During the Spring 2017 semester, Prof. Robert Harrist and Curator Roberto C. Ferrari co-taught an undergraduate seminar entitled “Public Outdoor Sculpture at Columbia and Barnard.” The idea for the course was inspired by the recent acquisition of Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, and the subsequent controversy which followed its proposed installation. Reinforcing the educational mission of the University’s art collection, this seminar was a prime opportunity to teach from Columbia’s permanent art collection utilizing sculpture that students, faculty, and staff see everyday on campus but know little about it.
Each of the students took on a final research project associated with one of the sculptures. Over the next few months, excerpts from some of their project reports will be made available on this blog, enabling everyone to learn more about the history of these works of art and their association with Columbia’s history.
We begin with Barnard College student Isabel Dicker, who became fascinated by the sculpture on Revson Plaza known as the Tightrope Walker by the Dutch modernist sculptor Kees Verkade. This sculpture was unveiled in 1979 as a dedicated memorial to Gen. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School. The depiction of two tightrope walkers on one another’s shoulders was intended to symbolize the dangers and risks Donovan took protecting America in the battlefields, as well as his later career in the precursor of the CIA and as a lawyer.
Dicker created an original website/blog entitled “Kees Verkade, the Tightrope Walker, and Wild Bill,” and you can read all of her individual posts highlighting aspects of the sculpture, the artist, “Wild Bill” himself, and so on: http://verkadetightropewalker.blogspot.com/. (Start at the oldest post and work your way to the newest post to follow her chronology of research.)
During the summer the marble base of the sculpture was destroyed. Fortunately, the sculpture itself is intact and did not suffer any damage. The marble sheathing around the sculpture’s base will be repaired or replaced in the months to come.