridge they were allowed to cross. When they finally arrived at Dennis Oppenheim's studio, the fearless students strapped the sculpture in with a few UHaul straps and blankets and drove back to Boston.
If he tried this unsanctioned transport method at his current job, associate director of education at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, staff "would have an absolute heart attack," Garcia said. But "it was great, it was just fun and really sort of speaks to the investment that students in the Art Department had for Arts on the Point."
Remember the urban legend about alligators living in the sewers? So did Luis Jiménez. He created "Los Lagartos" for his hometown of El Paso, gesturing both to the urban legend and to a new park in the city, which had replaced the old zoo and its crocodile house. Four gators—"lagartos" in Spanish—swirl up from the base of the piece, jaws open. It originally came to the campus as a temporary substitute for Jiménez's “Steelworker” statue—now just outside the Campus Center-- while the latter went on exhibit elsewhere. Together, they're among the most approachable pieces in UMass Boston's collection.
The material itself is populist: painted fiberglass, like a car. (Jiménez first encountered the medium while working at an auto body shop.) The gators' playful quality and irresistibly sleek skin have a downside, though. Tucker pointed to a small hole in the carapace. "I've actually caught somebody climbing on it," he said. Not that he'd fence the sculpture off-- that would contradict the whole point of public art.
The piece takes on additional shades of humor in its UMass Boston position. Since it's right by the Clark Athletic Center, student Joe White originally thought the gators were the university's sports logo. Tucker thought he saw a sly gesture as well: "This big one here is screaming at the administration building," he said.
This past spring, Arts on the Point took a new turn with the tangle of orange and blue netting that climbs like Spiderman up the vaulted ceiling from the Campus Center atrium: The artwork, by Sheila Pepe, is the first created specifically for a UMass Boston site. In fact, Pepe created the recycled-material piece on-site from orange shoelaces and blue tow rope, "crocheting like mad," Tucker said.
For less committed arts mavens, the spontaneity could have been frightening. Arts on the Point made the commission unseen. "We didn't see any model for it," Tucker said. But "we had great faith in her. She's quite accomplished." The nautical rope fits the university's seaside location, he noted.
Though the sculpture was born at UMass Boston, it, like the rest of Arts on the Point's pieces, won't be here forever: Like nearly all of Pepe's works, is temporary.
Though the "Brushstroke Group" stole recent headlines, this Mark di Suvero sculpture remains UMass Boston’s most visible work of art. Paradoxes abound in "Huru." Its heavy, oxidized steel beams contradict the lightness of the construction. The top part's V-shaped extensions rotate in the wind on a ball bearing, different every day, "rough industrial material made poetic in spite of itself," Tucker said. (He has to find a new place for Huru soon. The Integrated Sciences Complex will sit just a little too close to its rotating steel arms.)
Student Dan Gaughan thought it looked "kind of like an old gun or something, like a turret." He's not alone in finding a militaristic significance in the structure, but di Suvero is a longtime peace advocate, Tucker said. "Those two extensions really are like arms and they really are there to greet you, not to shoot you." The word "huru," noted Tucker, means both "hello" and "goodbye" in an Australian Aboriginal language.
Of all the university's pieces, this is the closest to Tucker's heart, he said. It's "challenging and deeply human, which education should be all about."