I t was a very brave soul who proposed that a gleaming red, blue and yellow kinetic sculpture by Alexander Calder be placed on Yale’s Hewitt University Quadrangle near the back entrance of Woolsey Hall and a book’s-throw from the Beinecke Library on Wall Street between High and College.
Even at the age of 53, this artwork retains its childlike wonderment and simply dazzles. Its colors beam out at you, bursting with brightness. Its moving parts swirl high above the structure’s triangular base. That base has open space—arches and feet, rather than a harsh solid foundation. Everything about the piece is loose and wild and free. It’s slender and smooth while the massive edifice just behind it, Woolsey Hall, is stone and ornate. The sculpture is round and pointy and shapely while Beinecke Library is boxy.
Those buildings, of course, have their own extraordinary charms. But they have to strive to hold your attention against the bright sleek circular spinning sassiness of Calder’s artwork.
The piece has an official title, and it’s as whimsical as the work itself: Gallows and Lollipops. You don’t want to think too literally about that title and start breaking down which parts of it are meant to represent which words in its title.
The imagery is delicious without any overthinking. “Lollipops” is a loaded word in the New Haven vocabulary. The candy treat was developed here in the late 1880s by the Bradley Smith Company, and a key national brand of lollipop manufactured in the city bore the brand name Yale.
As for “gallows,” a century before Calder named his artwork, Connecticut was admonished for being slower than some other New England states in outlawing public executions. In his 1856 book The Gallows, The Prison, and the Poor-House: A Plea for Humanity, Showing the Demands of Christianity in Behalf of the Criminal and Perishing Classes, G.W. Quinby writes:
So in Connecticut, with a population of a little more than half of that in Maine, men have been executed in various parts of the State, from time to time; a majority of her population being decidedly in favor of hard and stringent laws, and yet murders are far more frequent in that state than Maine. Three months ago, no less than three dreadful murders were perpetrated within a short distance of New Haven.
Thus is it seen that after a trial of fifteen years, without the aid of the gallows as a “terror to evil doers,” it is found that the inhabitants of Maine not only live without the fear of having their throats cut at night by bloody assassins, as was anticipated by timid men and women, when the gallows was abolished, but they positively occupy the safest spot, as to aggravated crime, on the American continent.
It’s likely that many Yale students in the 1960s, when Gallows and Lollipops was a fresh item in the quadrangle, were inspired by this whimsical, bright sculpture to reflect on recent U.S. wars. One of the sculpture’s public-art predecessors in the plaza was Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks. That artwork, with its tank-like base, became a rallying point for campus anti-war protests. Its inflatable soft upthrust central element, which resembles a gigantic lipstick tube, didn’t last long, and was reworked by the artist in fiberglass and steel. Lipstick was moved to Yale’s Morse College in 1974, where it was less attractive as a platform for campus-wide protests.
Another public artwork in the plaza, Isamu Noguchi’s The Garden (Pyramid, Sun and Cube), arrived at the university in 1963. It is a subdued, sunken piece which brings light and warmth into the Beinecke Library’s underground reading room. It is made of the same Vermont marble as the library, but exudes a smoothness and stillness which has been likened to a peaceful Zen garden.
Spinning somewhere in between protest and quiet solace, Gallows and Lollipops was constructed in 1960 and gifted to Yale University by an anonymous donor in 1975. It’s one of four “long-term installations of monumental sculpture” by Calder in Connecticut mentioned on the official Calder website. That may seem a lot, but Calder has hundreds of such permanently installed works around the country and around the world. Michigan boasts seven, for example, California nine and New York thirteen. This distribution seems unfair somehow. Yes, the sculptor lived in France (which owns and displays dozens of his works) during the 1920s, where he palled around with Dadaists and Surrealists and avant-gardists of the time, then returned to that country to live from 1962 until shortly before his death in 1976. In between, however, Calder lived in Connecticut, on farmland in the Litchfield County town of Roxbury. In fact, Roxbury is where you’ll find his grave. One of the greatest American champions of Calder’s work was Chick Austin, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.
Calder was a pioneer of mobiles, kinetic art and wire sculpture. He made toy-like art, and he also made toys. The bright colors and patterns he brought to his sculptures were modified into paintings and abstract prints. He was honored with a series of commemorative U.S. postage stamps in 1988.
Here’s how Gallows and Lollipops is described in the Public Art at Yale section of yale.edu: “As the painted steel plates of Gallows and Lollipops hover and seesaw around the tip of their red tripod base, they obey chance atmospheric stimuli to destabilize the grid of Beinecke Plaza.”
That’s an academic way of experiencing it, sure. Or you can just look skyward and sigh.
Gallows and Lollipops by Alexander Calder
Hewitt University Quadrangle (also known as Beinecke Plaza), New Haven (map)
www.yale.edu/publicart/calder.html | www.calder.org
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.