Two monumental sculptures arrive on campus

On loan for 99 years, one sculpture is between Franklin Field and The Palestra, the other next to the main library.

A large sculpture with two figures in place on the left, one in the middle, and two more being lowered into place with two construction workers reaching up toward the dangling feet, and other workers with the cab of a large crane.
Two large-scale sculptures arrived on campus during the summer, both requiring installations by cranes. “Social Consciousness” by Jacob Epstein is in the Memorial Garden Walkway next to the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center in the heart of campus. 

Two additional large-scale sculptures now adorn Penn’s campus. Installed during the summer and on loan for 99 years from the Association for Public Art (aPA) after being moved from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, they join Penn’s large public artscape as part of the green urban landscape.

The geometric “Atmosphere and Environment XII” by Louise Nevelson is on Shoemaker Green between Franklin Field and The Palestra, while “Social Consciousness,” a 12-foot-high bronze of five figures by Jacob Epstein, is along the Memorial Garden Walkway next to the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. 

Large cube of metal suspended in the air by a crane as a construction worker looks at it from the top of a sculpture made of similar metal cubes.
The steel “Atmosphere and Environment XII,” created by Nevelson in 1970, consists of 30 open, rectangular cubes, each weighing 500 pounds, stacked and bolted together.

“They are in major locations that will have a resonance and relationship with the other outdoor sculptures at Penn,” says University Curator Lynn Marsden-Atlass, who is also director of the Arthur Ross Gallery, noting that much thought went into the settings, taking into consideration the artists’ intent.  

“What also is exciting is that these sculptures will be here for many generations of students and will become known and beloved, much like other large sculptures on campus, such as ‘LOVE’ and the ‘Split Button.’”

Bringing the sculptures to Penn was a two-year effort that included an extensive site research and selection process. Marsden-Atlass and her team worked with the Art Advisory Committee and the On-Campus Art Subcommittee, along with Facilities and Real Estate Services. 

An aerial view of a large green space surrounded by trees and a sculpture under construction with the arm of a large crane above it.
The sculpture “Atmosphere and the Environment XII” is located between The Palestra and Franklin Field in a setting surrounded by trees and bushes on Shoemaker Green. 

Both sculptures are owned by the aPA, a private, nonprofit which commissions, preserves, and promotes public art in Philadelphia. Each was temporarily placed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, atop steps on either side of the west entrance, but ended up spending decades there. 

The artworks needed a new, long-term home due to the extensive renovations at the Art Museum, which will include closing that entrance during construction. The aPA says it took the opportunity to reconsider the placement and context of the sculptures so they could be seen to their best advantage and remain accessible to the public.

Penn emerged as the best place for both. 

“It was a challenge to simultaneously find new, appropriate locations for two enormous sculptures. We wanted to keep these important artworks in continued public view and avoid placing them in long-term storage,” says Penny Balkin Bach, aPA executive director and chief curator.

“We are thrilled to have worked with Penn to add to the collection of public art on campus, where the sculptures can be viewed and appreciated by new audiences and revisited by their existing fans in a different setting.” 

Large sculpture figure suspended by a large crane with construction workers guiding it in a garden setting with a brick wall behind them.
The sculpture "Social Consciousness" location is a contemplative setting, and yet along a well-used path.

Only one other sculpture of the 57 on campus is not part of the Penn Art Collection, which consists of more than 8,000 artworks, otherwise all donated to the University. “Benjamin Franklin” by John Boyle in front of College Hall, is owned by the City of Philadelphia, a gift from Justus Strawbridge in 1897. It has been on loan to Penn since 1938, when it was moved from the U.S. Post Office on Chestnut and 9th streets before the building was demolished. 

The relocation process was accomplished by teams of professional conservators, art handlers, and riggers. It took several days, weeks apart. 

Nevelson’s “Atmosphere and Environment XII,” was created in 1970, and consists of 30 open, rectangular cubes made of weathering steel, each weighing 500 pounds, stacked and bolted together. The six columns of five cubes are more than 18 feet high and 10 feet wide. 

Sculpture made of metal cubes on a base with a construction worker on top reaching for another cube suspended by a crane.
The sculpture “Atmosphere and the Environment XII,” is six columns of five cubes more than 18 feet high and 10 feet wide.

Installation at Penn started on the afternoon of July 18. A crane lifted and placed each cube, and a crew bolted them together, creating the horizontal rows on a new base. A thunderstorm suspended the work until early the next morning. The last cube was put in place just before noon to cheers and applause. 

It now sits on a grassy curve on Shoemaker Green, making it possible to walk around the sculpture. Within each cube are additional geometric shapes that create interesting shadows. 

“As I look at it from this angle, I love it here,” Marsden-Atlass says, noting that the curves echo the arches in Franklin Field and The Palestra. “It’s much better integrated here, with the trees and the architecture of the buildings around it.” 

Nevelson, an immigrant to the United States from present-day Ukraine, was one of the most influential artists in the years after World War II, and one of the few women of her time to create outdoor sculptures. One of a series, the sculpture was originally exhibited in France and New York before it was purchased by the Association in 1971. Unable to find an appropriate cityscape site at the time, it was installed at the Museum in 1973. Other sculptures in the “Atmosphere and Environmentseries are located at Princeton and Yale universities. 

View of sculpture with three sets of figures and one on right is being lifted with a large crane. Several construction workers with hardhats are standing around it, at the top of steps next to a large stone building with columns.
The two sculptures now at Penn were moved from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s west entrance, where they have been for decades. 

The bronze “Social Consciousness,” created by Epstein in 1954, was originally commissioned for the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial on terraces along Kelly Drive on the Schuylkill River. As it took shape, it became clear the site could not accommodate the massive work, and it was installed at the Art Museum in 1955. 

The deinstallation on July 15 was dramatic, with a crowd of media and museum staff looking on as a crane lifted each of the three sets of figures from supporting interior poles, one by one, swinging them over to a flatbed truck to go into temporary storage. 

Sculpture figure strapped to a board being suspended in midair as it is lowered onto a flatbed truck with a large columned building in the background.
Once removed from the base, the figures of “Social Consciousness” were placed on a flatbed truck to go into temporary storage before coming to Penn. 

The central figure is the “Eternal Mother,” seated with outstretched arms and a solemn, sorrowful countenance. Flanking her are two standing female figures: One represents Compassion, reaching down to comfort a stricken youth collapsed at her feet, and the other personifies Death, supporting a young man who bends backward to embrace her shoulders.

Moving the base was a challenge that required special handling and took several days. Made of red granite, the base is 20 feet long and weighs 27.5 tons, more than twice the weight of the Sphinx at the Penn Museum. 

Once the base was in place, installation of the sculpture started on Aug. 13, with placement of the most complicated of the dual figures, Compassion. The next day, the maternal figure was put in place, and the final set of dual figures were installed just before the rain began. 

“The setting is so different than its previous location, where it was much higher, and off to the side. Here it is tucked into a meditative space, surrounded by nature and benches, in a memorial garden,” Marsden-Atlass says, noting that a contemplative setting was the sculptor’s intent. “It is a busy passageway in the center of the campus, but you encounter it in a reflective space.”

A large sculpture figure is lowered onto a support rod by several construction workers.
The final set of figures of the “Social Consciousness” sculpture went into place just before the rains came. 

Although Penn is responsible for daily care of the sculptures and grounds, the aPA is responsible for major, ongoing conservation, starting with removal of surface grime and adding a protective wax coating on “Social Consciousness.” 

Crews are still working to complete the landscaping and paving, but all work is expected to be completed by Sept. 10, when an event is scheduled to celebrate the arrival of the two sculptures. 

“They are just incredibly exciting new additions to the monumental sculptures that are on campus,” Marsden-Atlass says. “We are thrilled they are here.”