Service of Warring Design Styles

April 4th, 2016

Categories: Academia, Architecture, Art

Butler Library, Photo: Wikipedia

Butler Library, Photo: Wikipedia



I like interiors that mix design styles–contemporary art with 18th century antiques for example–but for some reason I can’t explain, I find visually jarring lawns or fields around Victorian, New England saltbox, farmhouse or traditional style houses strewn with contemporary sculpture and oversized copycat Calder mobiles.

That’s why Jillian Steinhauer’s article on, “Columbia Students Object to Installation of Henry Moore ‘Monstrosity,'” caught my eye.

Sidenote: The reporter writes for a well regarded online art news source that describes itself as “a forum for playful, serious, and radical perspectives on art and culture in the world today.” She ridicules these stuffy, unhip students and alums who are clearly clueless when it comes to art. Because I agree with them about the installation’s placement–though I like Henry Moore’s work–I felt mocked by her perspective, like a Bernie Sanders supporter at a Donald Trump rally.

What started out in Steinhauer’s article as the protest of three seniors and one alumnus who “expressed their horror” in an op-ed in the university’s daily student paper became, in an update, 1,000+ who signed a petition to prevent the installation of “Reclining Figure 1969-70” [Photo below, right] in front of Butler Library.

The initial four, one currently a law student at Yale, described the work as a “ghoulish figure,” a “monstrosity,” an “ugly hunk of metal,” “a desecration of our home,” and an “arrogant middle finger to the world.”

Steinhauer continued: “They liken it to ‘a dying mantis or a poorly formed pterodactyl.’

Henry Moore's "Reclining Figure 1969-70"

They slander it as ‘an idealization of a chewed wad of gum.’”

She inserted: “Who said art didn’t still have the power to shock — the art of a British modernist working in a family-friendly zone between figuration and abstraction, no less?”

She continued with the students’ complaints, punctuated by her own observation: “Whatever its artistic merits, placing the sculpture in front of Butler Library will put an eyesore on an otherwise crisp, geometric, and symmetrical landscape. Moore’s ghoulish figure clashes with the neoclassical aesthetic instantly recognizable to generations of Columbians.”

She again editorialized, before sharing another comment from the article in the student paper: “And my favorite: All of this is not to say that modern sculpture has no place at the University. It just doesn’t belong in the center of campus.” And she concluded: “Please, no one tell these folks about postmodernism. They might do something drastic.”

She didn’t note another point made in the op-ed: “Adding insult to injury, the narrow stretch of lawn that Reclining Figure will inhabit is the only part of South Lawn permanently open to the public. The sculpture’s girth will intrude on the precious few square yards of grass where students congregate together, be it over soccer or cigarettes.”

I was surprised that nobody commented on the potentially horrific cost of this sculpture–to protect, maintain and insure it–at an institution that already charges students in the high five figures for a year of study. Maybe it was a gift so Columbia didn’t have to pay for it?

Is the goal of art to shock? Do you appreciate the juxtaposition of contemporary sculpture installed outdoors with traditional backgrounds?  Can you shed light on why I comfortably mix contemporary art with antiques inside but have trouble when it comes to this jumble outside?


agree to disagree

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10 Responses to “Service of Warring Design Styles”

  1. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna wrote on Facebook: Public spaces vs. private spaces do and should have different criteria….

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Just as I try foods I don’t care for, as sometimes I change my mind, I try to appreciate outdoor contemporary pieces on lawns or in fields adjacent to traditional style homes and so far have not succeeded. I feel so out of step.

  3. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna wrote on Facebook: It really just depends on the context…and the other surrounding landscaping/architecture. (I know what I like when I see it! Ha!)

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Context is a perfect word. Fashion can be similar. Some styles are not made to enhance the looks of older women regardless of how thin or tall they are.

  5. hb Said:

    For the most part, I am very much in agreement with you and the Columbia students, but I’d go much further. First, indoors or out, I prefer my “art” to be visually appealing and to have at least some small degree of aesthetic merit. Then, the placement of the art should always keep compatibility in mind. Does the piece fit comfortably in its environment?

    I do not subscribe to the concept that anything someone with a Fine Arts degree says is “art” is. This Moore thing is almost as ugly as those Botero blobs that someone strewed along Park Avenue a few years back, and it fits into its Columbia campus setting almost as badly as they did on elegant Park Avenue. (Do you remember the contrast to the beauty of the lit Christmas trees in December after the snow had covered those lumps up?)

    How right Paul Mellon was when he gave The Center for British Art to Yale, to restrict its endowment allocated to acquisitions to the purchase of works of artists born before 1850!

  6. Lucrezia Said:

    Should so controversial a piece be foisted on those who must endure a forced viewing up to several times a day? Who to offend: The public or the artist?

    On first thought, I wouldn’t want that complex blob to see light of day, but tastes, interpretations and understandings change over time. Kandinsky used to make me feel ill, and Pollock inspired dizzy spells. Old reactions were replaced as appreciation and understanding set in. So now I’m not so sure that “monstrosity” should be tossed. Let’s shelter it in a museum for a couple of decades, then trot it out and see what happens.

  7. Hank Goldman Said:

    To begin with, the radical modernity of Henry Moore has long passed. It’s almost classic now.

    If you look at the glass pyramid at the entrance of the Paris Louvre Museum, you will see how new and old. Side by side can be stunning. Pyramid was designed by I. M. PEI… Stunning…
    Many New York traditional museums have added architecturally different extensions, very successfully.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Compatibility is another perfect word for this topic as is Donna’s “context.” That’s why I am not sure that Paul Mellon was right to restrict purchases to artists before 1850. I think that old master drawings stand up well with contemporary sculpture or some 20th and 21st century pictures. The commonality of the work should be that the home or gallery owners like looking at it. One person with a vision will tend to like things from many periods that complement each other.

    What I DON’T MEAN: From last week’s post Hank Goldman made a comment about someone who refused a painting he’d made them as a gift because it didn’t match their sofa. I am not speaking about anything matching.

    As for Botero on Park Avenue or anywhere else, once you’ve seen one of his trademark sculptures you’ve seen them all. There’s a boring, grotesque sameness to them. Artists develop styles–this isn’t the same thing.

    I also agree with you that a fine arts degree doesn’t mean that the person is always right on the subject. I have trouble when someone comes off arrogant in their approach, i.e. that anyone who disagrees with them is a dunce. It’s not just about art that this happens…starting with this year’s Presidential campaign.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Housing the sculpture in a museum has merits. Who knows if the sculpture needed a home and Columbia was the only place that agreed to foster it.

    I don’t dislike the sculpture, as I wrote in the post. It’s where the University is placing it and the background for it in front of the library that bothers me.

    Kandinsky and Pollock are above my pay grade. I need to look at them some more I guess. They don’t speak to me.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I thought of the IM Pei Pyramid at the Louvre as I wrote this.

    You are an artist with vision. I’m clearly a dullard with none because to me, the pyramid is about Mr. Pei, not about the Louvre or buildings that were built for royalty hundreds of years ago and surround it. It’s irrelevant.

    I realize I am not writing what I should, and that popular opinion leans heavily on the side of your critique, but that’s how I see it.

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