WILLIAMSTOWN — They weren't made for here.
You're walking in the Library Quad on Williams College's campus, and you have to remind yourself that the two monumental Diana Al-Hadid sculptures positioned between buildings and walkways — the ones seamlessly meshing with the surrounding natural and man-made architecture — were originally commissioned for display in New York City's Madison Square Park. Hedges framed "The Grotto" and "Gradiva" in Manhattan, forming a green room amid the concrete jungle. In Willamstown, they are unconfined, but their placement was studied.
"The work is obviously going to change so radically because of the new context, so I needed to make sure that it changed in a way that was interesting to me," Al-Hadid said of the four sculptures in "Delirious Matter," a Williams College Museum of Art exhibition, during a Tuesday telephone interview. "We didn't just move it from one place to the other without thinking."
The Brooklyn-based artist visited Williamstown multiple times before she felt comfortable siting the works in their current outdoor spots, where they've been since late September and will reside through March 24. "Citadel" rests among dorms. "Synonym" sits between Hopkins Hall and Route 2. And "The Grotto" and "Gradiva" rise before Sawyer Library.
"When I made it to Williams and saw that huge lawn, which is really beautiful and really central, I loved the library — that was the first thing I responded to," Al-Hadid recalled. "It really seemed to have a narrative and a formal relationship to the 'Gradiva' work."
Wilhelm Jensen's early 20th century novella, "Gradiva," inspired the 13.5-foot-by-15-foot piece that features a feint female figure and combines aluminum, steel, polymer gypsum, fiberglass and pigment. In the story, an archaeologist becomes obsessed with a bas-relief depiction of a woman that he first encounters at a museum. He has a dream in which he tries to save Gradiva from the impending eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Upon waking, he travels to Pompeii in hopes of finding Gradiva. Instead, he discovers his childhood crush, Zoe.
"[Sigmund] Freud made [the story] really famous because he thought that the narrative is really describing the psychoanalytic process of unearthing your desire and tracing its roots back to childhood memories," Al-Hadid explained.
The artist felt that the piece's literary roots made it a fitting foreground for Sawyer.
"It was perfect that she should be walking in front of this library," Al-Hadid said of Gradiva.
She called "Gradiva," an icy sculpture with a fire's contours, the show's "anchor." Its placement in the pedestrian-friendly Library Quad, however, presented a challenge: Hedges between the sculpture and "The Grotto" would block walkways, so a Madison Square Park-like setup would be cumbersome. In that installation, the two sculptures faced each other. In Williamstown, they face the same direction, accentuating the library's prominence and allowing for a different viewing experience than the one in New York.
"If you're walking between them, you get to see the works from both the front and the back. If you walk behind them, you see them from the back and how those shapes relate to that vantage point. And if you see them from the front, then you see the picture in the panel and the narrative there. You see the mountain-scape," she said.
The artist is pleased with the interplay between the sculptures and their surroundings.
"I thought it worked surprisingly well having not really thought about that site from the get-go," Al-Hadid said.
"Synonym" is a pale, headless female figure consisting of polymer modified gypsum, fiberglass, powder-coated aluminum and pigment, materials that, in concert, evoke dripping lava. While three "Synonym" sculptures were on display in New York, only one resides in Williamstown.
"That was a decision we made based on the site. It didn't feel like it made as much sense to have three 'Synonym' sculptures [in Williamstown], whereas for the Park, that was a very important part of the experience," Al-Hadid said
Across the street, "Citadel" (steel, polymer gypsum, fiberglass, paint, aluminum, bronze) pays homage to German painter Hans Memling's "Allegory of Chastity."
"It's an image of a woman who's perched on top of this mountain sitting very politely, hands folded, and she almost wears the mountain as a skirt. It's a chastity belt," the artist said.
Though a couple of the show's major influences are rooted in Europe, Al-Hadid hails from Syria. She moved with her family to Ohio when she was 5, later studying art history at Kent State University.
"One of the pleasures of showing my work at Williams is that they have such a strong art history program," she said.
"Delirious Matter" is Al-Hadid's first major public art project. She has seen photos of her sculptures in the snow and appreciates their new location's effect on their interpretations.
"It was really nice to see the work could keep going, keep evolving as it moved," she said. "I'm more used to having the work go from interior space to interior space, and the narratives don't change as quickly or clearly."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.