“How did Lincoln get turned around?” Silvia Rocciolo, co-curator of The New School’s university art collection, is kneeling in the lobby of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (SJDC), just outside the entrance to the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery, fussing over a rough bust of Abraham Lincoln. It’s one of three works displayed outside the entrance to the SJDC’s summer show, Things That Go Bump.
This is the third summer in which the SJDC has invited The New School Art Collection’s co-curators, Rocciolo and Eric Stark, to mine the university’s extensive collection, showcasing its depth and breadth. “Often sculptures are installed in a safe corner somewhere,” said Rocciolo, as she shepherded a visitor around the gallery on a recent afternoon. Indeed, the exhibit takes its name from a quip from abstract painter Ad Reinhardt: “Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” As if to prove the point, Rocciolo points around the room, ticking off the works’ previous, sometimes unglamorous, homes. “That was in Design and Construction. This was in the Provost’s office. For this one, we’ve taken the screen out a few times,” she says, pointing to a Lorna Simpson photography piece printed on a wooden screen. “It was exhibited in the Lang third floor Bridge Gallery, where students used it as a study piece.”
Many works in the show having not been on view on campus for a number of years. This includes Family Secret, a 1990 piece by Nancy Dwyer in which six full-sized chairs spell out the words “family,” “member,” “secret,” and “sacred”; and a John Ahearn life cast of a young girl, also from 1990. The show also has an early sculptural work by Vik Muniz, who is largely famous for his pieces that use unlikely materials (like toy soldiers) to make interpretations of famous paintings or figurative forms, which he then photographs.
The New School has supported the arts for decades, with major commissions including mural cycles by José Clemente Orozco (1931) and Thomas Hart Benton (1931). But it was not until 1960 that the university art collection was officially established, through a grant from the Albert A. List Foundation. Albert List and his wife, Vera, a life trustee, were dedicated patrons of the arts and of The New School. The collection has since grown to roughly 1,800 postwar and contemporary works of art, including examples in a range of media by some of the most innovative and creative artists of our time. In acquiring and maintaining works, The New School focuses on pieces in which art serves as an agent for personal and collective transformation.
The jewel of the mostly unseen works is Fletcher Benton’s Synchronetic L-5000, a gleaming psychedelic-era creation of steel and shifting forms (a video of a slightly different work, the Synchronetic L-110, can be seen here). Made in 1968, it contains a central circle that looks something like a giant eye or porthole, embedded in a steel-on-wood frame, and emits a soothingly analog whirr as its motors turn a series of acrylic discs and the films between them. A series of black lines within the eye distort themselves from a rigidly geometric grid to distended ovals that wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of Roger Sterling’s office. It’s at once captivating and hard to focus on, a Magic Eye painting constantly in motion.
Rocciolo brings visitors directly to Synchronetic L-5000 upon entering the space, and lovingly describes the refurbishments it underwent before it was put on display. “Eric removed the old motor, and re-electrified and restored it,” she says. “The motor was from the 1960s, and Eric was able to find the same one—they still make it!”
Like many of the works in the show (which also includes sculpture by Ashley Bickerton, Haim Steinbach, Ursula von Rydingsvard, and Cai Guo-Qiang), the Benton is positioned in the gallery with plenty of breathing room around it. It’s possible to stand and see nothing but the piece, to let it fill your view—a rare treat for fans of sculpture. “We wanted to give these pieces the space they deserved,” says Rocciolo. Visitors have more than enough space to back up and take it all in, without bumping into a thing.
“To let the pieces luxuriate in this wonderful gallery space is a great opportunity, not only for the sculpture, but also for the viewer.”
Things That Go Bump runs through September 5. For more information, visit the SJDC website.