An intriguing shade of green more evocative of psychedelia than academia resides at the heart of Princeton’s campus. Feet from the warm, earthy hues of Morrison Hall and backlit by the slate-grey of Blair Hall stands the striking turquoise sheen of Henry Moore’s Oval with Points (1969).
This color is likely familiar from a mutual appearance on the Statue of Liberty. In both cases, the phenomenon of verdigris is the culprit. Extended exposure to the elements allows deposits of copper carbonate to accumulate on copper and bronze (which compose the Statue of Liberty and Oval with Points, respectively), encapsulating the original metal in a green-pigmented patina.
When we call attention to it, Oval with Points’ current color does seem incongruous with the campus’ usual palette. Nonetheless, a macroscopic sort of sensory fatigue has ensured that the disparity goes unnoticed. Over the decades, we’ve seen enough pictures of Liberty Island to be unperturbed when the same signature green pops up elsewhere (Alexander Phimister Proctor’s regal tigers in front of Nassau Hall are another example). Importantly, though, this change in color implies an alterability and dynamism inherent to the sculpture.
Of course, Oval with Points’ surroundings are dynamic. In contrast to the highly contrived viewing experience of a painting in an immaculate gallery, Oval with Points is by design incorporated into an imperfect, changing environment. Shadows shorten and lengthen with the day, students commute to class and are gone, withered leaves litter its base in autumn but scatter in the face of winter’s winds. Its installation embraces the variability of the setting.
Yet, I think there’s also a point to be made about transformation as it pertains to the sculpture itself. Perhaps not apparent at first glance, Moore was actually influenced by an elephant skull while designing the Oval with Points series, a gift from the evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Huxley after a trip to East Africa. What an improbable, striking, and unorthodox source of inspiration! I can’t say that the two are dead ringers, but Moore’s bronze unmistakably imitates the organic form of an elephantine cranium. There is a shared essence between them. I’m fascinated that an object that should have been perishing to nothingness amid tall savannah grasses was transported, in a sense, to the vibrant and robust campus of a modern university. There’s something profound and almost perverse in such a drastic rupture in the skull’s natural history.
Oval with Points is on one level a stylized rendition of that very skull, juxtaposing a quintessential symbol of decomposition and entropy with the organization, activity, and structure of a flourishing university. Today, Princeton’s existence seems assured; as an institution it is both iconic and influential. But that elephant was once monumental too. To me, Oval with Points evokes the transitory and perishable nature of all things on Earth.
If this all seems a little dour, hang on.
One peculiar feature of Oval with Points is that the tips of the points and the base of the oval are shiny. Over the decades, the thousands of hands and feet that have touched the same few square inches while climbing on or posing for photographs within Moore’s creation have rubbed off the green patina on those spots. Our palms have quite literally changed the piece. I’m reminded of a stanza in Pablo Neruda’s wonderful poem “Ode to things”,
not because they are
I don’t know,
this ocean is yours,
love has scattered
glasses, knives and
of someone’s fingers
on their handle or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
in the depths of forgetfulness.
Moore’s sculpture concurs with Neruda’s sentiments. Even if Oval with Points is destined to be forgotten one day, it will expire with the indelible imprint of human hands upon it, just as the Chilean says. Maybe all human creation is vanity. But I’m not so sure. After all, verdigris may be an ineluctable consequence of the passage of time, but the wearing away of that same patina most certainly is not. Time transforms all things, but so too do our own hands.
“Pigments through the Ages: Verdigris”, accessed 3/28/18, http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/indiv/overview/verdigris.html.
“Campus Art Princeton”, Princeton University Art Museum Website, accessed 3/28/18, http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/campus-art/objects/31464.
“Ode to things” by Pablo Neruda, in Odes to Common Things: Neruda, translated by Ken Krabbenhoft, Bulfinch Press: 1994, pp. 10-17.