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The Thel Controversy

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Updates   01.29.2005   The Thel controvsersy was covered by Jessica Spradling in "Dartmouth's sculptures provoke intense reactions, debate" (30 March 2004).

04.04.2004   One scholar argues for a positive response to Thel in the Leslie Center's "Sculpture and its Publics," November 2003 through May 2004.

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1. View of Thel to south (author).


Hood Museum catalog

2. View of Thel to northeast.


3. Quadrangle formed by Steele and Wilder, site of Thel (postcard).


4. Locator map showing site of Thel (author).


5. Aerial view of Thel (Terraserver).


1 Rosalind E. Krauss, Beverly Pepper: Sculpture in Place (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), 93. See also biography and critical essays from Artsystem.

2 Ibid., 163.

3 Jan van der Marck, Art Journal 37, No. 3 (Spring 1978), 248. Jan van der Marck, "Looking back on Four Years," Acquisitions 1974-1978 (Hanover: Dartmouth College Museum and Galleries, 1979), 26.

4 Sam Hunter, [untitled essay in exhibition catalog], Beverly Pepper in Todi, 1979, 51.

5 Todi, 42. Beverly Pepper in Todi [exhibition catalog] (1979), 41-43. Krauss, 84.

6 van der Marck 1978, 249 and 1979, 26.

7 Hunter, 54.

8 Michael Geilich, letter to the editor, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 92, no 4 (December 1999), 4. Krauss, 93.

9Thel's Motto

Does the Eagle know what is in the pit,
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?
      -William Blake, engraved 1789

Heading of Chapter 16 of the Book of Thel reproduced at Bibliomania.

10 Noel Perrin, "Artists 22, Philistines 14," Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 92, No. 2 (October 1999), 18.


Arrival:   Thel (1977) is a jagged, tumbling triangular sculpture of white-enameled steel that Beverly Pepper created for Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (Figs. 1, 2). The work occupies a depression in the open-ended quadrangle flanked by Steele and Wheeler Halls and defined by College Street on the west and Wilder Hall on the east (Figs. 3, 4, 5). Rosalind Krauss, in her 1986 book on Pepper's work, describes Thel as

an earth sculpture that rose above and tunneled through a one-hundred-thirty-five foot sweep of ground at Dartmouth College. The "inside" to which these grounded pyramidal volumes related as container to contained was, as in the case of the other horizontal works, the inside of the field: a spread and immensity that cannot be contained. But one of the elements, the largest (rising twelve feet), turned its back to the earth to reveal its own inner fabric: its web of white metal mesh.1

Jan van der Marck organized the traveling exhibition that Pepper (1924-) mounted in 1969, her first. Van der Marck was the director of the Dartmouth Museum and Galleries at the time the College sought out Pepper.2

In the beginning of 1975, a committee in charge of commissioning a sculpture for the campus considered a number of different artists, finally selecting Pepper. The sculptor presented her ideas in February of 1976 and executed the sculpture in September of 1977. In an episode reminiscent of the film This is Spinal Tap, the scale of Pepper's work turned out to be completely different from that of her initial model -- in this case not smaller, but 100 feet longer than expected, or 135 feet long in total. Perhaps given little choice, the school thanked the artist graciously and accepted this "result of her personal generosity and ambition." Mrs. Walter F. Mondale came to the campus to dedicate the sculpture on May 24, 1978.3

Thel is one of a series of similarly jagged 1970s works that allowed Pepper to explore the shape of the triangle, described by an admirer as "dour and assertive Cor-Ten geometries on a monumental scale." Another work in the group is Phaedrus (1974-76), "a large triangular mass the size of a small building, pierced by an off-center triangular opening, poised precariously and cantilevered out over Independence Mall before the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank."4 Others include Sudden Presence (1971) at Boston City Hall and Excalibur (1975-76) at the San Diego Federal Building. The work most similar to Dartmouth's is Dallas Land Canal and Hillside (1971-75), a familiar form made of dark steel and laid out along the flat median strip of an asphalt road.5

Reactions to Thel varied. Positive response came from the art community, with some comparing the work to Caspar David Friedrich's 1924 painting The Polar Sea; a comet and its tail;6 a New England church; an outcropping of granite;7 a tensegrity roof; an arrow viewed from above; the wing of an airplane;8 an airplane crash; and winter snow. (The last comparison naturally makes the sculpture treacherous in the presence of actual snow.) No connection seems to have emerged between the work and the Thel figure in the poetry of William Blake.9 Other reactions, including those of many who wrote letters to the editor of the student paper, tended toward the mocking. Such attitudes continue, as Professor Noel Perrin demonstrated in a 1999 Dartmouth Alumni Magazine column:

Thel is that line of progressively larger pyramids -- well, sort of pyramids -- in front of the Fairchild Science Center. They're white, pointy, and silly. The biggest of them is a sort of tipi as well as a sort of leaning pyramid. It is possible to get in the tipi. But I have never seen a student do this, if only because it's so ugly in there.10

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11 National Endowment for the Arts, 1975 Annual Report (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1976).

12 van der Marck 1978, 248.

13 Ibid., 249.

14 Ibid., 248-50.

15 Hunter, 54.

16 van der Marck 1978, 249. Mary Blume, in "Heavy Metal: Sculptures as Great as All Outdoors," International Herald Tribune (22 May 1999) explained it thus, quoting Pepper about the need for diplomacy: "'It was in the place where kids went to neck. It was the years of playing democracy with students so I had to come and explain to them my territorial invasion. So I remember saying, 'Don't think of these elements that go in and out of the ground as sculptures, why don't you just think that I'm giving you deck chairs, a place to sit?' The students were won over."

17 Ibid.

18 Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 508-11.


Modern Art:   The arrival of Thel at Dartmouth is an example of the tastemaking function of foundations and the role they played in promoting modernist design in the postwar United States. The funds for the sculpture came from the remainder of the Fairchild Foundation grant that had funded the Fairchild Center for the Physical Sciences (1972-74, SBRA) the building before which Thel stands. The National Endowment for the Arts also contributed a grant of $20,000 that was meant to expose the public to contemporary sculpture.11 Both foundations approved of the choice of Pepper when the school selected her.

The familiar barren corporate plaza containing a pompously-named heap of metal is the most common urban example of this new attitude toward art. Implicit in this attitude is the idea that art is separable from architecture, and that it must be dropped nearby to elevate the tone of the building. In the form of specially-commissioned monumental works from well-known abstract sculptors, art was practically mandated to accompany new buildings. The earlier practice of incorporating artists' work into a building's fabric through stained glass, carved stone, decorative tile, and painted frescoes seemed no longer feasible. Thus the "One Percent For Art" movement believes that government will not include art in a building unless it is required by law.

In fact three other works at Dartmouth drew on the Fairchild money without the controversy of Thel, as van der Marck notes.12 The other works are D2D, the bronze Charles Perry work on the Fairchild steps, a globe inside the building, and the Foucault's Pendulum inside the entrance to the tower.

Monumental outdoor sculpture such as Thel (and Mark di Suvero's unpopular X-Delta), however, did cause controversy at Dartmouth. Director van der Marck seems to have become embittered. His writing transmits a certain haughtiness, in particular a disdain for students. He notes students' reluctance to give up a favored spot for barbecuing and sunbathing. "Grass is sacred at Dartmouth" he writes.13 (Another theme is a hostility toward the existing campus buildings and a presumption of the superiority of modern art, as he calls Baker Library "pseudo-Georgian" and describes the new sculptures by famous artists as "the real thing.") Since good art cannot be popular, the reaction to Thel showed that "the idea was sinking in."14

Looking back, one must ask whether works such as Thel really are all that successful, and whether their condemnation by philistines makes them good art. The passing of time makes Thel look dated; now that the initial excitement has fallen flat, Pepper's minimalism or "reductive formula"15 smacks more of impoverishment then cleverness. Even van der Marck admits that Thel looks like "a beached whale." And yet he claims that Pepper

respected residents' feelings by making her sculpture gracefully slender with each pyramid thrust into the lawn like a blade and by covering one side of each element with sod. So little free space has been "taken away" that Beverly Pepper was right in telling students (and found herself widely quoted later): "I did not rob you of your beach [the popular name for Wheeler's lawn], I gave you deckchairs instead."16

"Is this space improved by this sculpture?"

Deckchairs perhaps, but would students sit on them if they were permitted? (Van der Marck, confusing sculpture and furniture, claims that "Spontaneous use is often the most eloquent sign of approval" and notes that students did initially lounge on Thel.)17

Neither Pepper nor van der Marck recognizes that the sculpture's site was more than grass, that it was an urban space. The only thing Thel destroyed was decadence or leisure, which those lazy students and all future generations probably deserved, right? While reveling in the violence the work implies, van der Marck evaluates Thel's urbanism in terms that are remarkable for their narrowness: by concentrating on the square footage, he ignores the space itself -- a coarse assessment from one who should have a sophisticated vocabulary for assessing the effects of art on its viewers. Theorist and architect Christopher Alexander, who might be said to promote concepts of urbanism and humaneness but not "art" for its own sake, might now ask: is this space improved by this sculpture?18 The answer is no.

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19 Hunter, 49.

20 Michael Dennis, "On Campus Design and Planning," Modulus 23 (1995), 108-27. Stefanos Polyzoides, "On Campus-Making in America," Moore Ruble Yudell: Campus and Community (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 11-16.

Adjacent quad

6. Quadrangle on opposite side of Wheeler Hall (author).

Adjacent quad

7. Quadrangle on opposite side of Wheeler Hall (postcard).


Poor Judgment:   Thel is a long steel archipelago, arrayed as if to command as much of its quadrangle as possible. The sculpture forms a jagged barrier that is less reminiscent of New England churches than of the cubist tank traps that prickled the Normandy coast in the 1940s. Thel and the ditch in which it lies hamper pedestrian traffic on the most direct pedestrian route to the science center from the center of campus. More importantly, Thel projects a certain psychological aggression: one might go so far as to call its occupation egotistical, isolating, and menacing. Passers-by feel discomfited, wondering instinctively whether the sculpture's edges are dangerous to touch.

Aesthetic misgivings or questions of mere taste are different from urbanistic judgments, and Thel bears an architectural importance quite apart from the vagaries of fashion or periodic swings in assessments of Pepper's craft. Every sculpture alters the site it occupies, and a site-specific work like Thel is meant to change its context. Sculpture in open spaces surrounded by buildings, however, also has a spatial responsibility, one that paintings or even sculptures in sculpture gardens do not. Here sculpture approaches architecture's ancient mandate of commodity, firmness and delight. Most of the people who use this space did not come to see art, and if sculptures like Thel do not face the responsibility of being as commodious as a building must, they have a duty at least to not be incommodious.

Thel's site is urban and civic. It is not a pastoral scene or a corporate "campus" in the suburbs or a mere expanse of grass, as are the sites of some other Pepper works. Though not as heavily criscrossed as the Green, the site still is a carefully formed urban vessel that people use intensively. The site has been an architect-designed space since the late 1800s, when it was conceived of as part of the Terrace, a series of newly-graded three-sided quads stretching from Rollins Chapel northward to the old Medical School, the site now occupied by the rear of Fairchild. This was the third in the series of four quadrangles that started with Dartmouth Row. And Thel stabs at the space: to envision how much more pleasant and useful this space might be without Thel and the road, one need only look at the mirror-image space on the other side of Wheeler (Figs. 6, 7). This quad is pleasant and accessible, crossed by gravel paths; the first rent by an impassible steel serration. Thel's space need not be like every other on the campus, but neither should it be a failure.

"Thel's failure stems from Pepper's vision of the campus as landscaping."

By contrast, Pepper created a series of "monumental iron totems"19 in the main square of Todi, Italy, a setting that surrounds and accepts the sculptures. The impressive works are able to be contemporary and expresssive of Pepper's method while remaining powerfully infused with a sense of ritual and primitivism. They must remind observers of the history of the square, marking its ancient centrality as public gathering space while connecting the square with the historic local iron industry. Why can this European space accept Pepper's sculpture as just one more layer in its many layers of history, while the newer campus cannot? Is it simply because Todi is older? Or is it because of the works themselves, the way they respond to the verticality of the nearby buildings, the way their menace comes from mass rather than sharpness, the way they avoid hindering movement and invite the touch of passersby? Thel's failure stems from the fact that, unlike the urban ensemble of Todi, it is based on Pepper's vision of the campus as landscaping, little more than grass. That misunderstanding underestimates the campus, a place that is inherently urban even if tinged with verdancy.20 At Dartmouth, Pepper was attempting an environmental construction in what is fundamentally an urban space, and that space unfortunately continues to suffer for her experiment.

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21 Krauss, 92.

21 Richard Serra, "'Tilted Arc' Destroyed," Art in America 77, No. 5 (May 1989), 43.

22 Ibid.

23 Michelle Gregg, "Objet D'Artmouth: Those Triangle Things," Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 90, no. 9 (June 1998), 13.


Solution:   What is the solution? The groundswell of popular opinion against Thel has not transformed into a campaign to remove it. Ideas are floating about, however. The Office of Facilities Planning, the College's architects, have considered removing Thel. There is the precedent of Mark di Suvero's 1970 X-Delta, which the College deemed inappropriate in its original Sanborn lawn site and moved to a nook of the Hop Courtyard. Some say the College should sell Thel, as Perrin writes: "In my opinion we should thel it." Surely some friendly local sculpture park could adopt the work. This is an impressive sculpture, showing Pepper's great skill, and it clearly it belongs somewhere. Seeing a photo of Thel in progress in the artist's Italian studio,21 looking like some great shadowy Nautilus submarine or stealth fighter, is impressive, if only for the work's great size. To assuage the College's guilt over having purchased this piece and then uprooted it, a nearby art collector or alumnus could buy the sculpture and provide it with a private home.

Is Thel meant to go somewhere, just not here, or is it actually just so much scrap metal? The work is so ingrained, so burrowed, so specific that transplanting it seems difficult. Here one can learn from the controversial 1989 destruction of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (1979-81) in Federal Plaza in Manhattan. In that case it became clear that to remove the sculpture was to destroy it.

The thought of actually destroying Thel brings up two points. First, that the reactions to the Tilted Arc destruction should not prevent the College from doing the same to Thel. In the New York case, the courts determined that removal was acceptable because the government owned the work and was allowed to do its best to make the plaza hospitable for federal workers. Since the government had requested and paid for the work, it was the government's "speech" to do with as it pleased.22 Free speech is even less relevant at Dartmouth, since Thel is a piece of private property and lies on private land, which makes one wonder how a sculpture the NEA funded for a "public place" got there in the first place. Naturally the patron has a responsibility when receiving a gift of artwork to preserve the artist's vision, and destruction would be disrespectful to Pepper -- but perhaps not as disrespectful as that which the work has inflicted over more than three decades.

"In the life of the institution, Thel must be counted a temporary work."

The second point is that nature already is destroying the work. Thel is rusting and stands in need of paint more often than not. Steel decays, especially when placed in the ground, and there is little anyone can do about it. Wind-blown trash, grimy unmelted snow and rotting leaves gather in the lee of the pyramids, and Thel is already much less the impressively pristine object that it was originally. It has lost its crispness, and its turf is perpetually scabbing away; Hood Museum Director Timothy Rub acknowledges that Thel may have to be destroyed once it requires major repair work.23 In the life of the institution, Thel must be counted a temporary work. Would it be better to put it out of its misery now, to prevent it from being any more of a has-been?

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Reader Opinions

11.21.02 Karim Nehdi '05 writes:

I will preface my comments by saying that I am of a school that is not unilaterally opposed to the modernization of the Dartmouth campus, though I feel that deviations from a common theme must remain within certain bounds to maintain the school's architectural "tradition" in line with the preservation of Dartmouth's "traditional" feel and atmosphere. As for the sculpture, I assert that it is among the worst adjuncts to the campus. Its only practical purpose is as an eyesore, perhaps to divert attention to surrounding buildings that have actual artistic merit. My first impression, one that stuck with me nearly every day of my freshman year as I walked from the Fayerweather cluster to Baker Library and classes, was that of a wrecked Concorde jet. As such, I agree whole-heartedly with the analysis of the piece on your site, especially that it should be no more than a temporary piece in the history of the institution.

10.27.99 Jonathan Good '94 writes:

I always thought Thel was modernism at its arrogant worst. It is as if the artist is saying, "My creative genius is more important than 1. aesthetic consideration for anything else in the area, 2. anyone's use of the space (not only does it block paths, as you note, one is not even allowed to climb on it ["Please keep off sculpture"]), and 3. even considerations of quality," as the thing has to be repainted every so often. (One could argue that the decision to repaint it is a political one, and the sculpture should, as part of the artistic process, be allowed to age with time, but some things simply don't age gracefully, especially things that were originally conceived to represent modernity and The Future. A modernist temple of glass and steel and concrete in a state of disrepair is a pathetic sight.) Let us conceive of it as a 25-year work of performance art and uproot it.

Register your opinion on Thel and its fate.


©1999 Scott Meacham
Created Oct 10 1999

URL: www.dartmo.com/thel/index.html