Museum From Home: Public Art Highlights

Misfits of Minimalism: Public Art Highlights with Curator Christopher Ketcham 

Hi, my name is Christopher Ketcham and I am the Associate Curator of Public Art at the List Visual Arts Center. I joined the List last year but I have been at MIT since 2010, when I began my work towards a PhD in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art. Throughout my time on campus, the public art collection has been a constant source of inspiration, energizing my research and serving as a vital haven from the everyday pressures of MIT life. I hope, in this time of stress and uncertainty, that our collection of public art can serve a similar function for others, even if our new guidelines for safe and ethical behavior call for distance and isolation. There are a few works that I have returned to again and again. What follows is a virtual tour of the work of three artists that I see as misfits of minimalism, proximate to but apart from the polemics around which that canon cohered. 


Tony Smith, For Marjorie (1961)
Tony Smith, For Marjorie

Year: 1961 (fabricated 1977)
Medium: Painted Steel
Location: New House

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Tony Smith first built For Marjorie (1961/1977) in painted plywood, working in his backyard in South Orange, New Jersey. The sculpture’s initial home was this bucolic suburban context, where Smith conceived of his early work as presences populating the leafy surround and filling in gaps between the trees. In 1961, Smith had just turned from architecture to sculpture and For Marjorie stands as one of his first experiments in accessible form. 

Executed in painted steel in 1977, MIT’s For Marjorie is a sprawling, seventeen-foot arch that one can walk through or around, framing an experience of interior and exterior space. Its matte red surface designates the space of sculpture as a space apart, distinct from the natural and architectural surround. Its idiosyncratic geometry, which appears to change dramatically as one navigates the sculptural space, seems to derive from a hidden internal logic. 

Smith arrived at the final form of For Marjorie, as he did for most of his sculptures, through a process of logical and modular play. Before realizing his work as full-scale mock-ups in plywood, Smith combined small tertrahedral modules, which form the underlying geometry of For Marjorie. But this modular basis is only hinted at in the dynamic experience of the sculpture. Depending on one’s angle of approach, the work seems to loom or sprawl, extend outward or fold in on itself. It presents both an open aesthetic encounter and an angular space of confinement. These oppositional postures are irresolvable in experience. One is compelled to move and the mobile encounter with the work continuously frames and fragments the view of the immediate environment. Committed to working on an urban, suburban, and infrastructural scale, Smith sought to develop an inclusive space of sculpture that incorporated the body as a plastic element, confronted the architectural surround, and reoriented the subject to the new forms of modernity that populated the landscape. For Marjorie was one of Smith’s first major achievements in establishing this new scale and space of sculpture. 


Beverly Pepper, TrinityBeverly Pepper, Trinity

Year: 1971
Medium: Corten Steel
Location: Between buildings 16 & 26

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Beverly Pepper’s Trinity (1971) is one of the hidden gems on MIT’s campus. Trinity is a sprawling, ground-based sculpture that is composed of three overlapping, pyramidal forms and is constructed with Corten steel. It establishes a dynamic relationship with the land on which it sits and contrasts with surrounding architectural grid. As one walks around the sculpture, it changes dramatically in appearance, provoking a novel experience of movement and perception. 

In the 1960s and 70s, Pepper made pioneering contributions that reoriented sculpture to body, land, and space. Along with her peers, she worked to break with the static and monolithic concept of sculpture that is aloof from its surroundings. She sought, instead, to develop a new form of sculpture that directly engaged the earth, encouraged an ambulatory experience, and heightened one’s awareness of the environment. Pepper worked within and alongside some of the defining moments of postwar sculpture, including minimalism and land art. Yet her work has often been marginalized in art history, in part because the history of postwar sculpture remains organized around the work of men. Even though she was among the first to pursue a horizontal extension of sculpture and the first to use Corten steel, Pepper has long been marginalized relative to her male contemporaries who are credited with these important developments. With a walk around Trinity, one can encounter the unique formal and material force of her sculpture.  


Michael Heizer, GuennetteMichael Heizer, Guennette 

Year: 1977
Medium: Laurentian Pink Granite
Location: Killian Court

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Guénette, to which the title of Michael Heizer’s stone sculpture refers, is a small town in Québec and the site of the quarry from which the massive blocks were extracted. Guénette’s quarries are the sole source of Laurentian Pink granite, which is a stone is commonly used for the construction of monuments. In title and form, Heizer enforces a connection between the sculpture and the site of industrial extraction. If the work is to be understood as a monument, it is a monument to the materialities of place and displacement and to the industrial process of carving stone from the earth. Presently installed in Killian Court, MIT’s ceremonial lawn, Heizer’s sculpture perpetually refers back to its local site of removal.

Guennette (1977) stands as an assembled mass of eleven stone slabs that seems suspended between nature and culture, work and play, primal form and esoteric abstraction. Each stone block has been precisely cut into simple geometric shapes—circular and triangular prisms and segmented columns. These shapes have a smooth, honed surface that testifies to the mechanical processing of stone, as does the size of the individual blocks, which Heizer wanted to push to the technological limit of extraction. The slabs are arranged in three distinct units, which creates a spatial field through which the public can walk. Despite the imposing size of the blocks, the work encourages an ambulatory aesthetic experience and a physical encounter with the positive and negative space of sculpture. The blocks are stacked and balanced in a way that seems equally precarious, playful, and arbitrary. Guennette was first conceived for a public plaza in New York City and the composition was reconfigured when the sculpture was relocated to MIT. The significance of the sculpture is, therefore, not as much a product of a final and fixed form. Rather, the meaning of the work develops from the insistent relationship of the blocks to the site of origin, the machinic process of production, and the embodied encounter with the massive forms of extracted earth.

Christopher’s Picks: Life At Home

Thinking: I have been spending time getting up to speed on Zoom and other digital tools as I work to move my art history course online. My next class session will cover earthworks, which seems a germane topic given our new imperatives of isolation and social distance.

Reading: To prepare, I have been flipping through the immense exhibition catalogue, Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates, published last year by The Shed. I have also spent time rereading K-Sue Park’s riveting essay on Walter de Maria: “The Lightning Field, the Border, and Real Estate,” X-TRA 21, no. 3 (Spring 2019).  Check it out!

Doing: As much fun as these readings are, they don’t compare to the extra time I spend with my kids, who are now nervously enjoying an extended spring break. Highlights include huge domino chain reactions, backyard sculpture construction, and developing a long list of menus featuring rice and beans. We also continue to refine our ice cream making skills and recipes. In uncertain times, fresh buttermilk ice cream with rhubarb compote helps us stay grounded. 

Christopher Ketcham
XCOVID-19In response to COVID-19, the List Visual Arts Center closed March 13, and will remain so until further notice. For more information and updates clickhere.