science, art, and technology > art & astronomy > PUBLIC SCULPTURE AT THE ADLER PLANETARIUM AND ASTRONOMY MUSEUM

Public Sculpture at the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum

America’s Courtyard, 1998
Denise Milan (Brazilian, b. 1954) and Ary Perez (Brazilian, b. 1954)
Granite, basalt, and marble
South lawn of the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum

Art & Astronomy

Public Sculpture at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum
View a video selection of this lecture.
See related Books and Media.
Perceptions of Space
Unveiled in May of 1930, the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum was the first planetarium in the western hemisphere. Designed by American architect Ernest A. Grunsfeld Jr., the polygonal building, decorated with Classical ornament, supports a globe-like dome. In design, the planetarium resembles an astronomical device called a celestial sphere—a globe with a map of the constellations on its surface. Wrapped around this 12-sided building is beautiful variegated rainbow granite, which contains swirling patterns that look like spiral galaxies. Sculptor Alfonso Ianelli incorporated bronze relief medallions representing the 12 signs of the zodiac for each of the exterior corner points of the structure. The Adler's historical collection of astronomical instruments and rare books is among the finest in the world. The museum, which exhibits artifacts from the history of astronomy, houses almost 2,000 instruments, making it the largest collection of such objects in the western hemisphere. The planetarium also maintains a collection of outdoor sculpture related to the themes of astronomy and the cosmos. The combination of the building’s design, the objects it contains, and the sculptural monuments that surround it offers a remarkable synthesis of art and science.

America's Courtyard (1998) (above) by contemporary artists Denise Milan and Ary Perez is comprised of 60 stone pieces laid out in the shape of a spiral galaxy. Spiral galaxies, such as our Milky Way, consist of a dense central core and spiraling, concentric arms. In this sculpture, concentric arms are made from smaller stones. Each stone comes from a different quarry in Brazil, and each, with the exception of two, is a different form of granite. One dark stone is basalt, and the center stone is white marble. This center stone is quartered into four sections that come together to form a cross point, which is aligned to the four cardinal directions—north, south, east, and west. Laid out on the south lawn of the planetarium, the sculpture serves as a type of observatory—a place to track the movement of celestial objects, such as the sun. In this respect, it resembles ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge (2950–1500 B.C.), which may have been erected to record major celestial events. America’s Courtyard may also be compared to an ancient Greek amphitheater in its circular arrangement of stones decreasing in height toward the center. Denise Milan states, "The different stones suggest the multitudes of people in the Americas, and the basalt the continental origins of the Americas, because it is volcanic and comes from the center of the earth."

Sundial or Man Enters the Cosmos (1980), located in the north plaza of the planetarium, is sculptor Henry Moore’s modern version of an ancient astronomical tool. Sundials operate by a very simple principle: By making marks on the ground at even intervals around an object, one can tell time as the object’s shadow moves in correspondence to the angle of the sun. In Moore's bronze sculpture, the markings that identify different time points are on the smaller, central crescent. The beam that crosses the large crescent is called a gnomon, or shadow caster. Based on the motion of the sun across the sky and its position against the horizon, the gnomon casts a shadow that falls upon the marks to indicate the time of day. With his subtitle, Man Enters the Cosmos, and the golden patina on the surface of the sculpture, Moore alludes to the period known as "the golden years of astronomy," between 1930–1980, when space exploration changed from a dream to a reality. One of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century, Moore was deeply interested in ancient myths about the sky and the heavens. In his early sketchbooks, he made drawings of ancient Greek, Cycladic, Egyptian, African, and Pre-Columbian sculpture. These cultures’ influences on him are seen in his later sculpture of reclining human forms, for which he is best known. In Sundial, the imagery and shapes of these cultures were used to connect his own interest in astronomy and the universe to these ancient peoples.

Bertel Thorvaldson’s bronze and granite monument of Nicolaus Copernicus (1823), which marks the entrance to the planetarium, honors this 16th-century Polish astronomer, who introduced the revolutionary heliocentric model of the universe in 1523. He proposed that the sun, rather than Earth, was at the center of the universe, around which all the planets revolve. Long before the telescope was invented, Copernicus mathematically disproved the commonly held belief that Earth was motionless and at the center of the cosmos. This bronze sculpture shows Copernicus holding an armillary sphere, an early astronomical device which consists of a stationary globe (representing Earth) set in the center of a group of rings that serve the same purpose as the lines of latitude and longitude on a map of the planet. Copernicus used the armillary sphere as a reference tool to calculate astronomical events, such as where the sun would rise and set on any given day of the year. Thorvaldson was the son of a Danish woodcarver and became a leader of the classical revival in European art. He founded a museum in his home city of Copenhagen to display his collection of antiquities and the models for his own sculptures. The model for his original 1823 sculpture of Copernicus made for the city of Warsaw was used for the Chicago sculpture and to repair the Warsaw monument after it was damaged in World War II.

Adapted from a lecture by Jane Clarke titled “Outdoor Sculpture Tour at the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum” and a teacher packet entitled Exploration and the Cosmos, written by Sally Ruth May and produced by the Department of Museum Education at the Art Institute.