Like any top-notch university, The University of Texas at Austin campus is home to state-of-the-art labs, extensive library collections and hundreds of classrooms designed to enrich the student experience.
But that’s not where education or the campus identity ends.
Spend any time on the Forty Acres, and you’ll find yourself encountering some rather extraordinary art, even if you don’t seek it out and often without setting foot inside a building. That’s due in large part to Landmarks, the university’s public art program that launched in 2008.
At 36 pieces and counting, the Landmarks collection helps ensure UT is not only an academic campus, but a cultured one, too. Much like the classroom discussions and lab experiments taking place around them, the sculptures, murals, videos and installations Landmarks brings to UT create a vibrant campus that encourages new ideas, debates and thoughtful reflection.
We took a closer look at five important pieces of campus art and their relationships to the settings in which they reside.
Artist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Casey Reas, whose work has been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, is the co-creator of an open-source programming language called Processing, which he manipulates to produce digital art.
Reas’ A Mathematical Theory of Communication is a mural on two separate walls in The Bill and Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex and Dell Computer Science Hall (map). The piece is a site-specific commission for Landmarks and is named after a seminal 1948 article of the same name that helped establish the field of information theory.
In her artist entry for the piece, New School faculty member Christiane Paul writes, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication puts viewers in the middle of the data landscape, inviting them to experience algorithms and the digital medium in both its fidelity and uncertainties. While the murals create this experience on the basis of specific imagery, they raise questions about perception that ultimately apply to any work of digital (or even visual) art: how do images communicate their message and how do we decode and perceive them?”
In other words, it’s both art and science.
Evoking legendary newsman and UT alumnus Walter Cronkite‘s broadcast sign-off, And That’s the Way It Is projects a grid of text from televised news broadcasts onto one of the Moody College of Communication buildings that overlooks the plaza (map) every evening.
Landmarks commissioned the piece in 2012 from sound designer and visual artist Ben Rubin. His own software scans and selects segments of closed caption transcripts of live network news and archival transcripts of Cronkite’s vintage CBS Evening News broadcasts, each displaying in a different typography. As daily news is generated, the language adapts to reflect current events, connecting the past and present in surprising and poetic ways.
Cronkite attended UT in the 1930s and studied political science, economics and journalism. He also worked for the university newspaper, The Daily Texan, which is headquartered across the plaza from the video projection. He was anchorman and managing editor for the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, and his personal archive is housed at UT’s Briscoe Center for American History.
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When the new Student Activity Center (map) was being designed, students requested a “reflection room” for the building, which is bustling with Longhorns attending events, grabbing lunch and studying. Now, perched on the roof above that constant activity, sits The Color Inside, by renowned “sculptor of light” James Turrell.
The structure, designed specifically for the university, is one of Turrell’s signature Skyspace naked-eye observatories. The Color Inside is an elliptical white-plaster tower with an oval opening in the ceiling. A black basalt bench lines the reclining walls, with room for just 25 people.
At sunrise and sunset custom LED lights unleash brilliant washes of color on the ceiling, morphing slowly between all manner of pinks, purples, whites, greens and yellows. Meanwhile, the sky changes color with the rising or setting of the sun and in comparison to the ceiling. In one sunset sequence, the sky shifts from indigo to gray to rust and then finally a vivid teal set against saturated watermelon LEDs.
The design of the tower and the intensity of the lights sometimes make it impossible to discern sky from ceiling. All sense of depth seems to disappear.
“I hope that people find it as a place of refuge, a way to cultivate attention and have a moment of quiet in a busy day,” says Landmarks director Andrée Bober, who hopes the piece becomes a new university icon.
In its 2014 “Best of Austin” critics poll, the Austin Chronicle named the Perry-Castañeda Library (PCL) Austin’s “Best Brutalist Architecture,” a prime example of the midcentury architecture movement that once produced massive concrete structures but has since fallen out of fashion. The exterior of the PCL (map), which opened in 1977, displays all the hallmarks of Brutalism. In the words of the Chronicle, the PCL has “an imposing fortress-like appearance, sharp angles, a complex form out of simple geometry, rough macro-texture of repetitive windows, and those awesome walls of concrete that threaten to smash your ignorant meatbrain into a state of education.”
It’s also an intriguing backdrop for the off-balance, abstract piece, Square Tilt, which sits on the PCL plaza. Constructed in 1983 by Joel Perlman, and on permanent loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Square Tilt is a 10-foot-tall open rectangular frame made of steel with smaller geometric steel plates attached at various angles. It possesses a sense of liveliness and uncertainty that stands in contrast to the PCL’s weighty, dense demeanor.
And yet, as a portal, which Perlman’s work is often likened to, Square Tilt is a natural partner for the university’s main library, home to 70 miles of book stacks, 3.2 million volumes and countless students cramming for finals.
Consider this line from the artist entry about the sculpture: “Square Tilt consequently carries connotations of openness, far horizons, and passage into other domains of perception and thought.”
On a good day, that’s what happens at the library, too.
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Bass Concert Hall / Various Sculptures
A goal of the Landmarks program is to be a primary resource for students in their fields of study, art or otherwise. Take the recent “Sound in Sculpture” concert, which featured the premiere performance of five compositions by Butler School of Music students inspired by sculptures in Bass Concert Hall (map). Each original work was performed next to the sculpture that inspired it, with musician and audience member sometimes less than three feet apart.
Music composition doctoral student Elizabeth Anne Cominellis was drawn to artist Antoine Pevsner’s Column of Peace (top row, above), located on the east side of the fourth floor of Bass. The bronze sculpture, created in 1954, was meant as a monument to postwar peace and was actually a model for a large memorial that was never realized.
Taking cues from the sculpture’s four intersecting, upwardly rising diagonal arms, Cominellis composed a piece that “share(s) melodic material among instruments” and that contains various textures and timbres, reminiscent of the sculpture’s delicate ridges. The trajectory of the columns is echoed in the conclusion of her composition, which is titled “Peace I Leave with You,” a reference to the promise Jesus Christ makes in the New Testament. “Much as the sculpture shoots to the top and fans outward slightly, each instrument, as the music draws to a close, rises to a dramatic peak, each playing in its most extreme high register,” Cominellis explains.