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November 9, 2020

Monumental outdoor sculpture by Jaume Plensa to change the face of U-M Museum of Art

Photo by Mark Gjukich

Gift from J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family brings new, internationally renowned public art to Ann Arbor, U-M campus

The University of Michigan Museum of art is permanently installing a 25-foot-tall sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa of an elongated human head with hands covering both eyes, a monumental piece signifying deep reflection.

The sculpture, Behind the Walls, was acquired through a gift from J. Ira and Nicki Harris, long-time University supporters. Ira is a 1959 U-M alumnus; he received an honorary doctor of laws degree in 2012.

“More than almost any other artist working today, Plensa’s work argues for art’s capacity to produce powerfully a sense of public place and expression—to jolt us into thought and heightened perception,” said UMMA Director Christina Olsen. “This new work is arriving at a critical time in our country and world, prompting deep reflection on deliberate ignorance and collective inaction. We’re deeply grateful to Ira and Nicki for their extraordinary generosity.”

The Harrises, who live in Palm Beach, Florida, are substantial donors to many activities, including endowing the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Head Football Coach position currently held by Jim Harbaugh, the lead gift for the football locker room, and gifts supporting the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Most recently, they, along with a small group of donors, helped to support the acquisition of Mark di Suvero’s Orion for UMMA’s permanent collection.

The Harrises are active collectors of contemporary art, including outdoor sculptures. Several works by Plensa are a highlight of their collection; they have long admired the artist’s work.

“Nicki and I are thrilled to help bring Behind the Walls to UMMA,” said J. Ira Harris. “We are captivated by Plensa’s figures, and the moment we saw this work in Rockefeller Center, we knew that its  presence at U-M would spark important and powerful conversations about our global interconnectedness. We’re especially delighted that Michigan students will be able to appreciate the sculpture on their daily treks across campus. We’re confident it will become an icon for the University of Michigan in the years ahead.”

The work of art is made of polyester resin and marble dust and will tower over passers-by and visitors when it is installed near the Museum’s State Street entrance. The enormous hands covering the figure’s face simultaneously block the outside world and beckon it to come closer, look harder, and think more deeply.

“Sometimes, our hands are the biggest walls,” Plensa has said of the work. “They can cover our eyes, and we can blind ourselves to so much of what’s happening around us… To me, it’s an obsession to create a beautiful object with a message inside.”

Behind the Walls debuted in May 2019 at the inaugural Frieze Sculpture festival in Manhattan, where it was on view in Rockefeller Center. The work garnered international press and praise, with The New York Times calling it “the most instagrammed and photographed” work of the festival.

Behind the Walls will take the place of Mark di Suvero’s Shang, which had been on long-term loan to the Museum since 2009. Shang was purchased by a private collector and was removed in October 2020.

The new Plensa sculpture is scheduled to be installed the week of Nov. 9.

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