“Pittsburgh’s sculptures on campus always raise questions. I’m particularly curious about the sculpture hanging from the ceiling in Posvar Hall on the ground floor. I believe it’s supposed to be an interpretation of the city of Pittsburgh? I’d love to know more about it, and are the rivers portrayed?”
Writer/proofreader for academic affairs and international programs in the Health Sciences
It’s not our three rivers but our myriad stars that sculptor Virgil Cantini aimed to represent.
Cantini, who died a decade ago, is definitely big-sculptor-on-campus here at Pitt, with at least 18 pieces around Oakland. Maybe it helped that he founded and was the first chair of our Department of Studio Arts, teaching there for 38 years and retiring in 1989. He won bunches of awards and was named one of the “Hundred Leaders of Tomorrow” by Time magazine in 1953.
“By 1959, Cantini was considered among the most prominent contemporary enamelists, with his work included regularly in New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts exhibitions,” the UTimes obituary said.
Some Cantinis simply sit in the University Art Gallery collection — presumably in storage — but others are hard to miss and harder to misinterpret than the mass of Cor-Ten steel spikes, triangular shapes and glass crystals hanging from the ceiling of Posvar Hall.
One of his more didactic pieces is “Man,” the copper, steel and gold leaf figure striding off the face of the Graduate School of Public Health Building. In Hillman Library, there is a pair of women, one of whom has a lamb, called, inexplicably, “Woman with Lamb”; and “St Sebastian,” which resembles a tree trunk shot with an arrow, commemorating the saint’s death.
Another is right there on a Posvar Hall wall, called “Enlightenment and Joy,” an enamel mosaic of many colors surrounding an orb. It and “Ode to Space,” a metal figure outside of Lawrence Hall, are both tributes to former Chancellor Edward Litchfield. There are other Cantini pieces in the law school, the Chevron Science Center and in downtown Pittsburgh.
Space was apparently Cantini’s first frontier — his go-to theme. The piece hanging above our heads in Posvar is called “Skyscape,” from 1965, says the University’s gallery director, Sylvia Rhor, who also is senior lecturer in the Dietrich School of Arts and Science’s History of Art and Architecture department. Rather than representing water, she says, “given the title, it more likely refers to the constellation or celestial inspiration …”
Would it help your understanding to learn that the piece was commissioned by the Joseph Horne Company, which ran a now-defunct department store chain here? No.
So there you have it: Mystery solved with the offering of another mystery. What does a sculpture about the stars really mean? Who knows? Cynics might find as much meaning in the oddly patterned fluorescent lights hanging above the front entrance of Posvar, just a few dozen feet away. But those are much harder on the eyes.
— Marty Levine
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