I reached out to Professor of Art Molly Nesbit with a simple question: “What is your favorite piece from the Loeb?” Little did I know, her answer would take me from the endless rows of books in the Art Library back to Vassar in the early 1970s.
I began with a quest for her answer: “Twenty Six by Twenty Six,” a collection of works compiled by Vassar Art History students and faculty members born of a one-of-a-kind art exhibition of the same name that came to Vassar in spring 1971. It was a collection of sculptures created by artists from the SoHo area in New York City seeking to expand the boundaries of contemporary sculpture, and it had been featured at the Museum of Modern Art. The sculptures paralleled social movements of the time by altering the ideals of what people perceived to be “public” art. Its unique connection to the natural environment questioned preconceived notions of art. Rather than simply placing the sculptures outside as other exhibitions have, the artists brought nature into the pieces. Some used sticks, beeswax, feathers or water, slowly allowing the materials to decay and reform. Others echoed natural processes with subtle hints of movement and growth. Mary Dellahoyd, curator of the Vassar Art Gallery, the Loeb’s predecessor, explained, “No resurrection of any past artistic premise or forms can be charted, because these artists are in a dialogue with the present, rich in diversity and fluid in definition.”
I started my conversation with Professor Nesbit by asking about her experience seeing this exhibition as a first-year Art History student at Vassar in 1971. She excitedly recalled the buzz around getting such an experimental debut. While many young art students and professors eagerly anticipated the show, Professor Nesbit explained that it upset some people as it broke certain social barriers. However, senior Art History students at Vassar assisted the artists in putting their work in the gallery in late April. At the time, the Loeb Art Center did not exist, so the pieces were placed in Taylor Hall and extended onto the library lawn.
Professor Nesbit recalled the first piece that stood out to her in the gallery: a collection of Lynda Benglis’ polyurethane drips. These seemingly otherworldly creations were formed of wax, latex and foam. As they rolled down the gallery’s stairwells in the gallery and tumbled out the gothic windows, they appeared to mimic the natural world, albeit in an unexpected way through its marriage to the built environment. The works presented natural wonders like the slow drip of beeswax onto a flower petal or sap falling from a tree on a much larger scale. Nesbit remembers these distinctly synthetic, yet eerily natural pieces as a wonder for unsuspecting passersby.
Just beyond the Art Library, a very different artistic creation was taking shape in the same year. Gordon Matta-Clark, an American artist who had been invited to showcase his work on Vassar’s campus, had just ascended one of the trees in front of the chapel. After establishing sets of rope ladders, tree bark swings and various thin, netted cocoons across all parts of the tree, he began the work that would become known as “Tree Dance.” He first declared to the Vassar community that he would be living in the newly established tree for the one month the exhibit was to be showcased. Unsurprisingly, in the eyes of the college administration and insurance, this was an absolute disgrace. They felt that they could not have a free spirit living in a tree on their campus when every other member of the community had proper housing and students were “diligently” studying for their final exams. Professor Nesbit laughed as she explained that the college had also just gone co-ed two years prior in 1969, so the idea of a man living in a tree on campus did not sit well with many people.
It was decided that Matta-Clark would be allowed to climb the tree once after properly placing all of the ropes and accessories. Taking full advantage of this moment, he and some contemporary dancers from Vassar ascended the tree. Together, they performed an elaborate, improvised acrobatic routine, complete with swings, ropes and a live audience that included Professor Nesbit. This whole routine was filmed by Matta-Clark while in the tree, who used the footage to create “Tree Dance,” a 10-minute short film. The video heavily integrated the Vassar campus, synthesizing its natural environment and the students’ creativity and ingenuity. Unfortunately, the tree is no longer here, but the memory still lives on in the film, which can be found on YouTube.
In addition to sculptural art, “Twenty Six by Twenty Six” contains an image of Gordon Matta-Clark’s tree configuration. The black-and-white sketch outlines the hammock in the center with a swing visible on one of the sides. However, we also see more intricate markings with various symbols and designs across the tree branches. They almost appear to be cryptic lettering, with what looks like a key for the various symbols on the upper left hand corner. The sketch is complemented by Matta-Clark’s connection of the piece to the dance, where he explains, “The climbing body keeps going up its movements conquer living space stop waiting—wrapped— suspended…”
Looking around Vassar today, it’s striking how different the campus appears in the film while still remaining recognizable. After concluding my conversation with Professor Nesbit and my search through the pieces in the 1971 art exhibition, I walked home, deep in thought about Vassar’s evolution and grateful for this window to the past.