Part of what arslocii tries to explore and understand is how art should be seen, and where, and in what context – how the art and the site interact, and contribute power to each other, and are so integrated and complementary that they become one. As we wrote on our arslocii website, these are places “where the meaningful placement of architecture, art and/or designed landscape in their environment results in a singular and wholly formed work whose parts are inseparable, producing a heightened creative unity – in other words, a ‘placeness.’ ”
Recently, we made a quest to find the “missing” sculpture collection of Philip and Muriel Berman, of Allentown, Pennsylvania. We did so because we had been witnesses to the growth of their assemblage of works, and despite our having no connection to the couple, we felt a kind of kinship with them and their collecting history. Collectors sometimes have a good eye and amass powerful examples of artwork from their own place in time, or a previous time period, the collections becoming representative of meaningful style or thought rendered for the ages. And when collections consist of large-scale sculpture, finding appropriate “resting places” is a difficult task.
We lived in Allentown for a couple of years in the first half of the 1980s (likely an acquisition heyday for the Bermans) and there was no way to avoid their influence on the landscape of the town. For a small, formerly industrialized Pennsylvania burg, it sure had a lot of public art scattered in and around its dying, if not dead, downtown. It was, we learned, put there by the Bermans. Once we even peered over the fence of their home’s backyard, a sort of suburban mini sculpture park, and recognized artworks similar to those dotting sites in the center of town. We made a connection, there and then that, based on what we were seeing, this private art was the source of all the public art. At that time, the artworks were plunked down in front of commercial structures, the works having no particular relationship to their sites, other than there being a space available.
A few years later, living in New Brunswick, New Jersey, we spied an oddly familiar-looking piece of art sitting on the grounds near the Rutgers campus art museum. “The Bermans,” we said to each other. And, sure enough, it was put there by them. In fact, the more places we went in the Lehigh Valley and its surrounds, the mark of the Bermans’ hand extended and greeted us nearly everywhere. We started to feel, regrettably, that we were recognizing the collector more than the artist and how, oddly, the donor’s nameplate tended to be larger on the works than the artist’s. (Although, let it be said, they knew what they liked – even if others didn’t – and they were incredibly loyal patrons of those artists who interested them.)
A couple of decades passed and, every now and then we would think about the Berman sculpture collection, and wonder where all those public and private pieces were now. We did some research and discovered that the couple apparently had given their acquisitions to the Lehigh Valley Hospital, incorporating the works into the grounds in a kind of institutionalized sculpture park within an office-park setting. Maybe they had in mind a mini PepsiCo, since they probably had a stake in the growth of the hospital anyway. It’s funny that they didn’t try something of that nature at the family money’s headquarters, Fleetway Trucking. But, then again, maybe not.
In 2009 we decided it was worth a trip back to our past to see the artworks in this strange new environment. The hospital, situated on a place-lacking lifeless tract between a six-lane highway and an interstate, had less appeal even than a commercial campus or a mall, it did not have promise and, as it turned out, it did not have sculpture either. We looked everywhere but found no sculpture.
In a third-party listing on the web (since there was no proprietary Berman website), it stated, “The Philip and Muriel Berman Sculpture Park features 35 permanent works on 118-acres of scenic land. This is the nation’s largest exhibit of outdoor art at a healthcare facility.” We looked everywhere. No art. (No “scenic land,” either.) Maybe that is why the web listing also says, “There are currently no photos for Philip and Muriel Berman Sculpture Park.”
A year later, we heard that the Berman collection had found a home – for very big and heavy things, they move around a lot – at Ursinus College, a small, private, liberal-arts school in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and decided to have one more go. It’s a pretty campus that sits on hilly terrain, creating real possibilities for art in site. The Bermans obviously made a significant endowment, since the school’s art museum, now bearing their names, is front and center. The Berman Museum of Art building is a combination of an older stone structure and modern additions; from the lawn it looks as if the original structure has been bound and gagged by the addition, and is peering out, wide-eyed, above its restraints. The sculptures that aren’t placed upon a raised courtyard atop the new addition are scattered about the broad lawns. And “scatter” is the word, since the works are largely plopped into empty wedges of space not useful for much else.
Of many bad positionings, one of particular note is Robert Indiana’s “LOVE,” an icon that we – and millions of others – know well from its placement in a park near Philadelphia’s City Hall. The clone at Ursinus is situated outside the entrance to the student center and bookstore, with the readable side facing toward the building. All the potential views from every other place on campus are of the sculpture’s back side; in other words, from every place except the student center, the sculpture reads:
And unless the work is actually a tribute to the British government’s Office of Low Emission Vehicles, or to a certain class of Estonian mine-laying battleships, this backwards orientation simply reads all wrong. Going inside the building for a better look, it becomes apparent, moreover, that the artwork sits in a gully and, so, even from its front side the piece is cut off at the knees.
Beyond that piece, it is a revelation just how much work by Lynn Chadwick the Bermans accumulated in their lifetimes; perhaps 75 percent of the entire collection at Ursinus is by him. The works are that kind of dated-looking modern art: sort of cubist, sort of abstract, geometricized, with a surrealistic sensibility. One of his works, though, seemed particularly well-considered and well-placed. “Couple on a Seat” is two figures, one of each gender, together but apart on a bench atop a long slope, framed by some nearly ivy-league-style stone buildings. Wearing some sort of robes that resemble graduation garb, their blank geometric-solid heads stare out into the world. A perfect metaphor in bronze for college grads gazing into the void and at the future, out and away from the campus. And in this one instance, there is a meaningful pairing of the art with its environment. Finally we found the Berman collection. And, happily, there is a brief encounter with arslocii.