Mananaan, 1986

Artist Alexander Liberman (1912- ) created this sculpture out of welded steel. The structure spans 26' x 24'6" x 16'6" in the south quadrangle of the Grainger Engineering Library. It was acquired in 1994 through unrestricted gifts to the university, including the John Needles Chester Fund.

Liberman's aesthetic tastes derive from early twentieth-century Russian Constructivism: a predilection for the non-figurative, architectural, and geometric; for machine-age materials and techniques; for constructed, not modeled or carved, forms; for space as an absolute sculptural element apart from any closed volume; and for a restrictive use of color. His most prominent outdoor sculptures reach great heights (some more than fifty feet) and stand, like architecture, directly in the ground, free of platforms or bases. Raw materials come from a junkfield strewn with old boiler heads, tank drums, steel beams, and giant pipes. Slicing creates diagonal, vertical, and horizontal modules. Diagonal cuts obtain ellipses. Welding unifies the elements, and colors tend toward vivid reds or the un-camouflaged original tones.

He fashioned this strong, architectonic work from five scraps of discarded rusty steel. The elliptical top element serves as a giant oculus, poised amid a tall leaning cylinder, two curving triangles, and a smaller disc that completes the asymmetrical composition. The raw surface, which the artist at one stage considered painting white, has weathered to an extraordinarily rich, deep chocolate brown.

According to Liberman, the sculpture's title comes from James Joyce's Ulysses. Mananaan, the god of the sea in ancient Irish mythology, occurs in the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus as representative of the sea, as a symbol of change. Joyce calls the "whitemaned sea-horses, champing, bright-windbridled, the steeds of Mananaan."

But that ought not be taken literally. Asked once about giving so many of his works evocative or heroic names-Icarus, Prometheus, Totem, Eros, Adonai, Ariel, and Covenant, for instance-the artist confessed that the titles actually meant nothing to him, that everyone today wanted them, that he hated them. "It's like attaching a wooden handle to something that hopefully cannot be pinned down, which is depressing in a way."

It is the idea of the primitive or exalted that interests him, and scale-epic, colossal scale-is crucial. It can inspire terror, domination, or humility, as in a religious experience, and takes into account as well the enormity of American architecture. "Awe is a very important ingredient in art," Liberman has said. "Part of religious experience is terror, a God that punishes. There's terror in scale." Still, he told an interviewer, with some candor, there are practical considerations. "If you're doing so-called public sculpture next to a skyscraper, and you want your work to have at least some meaning, it has to compete with a certain scale. I don' t consider many of my sculptures to be anything other than perhaps decorative ornaments to buildings."

Born in Russia and educated in London and Paris, Liberman moved to New York City in 1941. After joining the staff at Vogue magazine, he was by 1962 editorial director of all Conde Nast publications, one of the most powerful positions in American journalism. He stepped down from that job in April 1994. A painter and sculptor as well as photographer, essayist, and collector, Liberman exhibits widely and has works in many institutions, among them the Seattle Art Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Modem Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Gallery, and the universities of Hawaii, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California (Berkeley), and Connecticut.

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The Engineering Quad is split into four quadrangles. The sculpture can be found in the south quadrangle, across from Grainger Engineering Library.