PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Recent additions to Brown University’s ever-expanding collection of public art have brought new color and life to buildings, quads and common spaces across College Hill.
In the last year, three captivating pieces came to campus thanks to the work of Brown’s Public Art Working Group, chaired by Kate Kraczon, director of exhibitions at the Brown Arts Institute and chief curator of the David Winton Bell Gallery. Since the 1980s, the working group of faculty, staff and students been tasked with recommending the commissioning of permanent and loaned art for specific sites on campus — previously selecting such beloved pieces as “Untitled Lamp/Bear” and “Circle Dance.”
The most recent additions to the diverse collection of sculptures, murals and mixed-media installations are by renowned contemporary and modern artists — including works by Damien Hirst, Rebecca Warren and the late Sol LeWitt.
“These three works, created across separate decades, represent specific moments in contemporary art,” Kraczon said, “and reflect the historical scope and material variations that an active public art program can bring to the campus community and broader public.”
One of the University’s newest additions was installed in Winter 2022 in the lobby of Barus and Holley, home of Brown’s School of Engineering and Department of Physics. The piece “Earth, Air, Fire, Water,” on loan to Brown, is a series of lightboxes that depicts the four classical elements. It was created by famed English artist Damien Hirst in 1998 for Pharmacy, a London restaurant he co-founded.
Hirst has said that much of the work he created in the 1990s was inspired by the ancient Greek belief that the four elements constitute the universe and must be in constant balance. In his original artist statement, Hirst wrote that “Earth, Air, Fire, Water” illustrates the delicate balance of life in many ways: the juxtaposition of a calm, cool-toned sky next to the fierce flames and dangerous smoke of a fire; a section of cracked, scorched earth near a pool of water; the water’s usual calm disrupted by movement, causing a ripple.
“The four elements depicted in the Hirst work are a natural choice for engineering and physics,” Kraczon noted. “And yet the provenance of the work — created to welcome visitors to Hirst’s conceptual pharmaceutical restaurant in late ’90s London much like it welcomes visitors to Barus and Holley — is especially fascinating. And fun.”
Also new to campus is “Wall Drawing #436” by the late American artist Sol LeWitt, known for his numerous minimalist geometric murals that remain on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, among other major international destinations. Installed in 2021 in a ground-floor multipurpose room inside the new Brown University Health and Wellness Center and set to remain at Brown for several years, the yellow, green, orange and purple ink-wash mural shows five asymmetrical triangles resembling the unfolded faces of a pentagonal pyramid. The work was first installed at New York’s Brooklyn Museum in 1985.
Kraczon said that LeWitt always intended for his work to be ephemeral and reproducible on any wall. In that spirit, Brown procured the LeWitt estate’s permission to reproduce his drawing, working closely with John Hogan, who oversees all new installations of LeWitt’s pieces. The working group also collaborated with the Health and Wellness Center’s architects to ensure the mural was always visible to passersby on Brook Street. Visitors can view the work through the multipurpose room’s glass walls — even at night, when special lighting illuminates the work’s vivid colors.
“The location of the LeWitt is phenomenal,” Kraczon said. “It can be viewed from the street in the daytime but especially pops at night. I love to take a detour down Brook Street in the evening to see the LeWitt whenever I walk or drive through campus.”
Perhaps the most visible new piece of campus public art is “Large Concretised Monument to the Twentieth Century” by Rebecca Warren. The 6-foot-tall bronze sculpture was installed on the College Green in Spring 2021. A loan to Brown’s public art collection, it arrived through the generosity of an anonymous donor and will remain on the green through 2026.
“The Warren is such a wonderful addition to the Main Green — a feminist response to the history of figurative sculpture, and certainly now in conversation with the Henry Moore across the grass,” Kraczon said.
Dietrich Neumann, director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, said that Warren, a distinguished British artist, creates bronze, clay and steel sculptures that are not so much literal transcriptions of the human body, but rather seem to reflect the messy vigor and vitality of being alive, often with a sensual flair. “Large Concretised Monument to the Twentieth Century,” with its exaggerated, knobby and vaguely humanoid figure, is no exception: The artwork presents a visceral, boisterous comment on the roles of gender, identity and the male gaze in the 20th century. It’s also sure to provoke discussion, especially after a series of spirited events during the 2020-21 academic year about the role of monuments in public spaces.
“By calling the piece a ‘monument,’ Warren questions what we have habitually put on pedestals in public space,” Neumann said. “Her piece thus provides a provocative contribution to our intense debates about monuments on campus.”