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What is that thing? Campus sculpture secrets unlocked

A fallacy is lurking on the lawn near Spelman Hall.

"Head of a Woman," which is, rather, the great abstraction of the head of a woman situated on top of a column, is not the manual work or sweat of Pablo Picasso.


Have not boasts been made from Scully Hall to the curb of Nassau Street that Princeton owns one of Picasso's masterpieces, though?

If "Head of a Woman" was not constructed by the hands of Picasso, then by whose?

Students walk past, sit next to and even climb through the outdoor sculptures that are the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection every day. But many of them — Orange Key Tour Guides exempted, of course — don't know much about the sculptures. They were amassed by a committee of alumni who were the directors or former directors of art museums, according to Alexander Leito's "A Princeton Companion."

The committee was able to purchase the sculptures with the monetary gift of an anonymous donor, made in memory of Putnam.

Putnam left Princeton after sophomore year to enlist in the Army Air Corps during WWII, and was killed in a crash in England shortly after D-Day in 1944.

A sleuth on the hunt for the facts of the collection will find the stories, the myths behind the sculptures are an important part of what make them so interesting that Alexander Calder did a piece that stands between Fine and Jadwin Halls, or that the collection of modern 20th century sculpture is said to be among the most awesome in the country.


Now, back to "Head of a Woman." The grunt work of the piece may be attributed to none other than the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar.

Nesjar assembled the sculpture in 1971 while conducting an outdoor seminar on the lawn in front of the Art Museum, according to "The Sculpture of Princeton University: The John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection," published by the Office of Communications and Publications through special arrangement with the Art Museum.

This publication is based on Patrick J. Kelleher's "Living with Modern Sculpture."

Picasso's name has been appended to the sculpture because it was based on a maquette — a small, preliminary model — he created in 1962. It seems a big name has shadowed the contribution of a less prominent one. "Five Disks: One Empty," the Calder piece between Fine and Jadwin Halls is, however, the real deal, so to speak. And Calder apparently had the same qualms about Princeton's colors as others taken aback by the striking combination of orange and black.

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The sculpture originally had four solid disks, one of which was painted orange, according to the aforementioned publication. Preceding Calder's visit to campus to see his piece after its installation, all the disks were painted orange. But Calder wasn't so keen on this modification and asked that all the disks, including the one originally meant to be orange, be painted black.

Henry Moore's "Oval with Points," the bronze behemoth between Stanhope Hall and West College, has an equally interesting story. Looking at the sculpture, one would not guess it was inspired by the skull of an elephant. But, in fact, it was.

Moore became unusually fascinated with an elephant skull brought from East Africa by the scientist Sir Julian Huxley and his wife Juliette — also friends of Moore. The couple had placed the skull in their garden, but gave it to Moore after they discovered his captivation with it.

Moore never pointed to an intentional connection between the elephant skull and his sculpture. However, "definite affinities could be discovered between the general form of the sculpture and the subtle undulant surfaces of the skull bones as well as the suggestive shape of the optical cage long since devoid of eyes," according to the university publication.

Today, children and even some well-grown students sit on and climb through Moore's sculpture, things one would hardly expect them to do if they knew it was, in some ways, the replication of a skull. The actual physical nexus between art and people may be unique to "Oval with Points," but the informal way in which people experience it and the easy access they have to it is not. The anonymous gift in memory of Lieutenant John B. Putnam Jr. '45 was meant to amass a collection that would have just this effect, according to Kelleher's book. The donor explicitly requested that the sculptures not be placed in the art museum or in a garden on campus.

This unforced experience of art is also appreciated by an artist commissioned to do a piece for the Putnam Collection. The Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro created "Sphere VI."

"I can enjoy my sculptures in a park, in an ancient public square, like Pesaro, or on a great university campus. I like to see people lean their bicycles on the sculptures, and pigeons come to rest, to see them humanized," Pomodoro said in a 1974 interview, according to the University publication.

James Seawright, Professor of the Council of the Humanities and Visual Arts, agreed. He appreciated that students can enjoy sculpture without going to New York or even stepping foot inside a museum.

"It's wonderful to be able to see sculpture out it the environment. It's the way it is in many European cities. It's very natural," Seawright said.

"I'm so enthusiastic about it as a series of distinguished objects that provide students with the opportunity to experience work by the important artists of the 20th century. So I think it adds to the quality of the Princeton experience," Susan Taylor, director of the museum, added.

Individual anecdotes aside, the sculptures in the Putnam Collection share a common story. They have brought and continue to bring an effortless ambiance to the Princeton campus — one that students, faculty, and community members are able to savor and absorb as imagined by the collection's elusive donors.