July: Public Art on Campus

This month in UT History examines the art placed on campus by The University of Texas organization, Landmarks. In 2008, former UT President William Powers created Landmarks, a group that has access to “1-2 percent of [the funds from] capital improvement projects to acquire public art” for display on the UT-Austin campus. From the funds, Landmarks commissions works of art by nationally noted artists to exhibit alongside new and remodeled buildings. Additionally, Landmarks works closely with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) to present works on campus from the MET’s collection. The MET pieces chosen by Landmarks are contracted on a permanent lease. Landmarks, currently run by art historian Andrée Bober, and The University of Texas Legal Department re-sign a contract every two years with the museum, allowing the university to continue with the permanent lease of the art.[1]

While not thought to be commemorations by many, art — the “conscious use of skill and creative imagination”[2]  — commemorates the artist’s creativity and skill as well as the events that inspired the art itself.

Tower with South Mall in Foreground, 2014. Campus beauty and scenic photos / Tower / Tower during the day, University of Texas Image Relay.

On UT’s campus, art as commemoration has been prominently displayed for decades, however the style of art as well as the process of introducing works into the campus landscape has changed over time. Some of the University’s most recognizable pieces of art — the Confederate statues that previously stood in the campus’s South Mall — were not commissioned or selected by Landmarks. The statues, sculpted in 1933 and removed in 2017, serve as a representation of the process in which art and structures were placed on campus in the past.[3] The statues were commissioned by UT benefactor and Confederate Veteran George Washington Littlefield in his 1920 will. By the terms of the will, the Littlefield Foundation donated $250,000 to the University to fund the design and construction of the statues. This donation set a precedent for donorship encouraging what type of art was featured at UT.[4] In the present day, most art is placed on campus by Landmarks. However, some commemorative art is placed on campus through projects outside of Landmarks’ purview, such as the Contextualization and Commemoration Initiative’s Precursors—We are Texas East Mall Project, which will occupy UT’s East Mall.[5]

There are currently 49 pieces of art, commissioned and borrowed, on UT’s campus, all arranged by Landmarks. Many of these pieces are recognizable as they have become an ingrained part of campus culture. These pieces include Monochrome for Austin (2015) by Nancy Rubins, which UT students often refer to as “the canoes.” It is located in front of the Norman Hackerman building at the northwest corner of 24th Street and Speedway.[6] The Clock Knot (2007) by Mark di Suvero, a large structure made of striking red-painted steel with a structure of multiple extended pieces of metal that “suggest a giant clock face with a horizontal ‘hand’ extending to the left,” is located in front of the Ernest Cockrell School of Engineering at the northeast corner of Dean Keeton Street and Speedway.[7] (Image courtesy of Digital Archive System, the Art & Art History Visual Resources Collection).

The West (1987), by Donald Lipski, is comprised of two spherical structures connected by a small piece of metal. The spheres are made of “Painted steel, corroded copper pennies, and silicone adhesive.” It is located on the east side of Inner Campus drive[8].

Nancy Rubins, Monochrome for Austin, 2015. Digital Archive System, Art & Art History Visual Resources Collection, University of Texas. 

Out of the 49 works of art contracted by Landmarks, four were created by artists of color. These pieces include (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations (2015) by Michael Ray Charles, located in the Gordon-White Building atrium,[9] Prometheus and the Vulture by Koren Der Harootian (1948), located in the Bass Performance Hall,[10] Sentinel IV (2020) by Simone Leigh, located in the courtyard of Anna Hiss Gymnasium,[11] and Amistad América (2018) by José Parlá, located in Robert B. Rowling Hall.[12]

Michael Ray Charles, (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations, 2015. Digital Archive System, Art & Art History Visual Resources Collection, University of Texas.

One of Landmarks’s most infamous pieces on permanent lease is Kingfish: An Homage to Tim Moore (1986) by Peter Reginato, located in the courtyard of the Student Services Building. The title Kingfish refers to the character Kingfish from the television show Amos ‘n’ Andy, which originally ran as a radio show from 1928-1960 and was translated into a tv show from 1951-1953. The radio show, written and performed by two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, depicted two African-American men, Amos and Andy, who move to Chicago in pursuit of better work opportunities. The radio show featured a dynamic group of characters, all of whom were African American characters voiced by Godsen and Correll. One of those characters was George “Kingfish” Stevens, the namesake of Reginato’s piece. In addition to the radio show, Amos ‘n’ Andy was made into a feature film in 1930. In the film, Godsen and Correll reprise their roles as Amos, Andy, and the other characters, all of which were portrayed by the actors in blackface. During the airing of the Amos ‘n’ Andy show from 1951-1953, the show was cast with an all Black cast. Black actor Tim Moore played the character of George “Kingfish” Stevens in the TV adaptation of Amos ‘n’ Andy.

When originally placed on campus, the piece was named Kingfish. In 2019, in order to mitigate controversy surrounding the name of the piece, Reginato changed its name to include “An Homage to Tim Moore,” a reference to the actor who played Kingfish in the TV adaptation of the show.[13] It is now known as Kingfish: An Homage to Tim Moore.  

Landmarks contextualizes the piece’s change of name by saying that the change makes plain the artist’s admiration for the actor and acknowledges that his role was derived from blackface minstrelsy at a time when black actors were exploited to further harmful stereotypes. Reginato’s reference to Moore is a reminder of the entanglements of representation and the capacity for interpretation and understanding to evolve over time.[14]

Landmarks is currently seeking funding to provide further contextualization for the piece. (Image courtesy of Digital Archive System, Art & Art History Visual Resources Collection.)

Our campus is filled with art. This rich landscape deserves to be admired for how these pieces enhance our campus. It is also worthwhile to remember that all material displayed on a curated campus like ours, regardless of their aesthetic value, make statements and carry narratives that claim to reflect our collective values, aspirations, and understandings of the world. It is important to be aware of how we represent ourselves through them.

[1] “About.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/about-landmarks

[2] Merriam Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/art

[3] Mathew Watkins, “UT-Austin removes Confederate statues in the middle of the night.” The Texas Tribune, August 20, 2017. https://www.texastribune.org/2017/08/20/ut-austin-removing-confederate-statues-middle-night/

[4] Vinson, Robert E. “The University Crosses the Bar.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 43, no. 3  (1940): 281–94.

[5] “Precursors—We are Texas East Mall Project.” Contextualization and Commemoration Initiative, The University of Texas at Austin. https://utincontext.la.utexas.edu/our-work/precursors-we-are-texas-east-mall-project/

[6] “Monochrome for Austin.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/monochrome-austin

[7] “Clock Knot.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/clock-knot

[8] “The West.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts.https://landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/west

[9] “(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/forever-free-ideas-languages-and-conversations

[10] “Prometheus and Vulture.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/prometheus-and-vulture

[11] “Sentinel IV.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/sentinel-iv

[12] “Amistad America.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/amistad-am%C3%A9rica

[13] Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amos_%27n%27_Andy

[14] “Kingfish: An Homage to Tim Moore.” Landmarks. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. https://landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/kingfish-homage-tim-moore