Friday, November 12, 2010

What's that big sculpture in front of the downtown library?

It's a hammered copper sculpture by artist O. V. Shaffer called Hieroglyph , and this is a detail. Located in the courtyard at the entrance of the Madison Public Library downtown, it's always been one of my favorite works of public art in Madison. In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal in 1964, the artist talked about his work:
The sculpture attempts to symbolize the timelessness of knowledge and suggest the mysterious quietude of a seeking spirit. It is as though the past and the future of mankind were contained within these 'walls.'

A large undeciphered form looms flat and bold as one approaches from the steps, even tipping slightly forward as he walks beside it. On either side, a large crevice opens up, suggesting the canyon walls and caves upon which man has recorded in painting and hieroglyphics a part of what he knew.

The side facing the window wall is reminiscent of pillars and curved capitals or monuments, implying another kind of knowledge. Moving between these two forms is a figure which seems to become a part of the sculpture.

On the other side, another figure appears to emerge from an opening, yet it is also a fragment or frieze, symbolic of the 'voices of silence' which come down to us from past civilizations and still 'speak.'
Does the sculpture communicate all this to the average visitor? Perhaps not, but I'm fond of it.

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