March 15, 2016

A Marriage of Art and Engineering: The Installation of Charles Simonds’ Mental Earth at NYU IFA

Sculptor Charles Simonds’ Mental Earth.

Along Museum Mile on New York City’s Fifth Avenue is a landmark building that served as the former home of James and Nanaline Duke and their daughter, Doris. Today, the stately mansion is home to NYU’s prestigious Institute of Fine Arts (IFA), which will showcase sculptor Charles Simonds’ Mental Earth, beginning April 1. The exhibit was organized by IFA PhD student Julia Pelta Feldman and will be accompanied by a dialogue and day-long symposium featuring the artist.

“Created in 2003, Mental Earth is a hanging sculpture in which a vibrant arabesque of earthy clay forms—resembling at once landscape, cloud, and man-made structure—floats in the air, detached from the terrestrial and architectural context of Simonds' early work in the streets," said Feldman, who also organized the upcoming all-day symposium on Simonds at IFA. “It is the opposite of site-specific in that it is able to create a new site for itself wherever it is exhibited.”

While this organic integration with the exhibition space is part of what drew Feldman to Simonds’ work, its installation posed a distinct challenge to the 105-year-old James B. Duke House. Feldman worried her vision of bringing Mental Earth to the IFA might be curtailed by the physical incompatibility between the sculpture and the space.

“I knew that Charles’s work is both strong and supple enough to stand up to the imposing environment of the IFA’s Great Hall. You see, the Great Hall Exhibition program is a fantastic opportunity for students, but it poses special challenges to both curators and artists. The practical considerations themselves are daunting: the James B. Duke House is a landmarked building, so we can’t alter any part of it. That means nothing can hang on the walls or ceiling. But it’s also a space with a lot of foot traffic from multiple directions, so it’s very difficult to put anything on the floor, either. Additionally, the space already has a very distinct aesthetic: as a former mansion dressed in marble, stucco, and elaborate wrought iron, it’s not at all the kind of white-walled gallery that is contemporary art’s normal environment, so it’s difficult to find work that makes sense there visually,” says Feldman.

Sculptor Charles Simonds’ Mental Earth.

In a unique twist and a true testament to NYU’s diverse interdisciplinary educational environment, Feldman and her colleagues at the IFA turned to NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.  

“About a year ago, I received an email from the chair of the Department of Civil and Urban Engineering (CUE), looking for volunteers for engineering support of Charles Simonds’ sculpture,” says J.J. Lou, an adjunct professor in the department. Lou is also a design builder who practices engineering design and analysis, specialty construction on metal and glass, and general construction, and teaches courses such as Wind and Earthquake Engineering, Concrete Structures, and Steel Structures.

“Large-scale artworks present some risks to the viewing public because they need to be properly supported, braced, and/or anchored, while at the same time the support mechanism needs to be efficient and well-blended into the exhibition environment. I love art and based on my experiences working with artists, I felt that I could provide a minimally intrusive way to support the art while addressing the safety concerns. I welcome and enjoy the challenge the design and installation process entails,” he adds.  

Feldman knew that the art exhibition’s success depended on science; specifically, the ability to suspend a 500-pound sculpture from the edge of a second floor balcony without interfering with the building in any way. “It works like a seesaw,” Lou explains. If there is a 500-lb weight on one end, the other end pops up. To anchor that end down, a counter measure is necessary. This counter measure has to be foolproof because any lapse, if only for one instance, will result in disaster,”  he says.

“It has been very interesting to see how Charles [Simonds] and J.J. [Lou] seem to speak the same language—I suppose they both have a special understanding of, not to say a preoccupation with, questions of weight, mass, materials, proportion, and balance,” says Feldman.

The collaboration between artist, organizer, and engineer has been fruitful. When the exhibition opens on April 1, viewers will see nary a trace of the months of engineering discussions and diagrams, and notice only the way the sculpture floats effortlessly in the middle of the Great Hall. The focus, as always intended, will be on Simonds’ work.

“I hope people will come to see the exhibition primarily because exhibitions of Charles’ work are all too rare for such an important and truly original artist,” says Feldman. “Even here in New York City, where Charles has lived and worked since 1969, most people only know his early work, the Dwellings he did out in the streets downtown. But Mental Earth is astounding proof of how his work has continued to evolve, while always remaining true to his early beliefs and ideals. I hope, in short, that the exhibition and the related symposium will catalyze a reevaluation of Charles’s career, so that his important place in art history will be widely recognized.”