Look Here: Best Art on Campus

We asked two experts to pick their favorite campus treasures.

David Brownlee's List

Brownlee is professor and graduate chairman of Penn's history of art department.

  • Fisher Fine Arts Library (Furness Building)

    Fisher Fine Arts Library (Furness Building)

    Fisher Fine Arts Library (Furness Building), Frank Furness - architect - 1888-91, 220 S. 34th St.

    Frank Furness, in solving the problems posed by a modern library, also created a work that physically embraces the viewer with great, almost animal-like power--and captures the imagination in the process.

  • 301 St. Marks Square (house), attrib to G.W. Hewitt, ca. 1890 [owned by Penn]
  • Richards Medical Research Building and Goddard Laboratories, Louis I. Kahn, 1957-1964, 3700 Hamilton Walk

    Its rough surfaces, dark colors, and irregular skyline and plan broke decisively with the norms of modernism. Its spaces (the stacks of small, studio-like labs) to meet the specific needs of a client (workspaces for small, loosely affiliated research teams) rejected the modernist commitment to universal solutions to generic problems. (In this case, alas, the client changed its mind about what it wanted before the building was finished!)

  • "The Agnew Clinic," Thomas Eakins, ca. 1889

    "The Agnew Clinic," Thomas Eakins, ca. 1889

    "The Agnew Clinic," Thomas Eakins, ca. 1889, John Morgan Building, 3620 Hamilton Walk, in the rotunda, by appointment only--call 8-2876 

    A painting whose heroic ordinariness establishes a hallmark of the cult of the scientific hero, the disheveled man in the white coat--here a pioneer of aseptic surgery. Eakins elevates Dr. Agnew with a palette and compositional strategies borrowed from the Old Masters.

  • "Perspective of Market Street Civic Center," Louis I. Kahn, ca. 1957, Architectural Archives, lower level, Fisher Fine Arts Library, 220 S. 34th St., by appointment only--call 8-8323. (The drawing was published in Brownlee and De Long, "Louis I. Kahn," p. 309.)

    One of the most beautiful evocations of a city ever drawn: a forum of great public buildings that adopt the extraordinary technology of the present. A reproach to the banality of Market East as built, it depicts Kahn's belief that "the city is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life."

  • Black figure amphora with rescue of the body of Antilochos and Ajax with the body of Achilles; painter: Exekias, ca. 540 B.C., University Museum

    Almost for the first time, a Greek artist depicts emotion. The context is war and death, themes commonly heroized in archaic art, but here Exekias probes beneath the surface to the pathos of human existence.

  • War Memorial Flag Pole, Charles Rudy (sculptor) and Grant Simon (architect), 33rd St. and Smith Walk, 1950

    A most serene emblem of idealized sacrifice, celebrating in smoothed architectural and sculptural forms the service to their country of the many sons of Pennsylvania.

  • ICA

    Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)

    ICA building, Adele NaudŽ Santos, 1990-91, 118 S. 36th St. 

    The best building built at Penn in the last two decades, the ICA plays out a series of witty variations on such modernist themes as the horizontal "ribbon window" and the rational grid of supporting "pilotis" (cylindrical columns). Built on time and on budget, too.

  • Lewis Hall (old Law School building) two second-floor reading rooms (one is now converted into two lecture rooms), Cope and Stewardson, 1897, enter through Tanenbaum Hall, 3400 Sansom St. Call 8-7491 for appointment.

    A nearly perfect work by the firm that created the University's modern campus in the two decades before World War I. The rich ornament traces its roots to English architect Christopher Wren and his sculptural collaborator, Grinling Gibbons, but the scale and confidence belong to America in our first "imperial" age.

  • Duai (coconut grater) made by Soses Tara (from Nukuoro in East Caroline Islands), 20th century?, University Museum 65-8-1

    A poem about the nature of wood and the rhythms of human action, the duai's seductive curves reflect both the grained material from which it was carved and the sweeping motions with which it was put to use.

  • A particularly "free" exercise in Queen Anne style. Classical details are pushed and stretched (note especially the elongated cantilever of the front balcony), and they are assembled with a studied casualness. The abstraction of the resulting composition is emphasized by the uniform coating of stucco.

John W. McCoubrey's List

McCoubrey is professor emeritus of art history.

  • "Covenant," Alexander Liberman

    "Covenant," Alexander Liberman

    "Covenant," Alexander Liberman, 1974, Locust Walk and 39th St. 

    Covenant means God's promise to the human race, and an agreement or contract. In this sculpture, however, nothing seems quite settled, no agreement yet reached. From each viewing angle, one part slides across the other, searching for some rest. In short, it is about process toward order, completeness, even toward understanding, which is part of the process we are engaged in at the University.

  • "The Peace Symbol," Robert Engman, 1970, west of the entrance to Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center
  • "We Lost," Tony Smith, 1966, 300 S. 36th St.

    Someone has said that "We Lost" is Smith's memorial to abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. From the title, I would guess that, with the blackness, and the frozen simplicity of this closed shape, resistant to any addition or subtraction, Smith intended to express the finality of loss by death. Curiously, students perched within its not very welcoming embrace seem more quiet and contemplative than those on the rest of the green.

  • Button

    "The Split Button"

    "Split Button," Claes Oldenburg, 1981, in front of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center 

    A grotesque shift in size, from a dinky, lost button to our button is a joke that, like many other Oldenberg pieces, loses its edge after first sight. But "Split Button" has become a wonderful piece of playground equipment where little heads emerge from the holes. Oldenburg, a master of oversized, dysfunctional objects, would not tell why he broke the button.

  • "Jerusalem Stabile," Alexander Calder, 1976, between Meyerson Hall and Furness

    Alexander Calder's elephant--oh yes, it is one!--is an elegant, graceful rendering of the ponderous beast, and that is part of its humor.

  • I close with proudly stating that at my suggestion, Penn Professor Emeritus and sculptor Robert Engman turned "The Peace Symbol" into a work of art that retains the original symbol of the movement for nuclear disarmament formed by the N (in semaphore by flags down forty-five degrees on each side), and the D (with the flags in the straight up and down), inscribed in a circle. A group of student anti-war protesters had come to ask for the names of some famous sculptors to make a work for them. They thought a sculptor who believed in their cause should leap at the opportunity. When I had to disabuse them of that notion, I suggested Engman, who did the rest. Once in danger of removal, it has quietly regained its importance as a place of protests.

McCoubrey, besides commenting on these campus sculptures also praised some paintings:

  • "The Agnew Clinic," Thomas Eakins, ca. 1889

    "The Agnew Clinic," Thomas Eakins, ca. 1889

    "The Agnew Clinic," Thomas Eakins (see above)
  • "Nathaniel Chapman," Thomas Sully, ca. 1810

    "Nathaniel Chapman," Thomas Sully, ca. 1810

    "Nathaniel Chapman," Thomas Sully, ca. 1810, on the wall to the left of the Eakins 

    A small gem.

  • "Landscape Scene from the 'Last of the Mohicans;' The Death of Cora,"

    "Landscape Scene from the 'Last of the Mohicans;' The Death of Cora," Thomas Cole

    "Landscape Scene from the 'Last of the Mohicans;' The Death of Cora," Thomas Cole, in the Rare Books Reading Room, sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. 

    An important painting by the Hudson River artist Thomas Cole, from one of James Fenimore Cooper's novels that should be on any list.

Originally published on February 18, 1997