Tag Archives: Tight Rope Walkers

Projects from Spring 2017: Kees Verkade, Tightrope Walker

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.

Kees Verkade and Tightrope Walker

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrossing the sky bridge over Amsterdam Ave. and walking toward Columbia University’s Law School, visitors quickly see a towering bronze sculpture depicting two tightrope walkers, one balancing atop the other’s shoulders. Created as a tribute to General William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School, Tightrope Walker was created by the Dutch artist Kees Verkade and installed on Revson Plaza in 1979.

Born in 1883, Gen. Donovan came to prominence as the commander of New York’s “Fighting 69th” regiment in the First World War. He became the only soldier who fought in that war to receive the four highest awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. During World War II, Gen. Donovan served as the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. He died in 1959 and, ten years later, a group of the General’s associates and friends began fundraising to create a memorial to commemorate him, to be located on Columbia University’s Morningside campus.

The sculptor Verkade was born in Haarlem, The Netherlands, in 1941. He trained as a sculptor from the age of sixteen, when he enrolled at the Royal Academy in The Hague. During his five years of training, Verkade was introduced to the details of bronze casting, a medium that would define his future work. By 1970, his art had gained international attention when an article about him appeared in Time magazine. Soon afterward, in 1973, he was commissioned to design the sculpture honoring Gen. Donovan. In preparation for the memorial, Verkade watched archival films of the General and interviewed people who had known him in order to become more familiar with the man. In choosing to depict two tightrope walkers, one balancing upon the shoulders of the other, Verkade wanted to display the courage and controlled daring of Gen. Donovan.

The bronze sculpture, installed on Columbia University’s Revson Plaza, weighs 842 pounds and stands 14 ft. 3 in. tall, not including its plinth, which makes the monumental sculpture reach a height of 21 ft.

Verkade is also famous for his bust of Princess Grace of Monaco, an example of which is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. To learn more about Verkade, go to http://www.keesverkade.com/en.

— Michael J. Munro (GSAPP, Historic Preservation), Art Properties student assistant

Image: Kees Verkade, Tightrope Walker, commissioned in 1973, installed in 1979, bronze on marble plinth, H. 21 ft. (6.4 m), Gift of the Friends of General William J. Donovan (1979.5.5). Photograph: Michael J. Munro, Art Properties, Avery Library, Columbia University

Public Sculpture, November 2014

Here are a few new photos of the some of the public outdoor sculptures on the Morningside campus, taken by Art Properties student assistant Michael J. Munro (GSAPP, Historic Preservation). If you want to send us your photos and possibly see them on the blog, email us at artproperties@library.columbia.edu.

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Kees Verdake, “Tight Rope Walker,” 1973-79, Revson Plaza

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David Bakalar, “Life Force,” 1988-92, Revson Plaza

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Auguste Rodin, “The Thinker,” 1880-82, cast 1930, outside Philosophy Hall

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William Ordway Partridge, “John Howard Van Amringe,” 1920, Van Amringe Plaza