Bill Arning, curator of the List Visual Arts Center, displayed a dazzling breadth of knowledge about modern art as well as a sense of humor about art and artists as he led a recent tour of sculptures sited for public viewing at MIT.
The tour began in the atrium outside the List, where Arning directed his group's gaze to "Here-There," the five-story interior wall mural created by minimalist artist Kenneth Noland for the lobby of the Wiesner Building, designed by architect and alumnus I.M. Pei. This and several other works on campus were funded through the Percent for Art program, which allocates 1 percent of the total cost of a new building to acquiring or commissioning artwork.
"The Noland piece is like a jazz composition, with the three main themes being introduced, broken apart and brought together again. Noland's work here is joyous, more like Matisse's. It's a color field work, but without Pollock's angst," said Arning.
Before coming to the List in spring 2000, Arning was a critic and curator in New York. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Art in America, Trans, Polliester, Bomb and Honcho magazines.
Of Scott Burton's 1985 steel and concrete benches and balustrades inside the main floor lobby, Arning noted, "Burton was a conceptual artist, interested in the shape and function of forms. He was notorious for uncomfortable furniture. Think of those torturous stone chairs on Sixth Avenue in New York."
Pausing near the Sloan School building at a "drawing in space" by Picasso, Arning commented, "He's either the most annoying guy on the planet or you like him."
Of "Two Indeterminate Lines," Bernar Venet's rusting steel doodle in front of Dewey Library, Arning explained, "This is a French response to minimalism. As Venet aged, he got less interested in rational thought and more in breaks between thoughts, as if one were doodling. It welcomes and embraces non-linear thought." Asked about the gutter fencing off the base of the work, Arning added, "Rust is part of the aesthetic, but it was making an ugly rust stream and messing up the Sloan plaza."
Confronted in the Tang Center with the fantastic pop-out-of-the-wall painting/sculpture hybrid by Frank Stella titled "Heads or Tails," Arning paused to appreciate aloud the "curatorial triumph" of combining Picasso, Venet and Stella. He pointed out the drama of Louise Nevelson's 1975 work in corten steel near Building 66, "Transparent Horizon," as it provided a solid black frame for a volleyball match. He also paused in McDermott Court at "The Big Sail," a 40-foot-high steel stabile by Alexander Calder (a model for "The Big Sail" sits in the lobby of the Media Lab).
"Calder was the great modernist. He added motion to sculpture, giving it these soaring, beautiful lines and sense of flight. 'The Big Sail' weighs tons, yet it seems weightless thanks to the few points at which it touches the ground," said Arning.
Of the three sculptures by Jacques Lipchitz in the Hayden Memorial Library courtyard, Arning noted their evolving response to historical events, especially the Holocaust.
"In the 1920s, Lipchitz did pure, classic, good-as-it-gets cubism, studying form over time and space. After the Second World War, in 'Hagar in the Desert,' he sought a shape and a voice for the horror wrought by Hitler. Later, in 'Sacrifice III,' he found a way to express hope and replenishment after the Holocaust," Arning said.
The two massive sculptures in Killian Court, beloved by generations of small children attending MIT's Commencement ceremonies, are by Henry Moore and Michael Heizer. The Moore work, "Three-Piece Reclining Figure" (1976), is a totem to "pleasure and complexity," said Arning, while the Heizer work, "Guennette" (1977), a carefully constructed pile of 11 granite blocks, is an earthwork designed to "change our focus from space to time and age. The stone he used here is 2 billion years old."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 29, 2001.