In this series of periodic blog posts, we will examine the pieces of art that delight and befuddle visitors to campus and add to the unique beauty of the University.
The art that graces the UW campuses falls into three broad categories: Private gifts, like Red Square’s iconic Broken Obelisk; Commemorative works, like the busts and statues honoring figures prominent and obscure that are scattered all over campus; and works commissioned under the Art in Public Places program. Art in Public Places directs ½ of 1% of the budget of state buildings (including University buildings) to public art. These commissioned pieces are frequently the most visionary—and controversial—works seen on campus. Today’s subject falls in this last category.
I stumbled across Everything that Rises, a 23-foot bronze sculpture by Martin Puryear, standing sentinel in the plaza in front of the Physics/Astronomy building, while visiting campus with my 2-year-old daughter (she likes walking around the rim of Drumheller Fountain while Daddy holds her hand and envisions having to fish her out and explain to Mommy why the baby’s soaking wet). I found it visually arresting—smoothly curved among the sharp angles of the buildings, darkly reflective against the brighter brick, mysterious and evocative. It seems precariously balanced on its end, like a spinning top. The work’s radial symmetry draws the viewer to walk around it, making the background of buildings and mountains seem to rotate around the stationary pole of the sculpture.
My daughter liked the satisfying PONG it made when she slapped her hands against the hollow bronze.
Fans of the Southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor will recognize the title of the work as the first part of the title of one of her short stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” itself drawn from theologian Teilhard de Chardin’s writing about seeking unity with God. Puryear, however, warns against drawing to direct a connection between his work and its title. “I don’t want to be overly literal. Flannery O’Connor is one reference, but it’s obviously an incomplete phrase as it is. I like to give my work titles that are provocative and open up possible ways for people to look at the work and think about the work rather than close it down.”
Everything that Rises was not universally praised when it was unveiled. Described dismissively as a peanut or a bowling pin, or mistakenly identified as a depiction of a p-orbital (one of the paths electrons take around the nucleus of an atom), much of the controversy rose from the simplicity of its form. Former UW campus art administrator Kurt Kiefer, in a 2001 interview, opined, “A lot of people, when they see something simple, think that the artist is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. In fact, some artists choose to make things simple for a reason. They want to create something that makes people slow down. If an artwork makes people stop for a minute, then it’s done its job.”