University decides against including alum's sculpture in outdoor art collection

Although panel favored controversial work, Hennessy called it inappropriate, stirring debate on and off campus

Courtesty of Dennis Oppenheim Oppenheim

A version of the sculpture Device to Root Out Evil, by Stanford alumnus Dennis Oppenheim. President John Hennessy has stated that the sculpture is inappropriate for the campus outdoor art collection.

A large-scale sculpture by Stanford alumnus Dennis Oppenheim, titled Device to Root Out Evil, will not be added to the campus outdoor art collection. The sculpture depicts an inverted country church with its steeple wedged into the ground.

President John Hennessy said in a statement last week he had decided, after extensive consultation with various members of the Stanford community, that Oppenheim's work was not an appropriate addition to the campus outdoor art collection. A variety of concerns were raised and considered by people with whom he conferred, Hennessy said, including aesthetics, the massing of the piece, the siting, the costs associated with securing and maintaining it, and its emotional impact on the community.

"I have profound respect for Dennis Oppenheim as a Stanford alumnus and a gifted artist. No disparagement of him or his work is implied or intended. In fact, the university is pleased to own a number of his works on paper," Hennessy said.

The Panel on Outdoor Art, which includes faculty, student, community and ex-officio members, had been in favor of acquiring the work and was looking at possible sites on campus for the sculpture, said Tom Seligman, director of the Cantor Arts Center. "I like and respect [Oppenheim's] art. His work is consistently intriguing and idiosyncratic," he said. The panel, appointed by the president, makes recommendations for specific acquisitions and their placement on the campus.

The panel made a decision and the president made a decision, Seligman said. "Most of the time these things go parallel. This time it didn't."

Stanford's outdoor art collection is one of the best on the West Coast, Michael Shanks, professor of classics and chair of the Panel on Outdoor Art, wrote in a weblog entry about the decision not to bring the work to campus ( In his view, acquiring the sculpture would maintain the coherence of the collection and push it in a new direction, Shanks said in an interview. "It didn't work out," he said.

"Contemporary art, especially, is so fascinating because it raises questions about things that matter, and the best art offers not simple answers but ways of thinking about the big questions," Shanks wrote in his blog. The panel thought "it would be a wonderful way to provoke some discussion-at the minimum! It is what art does so well."

Although Seligman said he is disappointed that the sculpture will not become part of the outdoor art collection, he rejected the notion that the decision constituted censorship.

"Clearly, it's too bad," Seligman said. But "I make judgments all the time. If someone is a censor for the arts, I do it daily."