On May 15, 1969, Beinecke Plaza became home to a military tank topped with a 24-foot lipstick tube and a tangerine tip made of inflatable vinyl. Its creator, Claes Oldenburg ’50, was commissioned by a group of students and faculty to construct the icon without official authorization from the University. “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” stood as a symbol of anti-war sentiment, criticism of consumerism and burgeoning student rebellion. It served as the venue for numerous protests and public speakers. When its original materials began to deteriorate, the sculpture was rebuilt with steel and plastic and reinstalled in the Morse College courtyard in 1974, where it remains today.
I had always assumed that this bizarre sculpture simply corresponded to the eccentricity of the college, hallmarked by its distinct architecture and design. I was not alone in my assumption. Out of 10 Yale students surveyed, only one was vaguely familiar with the sculpture’s riotous history. Anti–Vietnam War demonstrations are forgotten as students pass “Lipstick” en route to the dining hall or Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
Yale’s online index of public art recognizes over 30 different works stationed across the campus. Ranging from traditional memorial statues to more contemporary oeuvres, it is hard to traverse the campus without passing at least a few. Renowned artists like Alexander Calder and Roy Lichtenstein have contributed to the aesthetic of Yale’s campus: Calder’s “Gallows and Lollipops” adds a splash of color to Beinecke Plaza and Lichtenstein’s “Modern Head” decorates Science Hill. Yet many students can only recall a handful of the array of pieces that surround them. Of the 10 students interviewed, none could think of more than eight of Yale’s public art installments. On average, they could name five.
“If you talk to me about public, visible art at Yale, I’ll think more about architecture,” Claire Elliman ’20 says. “A lot of people talk about the architecture of buildings and it’s actually a pretty common topic of conversation, but people don’t really notice the art or the sculptures. They just walk past them.”
Even David Sellers ’60, the designer of the “Giamatti Bench” that resides on Old Campus, expressed unfamiliarity with the wealth of art on campus. He admires Yale’s architecture and the art collections housed in Yale’s museums but admits, “In terms of actual [outdoor] art on the campus, we’re not filled with it.”
On Old Campus, nestled in a corner next to Lanman-Wright Hall, is the bench that Sellers designed in honor of former University President Bartlett Giamatti ’60, Sellers’ fellow classmate at Yale. Sellers calls it “an artistic interpretation of what [a] person did and stood for.” He collaborated with Jim Sardonis, a stone sculptor from Vermont, to create what he hoped would be “a place of exchange.” With its supportive stone back providing a sense of safety, the bench aims to facilitate communication between those who sit on it. In this way, Sellers hopes to immortalize Giamatti’s role as “one of the best orators Yale has ever produced.”
Those who sit on the bench may not realize its ingenuity as a piece of art that intertwines person, place and passion. Its dark granite was selected and shipped from Virginia so that it would retain heat from the sun and prevent the bench from getting too cold. The various textures of the stone — wild, rough, smooth and polished — represent the evolution of four years as an undergraduate student. If you stand behind the bench and line up its sides with trees on Old Campus, they mimic the foul lines of a baseball diamond — according to Sellers, “Everyone knows that [Giamatti]’s passion was baseball.” The gap that splits the stone in two is half of the diameter of a baseball, and the curve of the bench where your knees fold is the exact measurement of a baseball’s diameter.
None of the 10 students interviewed knew anything about Giamatti except that he served as University president, and only two were aware that the bench was created in his honor. Nevertheless, people still sit on it, drawn by what its designer calls its “magnetic quality.” Sellers even suggests that the bench functions more as “an invitation as opposed to a destination.” Even subconsciously, Yalies interact with this public art installation on a daily basis.
The changing costumes that adorn “Sage Boy,” the statue of a woodsman that stands atop Sage Hall, are testimony to more conscientious student interactions with public art. Since the early 1970s, students have dressed the sandstone statue and used him as a vehicle of expression. While typically playful and spirited, the costumes have also projected political sentiments; “Sage Boy” donned a Black Lives Matter T-shirt earlier this year.
Charlotte O’Leary ’20 believes that public art is important because, in addition to beautifying the campus, it “stimulates creative thinking.” The Sage Hall statue is certainly an example of this positive effect. Still, Sellers maintains that Yalies do not appreciate public art nearly enough, nor the beauty it evokes and opportunities for creative stimulation it offers.
“I don’t think our culture is really, as much as other parts of the world, connected to the value of public art, even though almost everyone agrees that the highest order of a civil society resides in the art that it creates,” he says.
Artists and students agree that the University should make a greater effort to inform and educate students about the art that surrounds them. Sellers is currently working on a booklet about the “Giamatti Bench,” set to come out this summer. Visitors passing through Phelps Gate will be able to pick up copies on tours. O’Leary proposes including more information about Yale’s public art in the materials for her classes.
Elliman suggests that the University should instate more plaques, although she worries this might produce a museum-like effect. There is some value, she believes, in public art’s ability to fade into the background.
“Part of the beauty of public art or outdoor sculpture is that it becomes part of quotidian life,” she says. “You just walk by it and don’t notice it and become used to its beauty.”
And perhaps this is how Yale’s public art is best appreciated. Sculptures do not always draw attention, especially in an architectural setting as unique and ornate as Yale’s. Viewers may observe public art for its aesthetic beauty, appreciate its creative statement in the context of quotidian life, or sit on it without thinking twice, as in the case of the “Giamatti Bench.”
Not so with Oldenburg’s “Lipstick.” Walking around the Morse courtyard, the military tank turned maquillage is impossible to miss. Oldenburg may have best described the role of public art when he expressed his intent for his own work in 1961.
“I am for an art that is political, erotical, mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” he says. “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.”