Rachel D. Goldstein, W’22
Throughout the University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia campus, there are many monuments and public art pieces from a variety of different artists, installed during different eras of the University’s history. One de facto monument, which has been a staple of the campus landscape for nearly five decades, is We Lost, by sculptor-painter Tony Smith. This steel structure has fascinated and frustrated residents of Penn’s campus, who engage with it daily, yet have never truly understood it as the artist intended. Rather, the cubic 10’6” x 10’6” piece, defined by severe edges and flat surfaces, has been the subject of misunderstandings, contestations, and controversies during its tenure at the University.
Tony Smith, a native of Newark, New Jersey, was born in 1912 (Smith Estate, 2021). The child of Irish factory workers, Smith was inspired by industrial design from a young age. In 1932, Smith visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and, being inspired by an exhibit about the International Style of architecture, he began to paint a series focused on modular structures (Smith Estate, 2021). Following this series of paintings, Smith moved to Chicago to formally study architecture at the New Bauhaus school. Smith’s career was varied and included projects such as building a chicken coop, designing a house for Laurence Cuneo and Theodore van Fossen, and teaching at the University of Vermont. In 1961, Smith was injured in a severe car accident and subsequently developed polycythemia, a rare blood condition. While Smith was in recovery, he began to study the design of cubes, and began building small modular objects that he could easily examine with his hands. These initial designs took the form of drawings, as well as miniature sculptures and paintings (Smith Estate, 2021).
In 1962, Smith had fully recovered from his accident and began construction of a series of steel sculptures. The first, made at Hunter College in New York, was titled Black Box (Duffy, 2002). During this era, Smith began construction of the 10-foot cubic steel sculpture that would eventually find its home at Penn (Art at Penn, 2019). Smith sculpted this piece alongside the others to explore the geometric shape of a cube. Four years later, in 1966, We Lost was completed and exhibited at Smith’s first-ever solo show, “Tony Smith: Two Exhibitions of Sculpture at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia” (Duffy, 2002). For this exhibition, admired by his famous friends, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, Smith was dubbed “one of the best-known unknowns in American art” (Wagstraff, 1967).
The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia is located next to two University of Pennsylvania dormitories and two blocks from the center of campus. The location of this initial exhibit put Smith in direct contact with the University for the first time and led to Penn purchasing this piece within the same year (Smith Estate, 2021).
In 1967, We Lost was acquired by the University of Pennsylvania and placed into storage for the next seven years. A Daily Pennsylvanian article from October 15, 1969, discussed how students had urged the Faculty Senate to meet and “resolve its position vis-a-vis the Wolf report, which calls on the University as an institution to take a stand against the war in Vietnam” (Daily Pennsylvanian, 1969). The Daily Pennsylvanian, a student-run newspaper, chronicled the different opinions of students, as well as varying placements, of We Lost throughout its tenure at the University. The Daily Pennsylvanian explained that in the Wolf Report—a highly controversial report generated by students in the Committee on the Goals of Higher Education—asked faculty to “call for the immediate withdrawal of all American forces from that country” and “lower its flags to half- staff and condemn the Vietnam War” (Price, 1969). The University did not comply with the demands of the Wolf Report and made no direct commentary nor stance on the Vietnam War.
The University’s hesitance to take a side in the Vietnam War could explain why the statue was kept in storage between its acquisition by the University in 1967 and its placement in 1975, which is coincidentally the same year that the war concluded. There is little information regarding the statue’s whereabouts for the intermittent seven years between the exhibition and its installation on campus.
In 1975, We Lost finally arrived on campus amidst great controversy and was placed on College Green, one block south of its original placement in the Institute of Contemporary Art (Grant, 1975). In 1975, following winter break, students returned to campus to find that “fine art came to College Hall Green on a flatbed truck” (Grant, 1975). Students described the piece as being added “in the dark of night” and having left students “baffled” (Small, 1975). Further criticism included describing the piece as “a huge mass of black steel that takes up precious grass in the College Hall Green” (Murphy, 1975).
From its first day on campus, We Lost was met with resistance and consternation from students. Peter Grant, a writer for the Daily Pennsylvanian, reported that the piece was “worth its weight in controversy” and that students proclaimed, “Dare they think we would like it?” (Menaker, 1975). Due to its installment on the University’s campus at the end of the Vietnam War, following years of protests on the campus, many students misconstrued its title and Penn’s purchase of this piece as a long-overdue commentary on the Vietnam War (Menaker, 1975). In reality, Smith’s naming of the piece was more of a self-reflection on his artistic process and his own inability to form the cubic shape in a unique manner for several years (Art at Penn, 2019). Likely due to the University’s refusal to take a stance on the Vietnam War, students sought meaning in this piece of art. The installation of a piece titled We Lost at the same time that the Vietnam War concluded appeared to many students as the University’s somewhat subverted and lackluster way of denouncing the war, after years of students asking for a formal denouncement.
Further, We Lost‘s original placement in a prominent campus location made it a notable addition that students from all different years and programs at the University interacted with daily. Art history professor John McCoubrey described his surprise regarding the siting of the sculpture: “It’s not the site at which it thought it would be placed. There were other suggestions but the sculptor chose the site” (Rosenthal, 1982). Smith toured the University’s campus and decided that College Green was the appropriate location “after inspecting various places” (Rosenthal, 1982).
The confusion surrounding We Lost extended beyond its name and beyond the University’s students and faculty to local Philadelphians. One local workman stated, “I don’t know what it is. For all I know the thing’s upside down” (Grant, 1975). Others wrote that they “feared that Philadelphia could soon be overwhelmed by “We Lost”s (Small, 1975). The Daily Pennsylvanian archives contains few other accounts pertaining to the judgements about the work’s aesthetic qualities. More recently, a member of the campus community described the construction, formed by two inverted U-shapes connected at the base, as “a giant set of metal bookends” (Penn Today, 2011).
Beyond the misunderstandings related to the artistic elements, the sculpture was scorned amongst students due to its purchase price. The piece cost $40,000 in 1967 (approximately $200,000 today) and was a part of the University’s fulfillment of a $500,000 art investment mandated by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (Grant, 1975). The University had to follow a “Philadelphia ordinance to spend one per cent of all expenditures for city-assisted construction on the purchase of art” (Murphy, 1975). This ordinance, still in force today, requires all “developers to contribute 1% of their development investment in public arts” (Crimmins, 2019). The installation of this piece came at a time of financial difficulty for the University: Penn was facing a “$1.2 million dollar budget deficit annually” and was enacting drastic measures, including the purchase of a Las Vegas Casino (intended to be renamed Wharton West) to offset this massive deficit (Levine, 1975). The outrage pertaining to the cost of this piece was exacerbated in winter of 1975, when students returned to campus to “the announcement of a 14 per cent increase in student housing rents” (Menaker, 1975). Students during the 1970s believed that “the majority of art on campus or around town is the result of this legislation” and that “none of these pieces [installed in the 1970s] were created by local artists; none of them have any significant historical meaning; and none of them do anything to perpetuate civic pride or identity” (Neville, 1975). The controversy surrounding this piece continued into the 1980s, with the installation of the iconic button in front of Van Pelt. Hailey Terror, a Penn student and writer for the Daily Pennsylvanian wrote that “All we need to bring this theme of defeat to its natural conclusion is a statue of Harold Stassen” (Terror, 1981).
The sense of dislike attributed to We Lost was not permanent. In fact, We Lost began to gain traction with students on the campus in 1982, and was described as “sitting peacefully on College Green” and being “distinguished by its grandeur and stark black steel” (Rosenthal, 1982). Rosenthal wrote of how “in addition to its artistic value, students also enjoy sitting, talking and even lunching inside the sculpture” and quoted one student who described it as a place to sit and be somewhat hidden while still on Locust Walk. The council responsible for the installation of this piece was largely unphased by students’ protests and disparaging remarks regarding the piece. In 1985, an administrator identified as “Kilroy” wrote that students often need a “gestation period” and asked students to consider how several other pieces of public art in Philadelphia were also “initially met with great skepticism” (Sufak, 1985). “Kilroy” showed how the perception of We Lost had changed when she remarked in a Daily Pennsylvanian article that “students didn’t like it when it was put in—now, they love it” (Sufak, 1985).
Although the feelings towards the sculpture had changed in the 1980s, the misunderstanding of its name has continued in this era. Jane Meiman, a sophomore in 1982, said that although the piece was “not entirely aesthetically pleasing,” it is “bold in its statement about the war” (Rosenthal, 1982). Meiman continued: “I like how the sculpture of the peace sign is located so near to it. It shows that nothing is one-sided in this world. You can’t have peace without war, and it is interesting that they were placed so close to each other. It shows both sides of the coin” (Rosenthal, 1982). Rosenthal, a writer for the Daily Pennsylvanian, interviewed more students, one of whom stated, “I can’t see the sculpture as anything attractive to look at,” and that they “choose to pass it by.” This interviewee continued: “But maybe that’s the whole point of it. The Vietnam War was nothing attractive, and now many people overlook it just pass it by, so to speak. However, I think the sculptor was trying to draw people’s attention to the tragedies of the war” (Rosenthal, 1982). In the two decades following its installation, We Lost’s name, rather than its artistic qualities and the artist’s sentiments, became a kind of monument, and defined the relationship that University students had with the piece, as well as their interpretation of the work.
The end of the twentieth century was also the end of We Lost’s time at the center of campus. In 1999, University officials replaced We Lost with Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture (Robert, 1999). The Penn officials stated that We Lost “has suffered extensive weather damage, especially around its base, and has been removed from the spot to undergo repairs” (Robert, 1999). In this same article, the author described how students had “sat upon the large black sculpture to eat their lunches or take a rest in the summer heat” for decades. In a 1995 article of the Daily Pennsylvanian, the author included an image of college freshman Natasha Yeter sitting atop We Lost reading a book (Anvar, 1995, see Figure 2). Images like these continued to be published in the student newspaper throughout the 1990s, and often showed students eating and chatting on the statue (Cooperman, 1996). By this time, We Lost had come to be a place where students congregated. Due to the time and distance from the Vietnam War, students were perhaps no longer as resentful of the statue and its misconstrued meaning.
In 1999, the replacement of We Lost with LOVE was intended to be “temporary” (Robert, 1999). The moving of We Lost was in part for structural repairs, but also a part of a new campus development plan that looked to outline “new architectural and landscaping plans for campus” while re-evaluating “all artwork and sculptures about where they should go” (Robert, 1999). It was not until 2013 that We Lost was taken out of storage and placed in front of the University of Pennsylvania’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology, at Walnut and 33rd. When We Lost emerged from storage, it materialized seemingly unscathed from its previous controversies. The negative associations attributed to the piece were lost, as the negative associations were largely tied to articles in campus newspapers that later generations of Penn students were not aware of. Since its removal from storage, the piece has remained at this location and taken on a new meaning: beauty. In a recent interview, Noa Attias, a current Penn student, shared her shock pertaining to We Lost’s history. She said, “I always assumed it was built to match the nano-tech building” and continued in saying “the piece and the building look so good together, I couldn’t imagine a better piece at the front of the science building” (Goldstein, 2021). Another current student, Vinay Bodapati, shared his surprise about the previous use of the structure. He said, “I’m really surprised that people were allowed to sit on it. I would never even think to do that. It’s just too nice of a piece of art and I am fairly sure the building’s [Singh Center’s] security guards wouldn’t be too happy with that” (Goldstein, 2021). Neither student interviewed had any knowledge of this piece’s history, nor did they know the title of the piece. Clearly, We Lost has lost its provocative nature and transitioned away from being symbolic and emblematic of a time of derisive conflict between students and faculty at the University.
Although We Lost was originally installed as public art, and originally created by the artist to explore his injury-related passion, it has unintentionally accrued monumental meanings with the student body, while receiving a great deal of criticism. It will be fascinating to see whether the high regard this de facto monument has finally achieved will continue as the student body changes and the campus grows.
Anvar, Hoomer. Daily Pennsylvanian, 13 October 1995, https://dparchives.library.upenn.edu/.
Cooperman, Stephanie. Daily Pennsylvanian, 9 September 1996.
Crimmins, Peter. “Nation’s First Percent-for-Art Program Marks 60 Years of Enhancing Philly’s Spaces.” WHYY, 12 Aug. 2019, https://whyy.org/articles/phillys-percent-for-art-program-the-nations-first-celebrates-60-years-600-pieces/
Davis, James. Daily Pennsylvanian, 29 September 1981.
Duffy, Ellie. “Tricks of the Trade: The Sculptural Work of Architect-turned-Artist Tony Smith Illuminates a Driving Obsession with Spatial Ordering Systems.” Building Design, 13 September 2002.
Grant, Peter. Daily Pennsylvanian, 12 September 1984.
Levine, Lee. Daily Pennsylvanian, 20 February 1975.
Menaker, Drusie. Daily Pennsylvanian, 9 December 1975.
Murphy, John. Daily Pennsylvanian, 5 September 1975.
Neville, Morgan. Daily Pennsylvanian, 25 January 1988.
Rosenthal, Debby. Daily Pennsylvanian, 24 June 1999.
Sufak, Jacquelin. Daily Pennsylvanian, 7 February 1985.
“Tony Smith Life Timeline.” Tony Smith Estate, http://www.tonysmithestate.com/about/chronology
“We Lost.” Art at Penn, https://pennds.org/arth503640/items/show/8.