October 20, 2004: On the Campus
By Christian R. Burset ’07
Illustration by Ron Barrett
They are the hollow men. Cast in bronze with hollow backs, the 20 headless, armless figures, each one 9 feet tall and 600 pounds, stand — or perhaps march — in formation in front of the University Art Museum. Though each figure is unique, what stands out most is their anonymous collectivity.
Together, they form Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Big Figures, which arrived this summer on long-term loan from a private collection. It’s hard to imagine a bolder addition to the campus, especially in such a prominent place.
Museum director Susan Taylor said she was glad such an interesting and important work could come to Princeton. “This work deserves to be seen,” Taylor said.
Taylor also hopes the interest generated by the outdoor work will draw more people — especially students — into the museum itself. The museum’s extensive collection includes works by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Andy Warhol, and Taylor plans to introduce more contemporary art to the museum, with the belief that “living artists bring a level of interest to students and will engage them in contemporary issues.”
“We’ve worked very hard over the past few years to make the museum a more accessible place and a more inviting one,” Taylor said. “I think we’re getting better at it.”
While “inviting” might not be the best descriptor for Abakanowicz’s headless figures, Taylor can rest assured that they will be noticed. Yet one might wonder about the work’s popularity, especially on a campus whose best-loved buildings are based on a style invented in the 12th century. Students are a little unsure of what to make of Big Figures, but most view the work’s arrival in a positive light. Marisol Rosa-Shapiro ’07, who gazed at the sculpture while painting a poster for Theatre Intime on the sidewalk outside Murray-Dodge Hall, called it a “good addition” to the campus. “It’s very interesting,” she said, “but kind of creepy.”
Scott Allan, a graduate student in art history, also had a mixed reaction as he ate his lunch outside the museum. “I didn’t like it at first,” he said. “I thought it was morbid and depressing. But now it’s kind of grown on me. ... People really stop and look at it, which is more than you can say about other outdoor sculptures on campus.”
While neither the artist nor the Class of 2008 would be pleased by the comparison, freshmen did show some Big Figures-like tendencies, especially during their first week on campus. They had a habit of traveling in packs, for instance, moving in groups of 20, descending like confused Visigoths on open houses and eating clubs.
Much of the task of helping the freshmen adjust to Princeton life (so they can grow up to laugh at the confusion of the Class of 2009) falls to the residential colleges. Yet this year, many of the college staff who helped guide the freshmen through their first weeks at Princeton were themselves newcomers to their positions.
In Wilson College, for example, the master, dean, and director of studies started their jobs this summer. The turnover, new administrators said, was coincidental. Previous master Miguel Centeno’s term expired, and director of studies Kathleen Crown left to take the same position at Mathey College. The new director of studies, David Stirk, came to Princeton just a few weeks before the freshmen. Stirk recently completed his dissertation in American studies at Yale and previously worked as an administrator in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is new to residential college life. “One of the challenges is trying to come to grips with the culture of the school,” he said.
Stirk seems to be stepping into his new job smoothly. It helps that another of Wilson’s new arrivals, Dean Lisa Herschbach, came to Wilson with several years’ experience as director of studies at Mathey College. As dean, Herschbach is primarily responsible for overseeing academic advising in the college. By mid-September, she said, the staff was “all settled in, in the best sense of the word.” At the same time, the staff aimed to maintain the dynamic energy injected by professor Maggie Browning, the college’s new master. “We’ve established good working relationships,” Herschbach said, “and we still have a healthy dose of creativity.”
Christian R. Burset ’07 is from Bernardsville, N.J.
On the Campus Online: Read Jen Albinson ’05’s “Making a list: The best-laid plans for senior year.”