When I was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1970’s there were two factions in the school, traditionalists and modernists.
Those of us, both faculty and students, who were in the traditionalist faction thought the Academy, of all places, should be bastion of academic art tradition, steeped in the teachings of Eakins and his predecessors. Those in the the modernist faction thought our values hopelessly irrelevant, just as we thought theirs spurious and insubstantial.
Times have, of course, changed somewhat; traditionalism and modernism seem to be in a kind of uneasy détente in the art world as traditional values and representational art have been reestablishing their prominence, and the Academy is perhaps a prime example of the current mix.
That mixture has become evident on the outside of the venerable school and museum as well as the inside, with the creation of the Lenfest Plaza, a reclaimed section of Cherry Street in Philadelphia, linking the Samuel M. V. Hamilton building, where most classes are now conducted, with the Academy’s Landmark building, an architectural marvel from the mind of Victorian era American architect Frank Furness that has been the Academy’s main building for most of its history.
The plaza gives the Academy a “campus” of sorts for the first time in its history (when I was there, the majority of classes were in a building called the “Peale House”, named for Charles Wilson Peale and located several blocks away form the Academy’s main building).
The centerpiece of the new plaza is the “Paint Torch”, a new large scale sculpture by modernist sculptor Claes Oldenberg.
Those who have been reading Lines and Colors for some time will know that I am generally not enthused about post-war modernism (i.e. American modernism), but there are exceptions and Oldenberg is one of them; partly because his sculptures of giant household objects are hilarious, and a breath of fresh air among modernists who take themselves way too seriously, and partly because they accomplish what I think art does for us at its best, allowing us to see the world around us, and the objects we take for granted, with fresh eyes.
Oldenberg’s Paint Torch is a 51ft (15m) high paintbrush, hanging out over the Broad Street sidewalk at a 60° angle, complete with a 6ft (2m) high dropped dollop of paint. It’s called the “Paint Torch” because the brush will light up at night, for the first time tonight, October 1, 2011.
The Academy is celebrating with a day long “Party on the Plaza” which is free and open to the public, as is the Academy’s superb museum of American art today.
As usual, Oldenberg’s work, and its placement, is stirring up a little controversy, but this is one hidebound traditionalist Academy alumni who likes it just fine.
(Photographs from PAFA)