Public Art at Williams

Public Art at Williams

715 molecules, 2011; Jenny Holzer (American, b. 1950); sandblasted diorite table and benches; Gift of the friends of J. Hodge Markgraf '52, Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Chemistry (1930-2007); M.2011.7; Photo by Megan Cross
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    715 molecules, 2011
    Jenny Holzer (American, b. 1950)
    sandblasted norite table and benches
    Gift of the friends of J. Hodge Markgraf ’52, Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Chemistry (1930-2007)

    715 molecules, a large-scale stone table and benches by Jenny Holzer, covered on every surface with molecular diagrams, was dedicated in the Spring 2011. A consummate collaborator, Holzer relied on aid from students, professors, and alumni in the sciences and the arts as well as staff from many Williams departments and at least three former Williams presidents, to see her permanent public art installation to fruition.


    The project was initially the brainchild of chemistry professor J. Hodge Markgraf ’52 (1930-2007) who sought, in the course of the complete renovation of Williams’ science facilities, to incorporate a thought-provoking artwork that would challenge his students. Perhaps the hundreds of science majors who walked to and from their labs would find meaning in communing with a major artwork in their midst.

    Hodge was known by generations of students as a chemist who talked like a down-to-earth poet and “for mixing metaphors as if they were drinks.” Over a fifty-year period of involvement he transformed himself from student to alumnus, teacher, mentor, and administrator, and Williamstown community enthusiast.

    To say that Hodge was beloved by students does not begin to capture the enthusiasm with which his mentees regarded their collaboration with him. They considered him a passionate and gifted teacher at all levels of the curriculum and were delighted to participate in his scientific research. The practice of involving undergraduates in research (so critical to Williams’ ethos today) began with Hodge. One of his most ardent enthusiasts is current J. Hodge Markgraf Professor of Chemistry Jay Thoman ’82, an integral participant in the creation of the artwork.

    On a trip to Germany a few years before his death, Hodge encountered a large- scale artwork by Jenny Holzer. He became fascinated with her work and feverishly pursued the task of gaining approval to commission a piece by Holzer for the Williams campus. Artist and chemist became friends and collaborators. Hodge’s office bookshelves contained innumerable chemistry textbooks and writings but only two non-chemistry related books – both of them monographic volumes on the work of Jenny Holzer.

    After Hodge’s death, students, alumni, and myriad friends decided to pick up where he left off in making a Williams-commissioned work by Holzer a reality. Designing a sculpture to sit in the midst of the campus center for the sciences seemed a natural tribute to the work’s origin as the passionate pursuit of a chemistry professor.


    World-renowned contemporary artist Jenny Holzer has deep ties to Williams. Not only does Holzer live and work in nearby Hoosick Falls, New York, but she is also the recipient of an honorary degree from the College. Jenny Holzer is best known for artworks whose use of language is designed to engage and provoke the viewer. Whether texts appropriated by Holzer are projected on massive gallery walls, run in bands of LED on the surfaces of the world’s greatest buildings, coalesce into giant walls of light in public outdoor spaces, are carved indelibly into granite, are silk-screened on large canvases, or are printed on posters and condoms, they cause us to grapple with issues of death and disease, rampant consumerism, torture, inundation of mass media and issues of how advertising relates to “high art.” Using media we are accustomed to viewing as part of our daily environment, Holzer’s texts shock and inspire awe, luring us into a false sense of security but employing language and phrases that stop us in our tracks, causing us to reassess and reconsider what the words we see are really saying.


    Jenny Holzer’s 715 molecules is sited in the heart of Williams’ interdisciplinary home for the sciences. The work consists of an approximately 16′ long and 4′ wide norite table and four benches completely covered with surface sandblasting. Norite is a hard igneous rock quarried from the Bushveld Complex in South Africa.

    The table and benches are meant to be used by students, faculty, and the community as places, to sit, discuss, grapple, and ponder large scientific questions, plan the next big campus event, or just relax and soak in the beauty of the campus. The substructure beneath the table and benches is a patio-like arrangement of irregularly sized flamed pavers.

    Because 715 molecules inhabits the scientific epicenter of campus, Holzer was interested in exploring how scientists, in particular, define the world around them through their own unique form of language. Guided by research by students and input from science faculty, she began to consider building on the tradition of science’s reliance on concrete charts, graphs, and symbols to represent complex, nuanced philosophical concepts. Early in her artistic career, Holzer painstakingly copied physics diagrams out of textbooks, annotating them herself, and developing a new visual vocabulary from representations of theories and laws. 715 molecules harkens back to some of her first explorations of systems of language as they could be employed in art.

    Holzer’s table uses molecular structures as graphic, symbolic, shorthand placeholders for much larger concepts of war, love, natural phenomena, emotion, pleasure, and pain. With advice from Chemistry Professor Jay Thoman and with the dogged efforts of undergraduate science majors Karen Chiu ’10, Charles Seipp ’11, Mindy Lee ’11, Rachel Patel ’12, and more than twenty graphic designers and studio assistants, Holzer was able to chose her preferred molecules from a collection of approximately a thousand diagrams, making decisions about the best ones to cover all surfaces of the table and benches. She calls the floating molecular structures, “tattoos” – both emphasizing their permanent marking of the stone and the beauty of their decorative aspect. Including representations of everything from water to gypsy moth pheromones to components of chocolate to DDT to Ethanol, she asks us to consider how these chemicals define us, shape our behavior, and function in the ever-changing world in which we live. As Holzer’s thinking evolved, she added more and more molecules, hoping that the overall effect would appear much like stellar cartography, with the myriad molecules forming their own constellations.

    Given her aesthetic desire to cover every surface, Holzer moved beyond the mode of ascribing significance to the inclusion of each and every molecule to include some molecules just because they have interesting shapes, funny names, are frequently used in teaching, or simply fit in the space available. Nitrogen heterocycles, which have been important to Hodge Markgraf’s work, are represented in abundance. As their names suggest, they include ring-shaped forms. Fatty acids are overrepresented because they are long and skinny, thereby making them well suited to placement on the small edges.

    The end result of the collaborative effort in developing the sculpture is an unprecedentedly complex and innovative work when considered alongside Holzer’s other bench and table pieces, and certainly the most complicated efforts in sandblasting technology ever encountered by Rock of Ages, the stone fabrication company in Graniteville, VT. For the execution of the intricate sandblasting, Rock of Ages has pushed the limits of existing technology, and everyone, from graphic designers to conservators, had to develop new complex procedures for the work’s creation.

    715 molecules provides all who sit and visit with different challenges. For the visitor fluent in the language of science, thereby not hindered by the barriers of translation, perhaps the main engagement is one of philosophical contemplation of the contribution of science to the world, both for good and ill, and a sense of the fun and gravitas of the human condition. It might even be a good quiz and study tool. For the viewer not fluent in scientific lingo, but with a basic knowledge of scientific shorthand, engagement with the piece represents a challenge to recognize and decipher the seemingly hieroglyphic symbols: “Is that the structure of water?” or  “I think that one looks like a protein.”  For some, the encounter will be a mainly visual one: how clusters of letters and lines form beautiful constellations of shapes on the glossy surface of stone.

    Regardless of the lens through which members of our community view the artwork, they certainly feel compelled to interact with this permanent addition to campus. Always populated by students, faculty, and visitors who sit on its every surface, the Jenny Holzer piece embodies interdisciplinary study. Surely, the artist could not have conceived of such a work without constant interaction with Williams scientists. What Williams scientist ever thought he would be integral to the process of art making?

    By Margaret Adler ’99, MA’11