NEW LONDON — Our favorite sculpture on the campus of Connecticut College is “The Dangers and Pleasures of Co-Education” by William McCloy. Set in Castle Court near the college’s fine arts center, it depicts two semi-abstract figures in black metal silhouette engaged at close quarters, possibly in hand-to-hand combat, possibly in a more intimate activity. McCloy was chairman of the art department when the college went co-ed in 1969, and created this bronze six years later just as the tsunami of the sexual revolution was breaking over campuses all across the country.
Celebration or cautionary tale? It’s hard to tell, but even 45 years later, “Dangers and Pleasures” retains the power to prompt debate and discussion — which might be the main reason to have large outdoor sculpture all over a college campus.
Spring in New England always seems to strike the Connecticut coast first, which makes this the perfect season to tour the outdoor sculpture collections of Connecticut College and of the Avery Point Campus of the University of Connecticut just 6 miles up the coast in Groton. The pastoral campus of Connecticut College has the larger collection (around 20 works) and the school’s website offers maps pinpointing the art and a downloadable audio tour compiled by students in 2010.
Many of the sculptures stand around the periphery of Tempel Green, a broad open space surrounded by handsome neo-Gothic gray stone buildings constructed in the early 20th century in emulation of English university campuses. The most famous artists on display are Louise Nevelson, whose unnamed black sheet metal abstract piece nestles up to the Cummings Arts Center, and Sol LeWitt, whose castle-like construction called “Irregular Tower (Horizontal Bricks) #2” from 1997 still manages to provoke controversy. The gray structure of mundane concrete blocks will surprise anyone who thinks first of LeWitt as the progenitor of colorful line drawings on walls.
Sculptor and former professor David Smalley has had the biggest impact on the college’s outdoor art gallery. His “Ad Astra Garden” of sundial and benches dominates the head of Tempel Green and serves as an impromptu gathering spot. Several smaller Smalleys dot the campus, including his diminutive “Sundance II,” which plays sundog to Nevelson’s great black hole, and the utterly charming “Cloud/Temple” near the admissions office and visitor parking lot. It seems the perfect conjunction of pedantry and whimsy: The three simple columns recall Roman temple structures, yet each wears a “capital” of nearly free-form cloud.
The outdoor sculptures at Connecticut College enjoy an almost cloistered existence on the genteel campus removed from the bustle of New London. By contrast, the artworks on the grounds of UConn’s Avery Point Campus dwell on a peninsula in Long Island Sound where they are subjected to salt spray, swirling shoreline winds, and the bright clang of shadeless sun. A red brick “Sculpture Path by the Sea” follows the contours of Avery Point’s rocky shore to the 1944 lighthouse on the front lawn of the Tudor-style Branford House stone mansion.
An offshoot of the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery of Art in the mansion, the path is a popular route for dog walkers and locals out on their daily constitutionals.
At this point, UConn has only a small permanent collection of outdoor sculpture, so many of the works are on loan — or effectively on consignment, as they are actually for sale. (Given the heft and scale of the pieces, the artists don’t seem to worry about shoplifters.)
One of the few pieces the university owns is Penny Kaplan’s “Mythic Mystery,” which appears from a distance as a dark obelisk. Up close, it bears an indecipherable collection of letters and emerges as a series of elongated sheet metal panels that form a pointed cap at the top. It sits on a stone outcrop above the green lawns of Branford House, rising with all the self-importance of a classical monument (think Bunker Hill) without the cogent meaning. It is both mystery and mythic.
“Pig Iron” by Timothy Kussow bears a strong kinship to “Mythic Mystery,” as it too punctures its own pretensions. The airy wire pig form stands atop a giant anvil — literally pig and iron (actually, steel).
Another temporary, interactive exhibition is on view this year from April through August. Called “Poetry of the Wild,” the project conceived by ecological designer and sculptor Ana Flores placed a half dozen boxes made of recycled materials along the sculpture path. She built some, but most were constructed by other artists. Each box contains a poem — and a journal where viewers are asked to record their reactions to the works and the environment around them.
It’s college, after all. You have to expect a pop quiz.