Modern Sculpture in the Garden State

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Text and Images By: Meredith Arms Bzdak

Public sculpture in New Jersey is plentiful (numbering over seven hundred pieces statewide), with works by significant artists that tell many fascinating stories about our history, our values, and our aspirations. Generally, the sculpture created for placement in the public realm in New Jersey and beyond during the 19th and 20th centuries was always more stylistically conservative than sculpture created for broad artistic purposes, even within the oeuvre of a single artist. During the Modern era, this continued to be the case, with most works produced in a representational rather than abstract style.

Burnett Zeek’s Eternal Flame in Roxbury, NJ

One of the most interesting trends in New Jersey’s public sculpture at midcentury was an increase in the commemoration of the unsung local hero. In general, the individual was celebrated through the placement of a simple, representational figure. Examples abound from the 1930s into the 1970s and include monuments to Abraham Godwin in Ridgewood, NJ (1931, John Oscar Bunce), the founder of Ridgewood, which was originally known as Godwinville; Thomas M. Donnelly in West New York (1938, Archimedes A. Giacomantonio), who led the movement to Save the Palisades; Peter J. McGuire in Pennsauken (1952, John J. Gurantee Studio), who is credited with the creation of one of the country’s most popular holidays, Labor Day; and General José Gervasio Artigas in Newark (1977, sculptor unknown), known as the Father of Uruguayan Independence.

Some exceptions to the typical portrait likeness also exist. One prominent example is the monument to Edgar Palmer in Princeton (1944, Charles R. Knight), which depicts a bronze tiger resting atop a tall granite base. The tiger was appropriate for a dedicated graduate and trustee of Princeton University, as it emerged as a popular symbol of the institution by the early 20th century. Palmer, a generous philanthropist and chairman of the board of New Jersey Zinc, donated Palmer Stadium to the University in 1914 and helped to create Princeton’s commercial and residential Palmer Square in the 1930s. The Palmer Memorial stands at the entrance to Palmer Square, in one of the most prominent locations within the central business district.

The Palmer Memorial located at the entrance to Palmer Square.

Not all local heroes who were celebrated during the Modern era were human. One of the most endearing New Jersey monuments is dedicated to a dog named Hobo, a stray who was discovered in a snow drift in 1920 and was “adopted” by the resort community of Ocean City as their unofficial mascot for sixteen years until his death in 1936. The campaign to honor Hobo was organized by a local newspaper reporter, and was successful in raising the funds to create the four-sided, stone drinking fountain for canines that bears his likeness.

Abstract works did not appear on the New Jersey landscape until after midcentury, and when they did, they could typically be found on college campuses, where progressive ideals were encouraged and celebrated. Concentrations of public sculpture exist on several campuses in the state, including those of Bergen Community College, Rowan University, and Rutgers University, but the work found at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Princeton University is among the most progressive.

At Fairleigh Dickinson University’s (FDU) Teaneck-Hackensack campus, William Zorach’s Relief of 1955 graces the main elevation of the Weiner Library. A work in aluminum with a polished silver finish, it was originally commissioned as part of a larger work by the Bank of the Southwest in Houston, Texas which ultimately declared it “too modern.” Through the vision of FDU’s founder, Dr. Peter Sammartino, the work came to New Jersey instead. It is one of a large number of pieces within the state created by a sculptor of national prominence. FDU’s Florham-Madison campus features a 1957 work by Chaim Gross, another nationally known artist, celebrated for his use of the direct carve method and for his work in exotic wood. His Man Returns to the Sea for Knowledge and Abundance, which stands at the entrance of the Ferguson Recreation Center, is an abstracted representation of a mother bird feeding a nest of baby birds and one of a number of pieces that demonstrate Gross’s interest in the subject of mother and child. The placement of these works on the FDU campuses is wholly attributed to Sammartino and his wife Sally, art collectors who clearly saw a connection between innovative sculpture and a forward-thinking educational institution.

Princeton University’s John B. Putnam, Jr. Memorial Collection is unequaled in the state, and is without question the best place to see the work of artists who were committed to Modern materials, subject matter, and technique. The Putnam Collection includes work by Alexander Calder, Naum Gabo, Gaston Lachaise, Jacques Lipchitz, Henry Moore, Arnaldo Pomodoro, George Segal, David Smith, Tony Smith, and a number of others. Louise Nevelson’s Atmosphere and Environment X, a large work of Cor-Ten steel installed in 1971, occupies a prominent space at the front of the campus.

Henry Moore, Oval with Points, 1969-70, The John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, Princeton University

Louise Nevelson, Atmosphere and Environment X, 1969-70, The John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, Princeton University

Isolated examples of Modern abstraction do exist beyond academic settings, but they are rare. Burnett Zeek’s Eternal Flame (Roxbury, NJ) has stood as a memorial to those who served the nation during World War II since 1959, surviving relocation from its original site at the police headquarters to an even more public setting in a large and heavily utilized municipal park. While it appears slightly surreal in the way it emerges from a bed of crushed rock, Eternal Flame is actually part of a long tradition of hands in public sculpture, which have been used since the early 20th century to convey notions of power, benediction, and even tenderness. It would not be unreasonable to assume that Zeek was inspired by one of the most famous examples of a hand holding a torch – the Statue of Liberty – particularly as Roxbury is within an hour’s drive of Liberty Island.

Public sculpture is art that can be enjoyed by all, without admission fees and generally without limitations on our direct interaction. While the legacy of Modern-era public sculpture is far less progressive than that of public architecture, it can still teach us much about our shared local and regional history, and offer a rich education in the people who preceded us and helped to shape our neighborhoods and towns. You can learn more about Modern sculpture in your community by visiting http://americanart.si.edu/research/programs/sos/
 

Jacques Lipchitz, Song of the Vowels, designed 1931-32, executed 1969, The John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, Princeton University

 

Chaim Gross' Man Returns to the Sea for Knowledge and Abundance, FDU

About

Meredith Arms Bzdak, an architectural historian, is a Partner in the Princeton, NJ firm Mills + Schnoering Architects, LLC. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of Docomomo US and New York/Tri-State chapter of Docomomo US and is the author of Public Sculpture in New Jersey; Monuments to Collective Identity (Rutgers University Press, 1999).