In 1948, Harvard University commissioned the Cambridge architecture firm The Architects Collaborative to design the Harvard Graduate Center, a complex of seven dormitories and a student center. It opened two years later to international acclaim as the first example of modernist architecture on campus.
The complex was the first major American project by its lead architect, Bauhaus founder and Harvard architecture chair Walter Gropius. Not limiting his modernism to the building’s design, Gropius raised additional funds to commission site-specific art for the center’s public spaces from leading modern artists, including former Bauhaus colleagues Josef Albers and Herbert Bayer, American sculptor Richard Lippold, and Spanish painter Joan Miró. Hans Arp, a founder of Zurich Dada and an outspoken advocate of abstract art in the immediate postwar years, contributed the room-sized relief Constellations to the project.
Over the past year, Arp’s Harvard relief has been the focus of a conservation and research initiative that has reconstructed its physical history and uncovered decades of correspondence between Gropius and Arp. These new findings informed a historically accurate restoration of the relief that re-creates its original finish, the results of which will be unveiled in the exhibition Hans Arp’s Constellations II opening in February 2019. This research has revealed previously undiscovered facets of this fascinating object and its rich history.
The Commission and Design
Gropius and Arp had never met but shared a mutual friend in architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, who recommended Arp for the commission. All three were active with the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM), a gathering of modern architects whose debates about the role of art in architecture informed Gropius’s decision to commission art for the Graduate Center. Giedion and Arp co-authored an influential statement on the integration of art and architecture for CIAM in 1938 and were revising it when Gropius approached Giedion for recommendations.
Arp’s sophisticated ideas about designing site-specific art for modernist interiors made him an enthusiastic commission partner. But the project’s small budget meant Arp had to prepare his designs from his cramped studio in France without access to the site, a dormitory recreation room. Gropius sent Arp architectural plans and photographs of the space; in return, Arp reluctantly submitted multiple designs of his relief accompanied by more questions about the interior. Gropius’s feedback prompted a new round of designs (now in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums).
Despite receiving official approval from Harvard’s governing board, both Arp and Gropius were increasingly dissatisfied with the final design. Gropius wondered if a recreation room housing a ping-pong table was an appropriate site for the relief; Arp regretted recycling forms from a 1930s sketch. In addition, a major underwriter disliked Arp’s design and threatened to withdraw funding. In May 1950, Arp ended the speculation by traveling to Cambridge at his own expense to see the space in person. Once there, he, Gropius, and Giedion chose a new location for the work: in a student center dining room near mural paintings by Miró and Bayer. Arp created a design on the spot and provided instructions for its manufacture. The wall-mounted forms, fabricated locally by the George A. Fuller construction company from planks of redwood, were installed in time for the building’s dedication ceremony on October 6, 1950.
A Sequence of Installations and Transformations
Constellations originally occupied the two side walls of a square dining room with a large window overlooking the tree-filled space at the heart of the Graduate Center. The prominence of wood in the dining room—from the redwood forms to the dark wood paneling on which they hung—opened the interior to its natural surroundings. The relief’s forms ranged in size from a dinner plate to a table top and formed patterns suggesting hidden affinities: in archival photos, one small form breaks off from its larger neighbor like an island from a prehistoric continental land mass. Arp created this effect through his skillful arrangement of the voids between the forms, a process he described as an act of “constellation.” It suggests that these spaces are as important as the forms’ angular contours. By installing the relief across facing walls, Arp immersed diners in the midst of his sculptural constellation.
These diners soon posed a new challenge. After only a year, Gropius observed damage to the delicate wooden forms caused by the dining room’s heavy use. Parts of the relief hanging below table level, in particular, were exposed to impacts from furniture and feet. Only a drastic change to the relief would ensure its future safety. Gropius began a multiyear negotiation that pitted his desire to minimize changes to the dining room against Arp’s proposals for an elaborate redesign involving multiple paint colors. Their exchange became tense at times, and consensus was reached only when Arp again traveled to Cambridge in 1957 to view the work in person. The new arrangement, titled Constellations II and executed in 1958, moved all the forms to the top half of the walls, requiring the removal of two small forms, now lost, and the separation of one large form into two smaller ones. Gropius ultimately conceded to Arp’s persistent request to paint the forms in a “light gray-blue,” as demonstrated by evidence of blue paint drips on the reverse of the forms.
Cross-section analysis of the paint (in which a microscopic sample is taken in order to look at the layers that make up the painted surface) revealed that two different colors of blue were applied in succession: a lighter shade reminiscent of robin’s-egg blue and a darker, greener shade close to teal. It is unclear why two different colors of blue were applied or how much influence Arp had in the color change. The later, green-blue color was likely considered a finished surface because the cross-section indicates that a layer of varnish was applied over it.
Following the major reinstallation in 1958, the surface of the forms continued to be manipulated for the next several years. Archival images show that, by 1964, the forms had been painted again, this time white. Two layers of white paint were observed, and the thin layer of varnish present between them suggests they were applied as separate painting campaigns. This evidence corresponds to photographs from Harvard Law School yearbooks, which first show white forms on natural walls and later show the repainted white forms on white walls.
These changes from the late 1960s occurred around the time of Arp’s death in 1966 and Gropius’s in 1969; no documentation survives explaining who made these decisions or carried out the work. The surface alteration continued and, by 1975, the forms had been partially stripped of their paint, exposing the wood substrate below. At this point, a red transparent coating was partially applied to some of the forms in what was likely an attempt to recover their original redwood appearance. However, this campaign was never completed and the partially stripped, partially coated panels were eventually covered with several layers of protective clear coatings that froze them in this unresolved state for 40 years.
Concern over the relief’s condition and a building renovation prompted the permanent removal of Constellations II in 2004 as well as its eventual transfer to the collection of the Busch-Reisinger Museum. At that time, very little was known about the relief’s many transformations. This was remarkable given the importance of Constellations in Arp’s practice: his first site-specific relief, it led to high-profile architectural commissions for Venezuela’s University of Caracas and UNESCO’s Paris headquarters (titled Constellation UNESCO, 1960). The findings from the recent yearlong research initiative show how Arp’s Harvard relief emerged from a complex set of ideas about the role of art and architecture that continued to transform its physical appearance long after the artist’s death.
The exhibition Hans Arp’s Constellations II will be on view at the Harvard Art Museums in the University Research Gallery on Level 3 from February 8 to July 28, 2019.
Madeline Corona is an objects conservation fellow in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and Melissa Venator is the Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, at the Harvard Art Museums.