SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
ANNE KENNEY: Thank you very much for coming to the rededication of the Song of the Vowels. I'm Anne Kenney, the interim university librarian. And it's my pleasure to welcome you here.
We are singularly honored and pleased to have the Song of the Vowels come back to its home here between Olin and Uris libraries, where it's been a landmark fixture for 45 years. The sculpture is the work of Jacques Lipchitz, who created it in 1931. It was cast the following year in a limited edition of seven copies, and Cornell's copy is the fifth one.
We acquired the Song of the Vowels along with another Lipchitz sculpture called the Bather, which can now be seen in the hallways between Olin and Kroch libraries. And they were both the gifts of the benefactors Harold Uris and Percy Uris.
Generations of Cornellians have had a love-hate relationship with this sculpture since it first appeared on campus in 1962. Now, Frank, I'm sure, will talk of the aesthetics of this sculpture, but I'm going to talk a little bit about the Cornellians and their reaction and interactions with this sculpture.
I spent a bit of time this afternoon looking at the digitized version of the Cornell Daily Sun, which has been digitized, thanks to the generous gifts of many alum. But I did a search on the Song of the Vowels and came across a number of articles in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.
This memorable work has variously been described as a two-winged, two-headed, two-boobed sculpture.
When there was an editorial in October 4, 1962, several days after the sculpture itself had been unveiled here, the editorial went, "The Song of the Vowels has become, in the few days it has been with us, a focal point for wandering eyes and a vocal point for opinionated observers. Hoisted into place on Monday, it had a telling effect on passersby. The first reaction of those who do not take art seriously was, of course, derision. This boorish display grated harshly on the ears of the appreciative aesthetes, and the controversy ranged on from there."
Several years later, there was a tongue in cheek editorial about the sculpture and the library itself, suggesting that Olin Library become the public library for the city, and that while undergraduates were barred from the stacks, Ithaca high school students should be given free reign there.
As part of the end of that editorial, they also talked about this famed sculpture. "Should it be allowed to remain between the library buildings," one person mused. "This scandalous piece of foolery," muttered a man sitting in Dewitt Park downtown. "Maybe it can replace the lighthouse at the foot of Cayuga Lake."
In 1978, Professor Kenneth Everett from Art wrote an editorial on the visual pollution of the environment. And this is very much in the flavor of the day. "It may not be as deadly as acid rain or chemical wastes in Love Canal"-- I hasten to say, he's not talking about the sculpture itself-- "but rather the wasteless spoilation by taping posters and slogans on it. Recently a crew of hucksters plastered Cornell's Song of the Vowels with ads for a fraternity beer party and admonitions to boycott J.P. Stephens.
"Whatever one may think of these activities," he wrote, "or the aesthetic merit of Lipchitz' work, the Song of the Vowels is a landmark 20th century sculpture. The use of this internationally renowned creation as a mere billboard for parochial advertising is a disgrace to Cornell."
I also found that our sister Ivy League institution Princeton has a copy of the Song of the Vowels as well. It's in the Firestone Plaza. And it became-- it came into the news in 1995 on a Day Without Art in which the Princeton students observed AIDS Day.
They called attention to the way AIDS had devastated the arts community, and by-- and this observation took place in the art museum. And also, a black cloth was covering the Song of the Vowels, the Lipchitz sculpture, in the center of Firestone Plaza. So I had to laugh a bit when I saw the red covering on the Song of the Vowels here today.
We're commemorating today the return of the Song of the Vowels, which has been on sabbatical for the last two years, when concerns for its preservation and maintenance led to an examination of its physical structure. Small holes had developed and were allowing moisture to penetrate the bronze and compromise the structure. So it was sent off to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center for expert scientific analysis and preventive conservation treatment.
The planned return of the Song of the Vowels provided an excellent opportunity to redesign the plaza and to reconceptualize the installation. Landscape architect John Olberg was hired to do this work. And he has designed a communal space that focus attention on the sculpture and provides a peaceful setting in a new plaza that incorporates granite pavers, stone benches, and new landscaping.
You can learn more about the Song of the Vowels by visiting LibeCast, the library's new webcasting initiative online.
There are many individuals who deserve our thanks for making this possible, including staff from Cornell's PDC, grounds and shops who are too numerous to mention, from those who helped remove and reinstall the sculpture, to the dedicated souls who laid 7,000 pavers on the ground, and the crew responsible for the beautiful landscaping.
I'd also like to acknowledge John Olberg, former CU landscape architect who designed the library plaza, Jim Gibbs, Cornell's department of maintenance management, who paid for the restoration of the sculpture, and [? Loreen ?] Gilbert, project manager for planning, design, and construction, who oversaw the project.
Lee Cartmill and John Hoffman from the library facilities, who were involved in planning this project over the last several years, and also today's speakers, Frank Robinson, director of the Johnson art museum, who's been a longtime supporter of this project, and Jack Squier, Emeritus Professor of Art, who was instrumental in obtaining the sculpture as well as the [? bay ?] there for Cornell.
So thank you very much. Thank you again for coming. And Frank.
FRANK ROBINSON: Thank you, Anne. It's just great that there's controversy. I always envy those museums that have-- that are censored or whatever so you're going to look like a martyr.
And at any rate, as Ann suggested, this work really is one of the icons of 20th century sculpture. Jacques Lipchitz was a major figure early-- earlier in the century in the 19-teens and '20s when he was deeply influenced by Cubism. And in fact, he is the most important Cubist sculpture. As Anne said, one of his masterpieces from this earlier Cubist period is the large Bather, which is really just 100 or so feet away in the library. It's a marvelous, marvelous bronze.
This work, the Song of the Vowels, is slightly later, 1931, '32, and represents a remarkable growth in his style, first of all, away from the very strict, sustained geometric forms of the Bather and into something more sensual, more organic, and tactile. And I hope you make that comparison.
It is also a tremendous change in the artist's vision, with its immediacy and spontaneity, its emotional warmth, its explosion into flight, both physical and spiritual.
The title refers to an ancient Egyptian prayer meant to evoke the forces of nature. And the work itself is a fluid, imaginative mixture of different visual forms. A harp that becomes a bird that becomes a hand. And all of this flows together.
Other casts of this famous work are at Stanford University and Princeton University in very prominent positions there. And also, there's a fourth one in the Kroller-Muller Museum in the southern Netherlands. So it's very fitting that this work should be in this very important spot in the annual rituals of Cornell.
Anne has mentioned all the people. I want to mention them again. Sarah Thomas and Anne herself, Lee and John and others at the library, [? Loreen ?] Gilbert-- [? Loreen ?] is somewhere here-- and the other peoples in the planning, design, and construction. Dennis [? Osica-- ?] Dennis, you're here somewhere-- Dennis [? Osica ?] and all of his colleagues in the grounds department, and very specially, John [? Olberg. ?] John, you did a wonderful job designing all of this. My many thanks.
Finally, let me introduce Professor Jack Squier, who is a distinguished sculptor and teacher himself, whose role was crucial in getting this work to Cornell. Thank you.
JACK SQUIER: Well, it's really lovely to be here today. And I want to explain to you the weird and strange chain of coincidences that brings us here to even have a Lipchitz sculpture in our midst. Because when I was just out of Cornell, casting very modest-sized bronzes in the modern art foundry, which you'll see is inscribed on the base of this piece, Lipchitz was doing all of his work at the modern art foundry.
Enormous amount of work. Huge pieces. This is not the only huge piece he's done. He's done some two and three times as large.
And oddly enough, he left me little notes from time to time of encouragement. He was very kind to young sculptors. And he'd give one to the founder. And the founder would say, by the way, he left you this. And so he was very kind. And this, of course-- c since he was kind of a hero of mine anyway, now he was definitely a hero of mine.
So I came to Cornell. I was living in New York, but I came to Cornell. And shortly after we got here, we-- the museum, the A.D. White Museum had just been started just shortly before I got here. And we were having a wee crisis of leadership in the museum. And suddenly, President Malott summoned three of us, Fred [INAUDIBLE], the historian, Kenneth Everett, the painter, who's a colleague of mine in the art department and me to his office. No explanation.
He said, you've heard of the problems we've had, I assume, or something very sternly. And mmm, we just sat there. And he said, well, you now-- I'm constituting you three as a board of curators for the next three years. You're going to be paid for it, he said. But we have to get through this rather poor period we're in now until we find a successor, and et cetera, et cetera.
So we went out muttering to each other, saying, do we have to do it? Is he serious? Is he really going to pay us? Whatever. Well, and he did even pay us.
But soon after getting the job, I checked and probed thoroughly enough to discover it was a real job with a generous budget potentially. And so I lost my head and proposed that we give Lipchitz a 70th birthday retrospective. He'd never had a retrospective anywhere.
And so we worked this out with Otto Gerson, his dealer in New York. And the library had been wanting to have a major piece here. And talked to me about it. And we-- it was just early hopeful stage. That's about it.
And so when we did pull off the retrospective, which was really big, we had some of these enormous pieces in the lawn. Because even though we put a forest of adjustable pipes columns in the basement of A.D. White's house, we couldn't put most of the heavy ones in there in fear they and the audience would fall through to the basement.
And so-- but while we were here, again, emboldened by my luck so far, I talked to [INAUDIBLE], who was then our Vice President for Academic Affairs, who later became president [INAUDIBLE] State, and said, any chance you think that-- because I knew he was friendly with the Uris brother and all this, and he was the equivalent of our Provost today-- any chance maybe we could get one of these things donated to us while they're here? Because we've got them all here.
Well, he talked to them. And they came up. And Lipchitz came up for the opening, of course. And we got a crane, and we lifted the Bather and another piece in and out of the sculpture court in there. It was like shopping in a celestial supermarket. I was really pleased, to say that least.
And then we got-- and then the same crane, we lifted this up, which [INAUDIBLE] it. And he and I, with those great clunky walkie-talkies the military had in those days, we walked up and down all the paths and [INAUDIBLE] the high floors of the buildings. The crane held the piece up, and he would say, move it here, move it there, move it up, move it down, until he got what he wanted, and then they measured it to make the columnar base for it.
Well, it was quite an experience. And the Uris brothers were just amazing to do this. And they didn't intend to do quite so much, as a matter of fact-- I was a witness-- because Lipchitz is a charming-- was a charming, excellent salesman. So he pointed out, although he had pretty much riveted down the Song of the Vowels purchase, he pointed out how much happier he would be if they he had another of his major Cubist pieces here. And the Urises said, all right, and they bought the Bather.
And so it was a great experience for me, because-- and for all the shock, those little notes paid off, because we pretty well promoted. And he seemed very happy. He came up three times during the time. And even though-- just an aside-- he muttered quite a bit in interviews over the years that he never taught, never intended to teach, students would just sap his energy, and so forth, and so on.
Well, he came here and stayed all day every day for two or three days at a time. And I was his host, more or less. So first day, he said, well, can I see some of your students? I was astonished, because he'd often say he'd never do such thing.
Came out. Talked to my classes. Talked to Victor Colby's classes. Couldn't pry him away from the students. Then we gave him a dinner at the Heller House for architecture graduate students and our own graduate students. And he sat there all evening charming everybody to death, answering the kinds of questions only Cornell students would ask, very irreverent, some of them.
I remember one where he said, well, Mr. Lipchitz, why is it you've never done any more architectural commissions? And Lipchitz said, my dear boy, he said, I've been waiting, waiting like a bride in her bed for those commissions.
And so he turned out to have three several-hour sessions with our students, and enjoyed it very much apparently. Never taught before or since. So it says something about the acid rain in the air or something, I don't know, up here.
But anyway, I think we should be pulling the cord on this thing pretty soon. What do you say? Somebody said a volunteer had scissors. Scissors for me. I need scissors. There they are. There they are.
ANNE KENNEY: So Jack, if you'll do the honor. Frank, you and I will try and get these things from falling on top.
JACK SQUIER: We'll see what happens. Cut. [INAUDIBLE]
FRANK ROBINSON: All right.
JACK SQUIER: It's as beautiful as the day it was born.
FRANK ROBINSON: It looks just like all the others.
JACK SQUIER: It looks just like all the others. Yes.
FRANK ROBINSON: That's what we want.
JACK SQUIER: Oh, that's great. Well done. Congratulations. I think my remarks are finished. Thank you very much.
ANNE KENNEY: I'm really glad that the rain held off. And I know it's hot here. But I just wondered before we disperse whether any of you were students here during the time that the Song of the Vowels was here would like to say something about what it meant for you. Who were we pointing at?
SPEAKER 2: Randy Lewis.
ANNE KENNEY: Randy Lewis, go for it.
RANDY LEWIS: Well, I can't remember having a particular impact on my artistic sense, because at the time I was at Cornell, I was an engineer. And as we all know, engineers have no aesthetic capacity. But I do remember it very well.
And I did start taking sculpture with Jack Squier and Victor Colby when I was here, and then did go on to architecture school, and am a practicing architect. And actually, I'm the chairman of the board of trustees at an art college at the moment.
So I remember being here studying in the library and having this presence around. So I think it was a subliminal inspiration to me in my work with Jack and Victor.
ANNE KENNEY: [INAUDIBLE] OK.
SPEAKER 3: I'm Steve [INAUDIBLE], of the class of '70. Dropped my button. And what I remember about it is that it was such a great-- what's the right word in art circles-- juxtaposition, because this is very rigid and this was very unusual. And this kind of threw you here. And it had a-- it was seemingly kind of-- you couldn't really define what it was or what it was saying, but it reached you.
And then when I also took an art course down there, and did one of my famous, quote, "primitive paintings," as the art professor said, and I have a great little line of sight here, and I have that sculpture there. And I have to say that I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't notice it was gone, so I'm really glad it's back.
ANNE KENNEY: Any last-- yes.
STUART CARTER: Yeah. I'm Stuart Carter. I'm an architect in Boston. I was one of the few who had the privilege of studying under Jack in sculpture for a number of years, including the year when we organized the first concrete sculptures out of the plantations. And so that was a wonderful experience of actually hands-on creating the sculpture and then constructing it out at the plant-- which was not an arboretum at the time, as many of you know. It was sort of behind the barn, a junkyard, one of these places that the college would allow pieces to be built on.
And the retrospective happened to happen or occur at the end of that year. And so we also had-- our class had the privilege of meeting Jacques Lipchitz in the Andrew D. White Museum at a reception organized by Jack.
And furthermore, he had gone out to the plantations and seen those sculptures, and was commenting to each of us about the qualities that he observed in the pieces. So it was really a wonderful learning experience.
ANNE KENNEY: That's great. Thank you.
Anyone else? Well, thank you once again for coming, and welcoming back the Song of the Vowels.
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"The Song of the Vowels" (Le Chant des Voyelles), cubist Jacques Lipchitz's 10-foot-tall abstract sculpture and one of Cornell's most valuable works of art, has returned to the Cornell campus after almost two years of conservation treatment. Alumni, faculty and staff celebrated the unveiling of the refurbished sculpture June 8, during Reunion Weekend.