Massive 25-foot sculpture to be permanently installed outside U-M Museum of Art

Behind the Walls, 2018 Polyester resin and marble dust, 750 x 278 x 310 cm. Installation view of Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center, New York, USA, 2019 Courtesy the artist and Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago/New York. (Timothy Schenck 2019, Timothy Schenck)

ANN ARBOR – The University of Michigan Museum of Art will be getting a whole new look this week with the permanent installation of a 25-foot-tall sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa.

Starting on Monday, crews will be installing the outdoor artwork that features a larger-than-life elongated human head with hands covering both eyes.

Titled “Behind the Walls,” the sculpture was acquired through a gift by long-time university supporters J. Ira and Nicki Harris. Ira graduated from U-M in 1959 and in 2012 received an honorary doctor of laws degree.

“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,” UMMA Director Christina Olsen said in a statement. “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 of Palm Beach, Florida, have endowed substantial gifts to several university activities over the years. Jim Harbaugh currently holds the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Head Football Coach position. Other gifts by the Harrises include the lead gift for the football locker room and gifts supporting the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

They, along with a small group of donors, recently helped to fund the acquisition of the large red sculpture outside UMMA -- Mark di Suvero’s “Orion.”

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The Harrises have long admired Plensa’s work, and have several of his pieces in their private collection.

“Nicki and I are thrilled to help bring ‘Behind the Walls’ to UMMA,” J. Ira Harris said in a statement. "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 sculpture is made of polyester resin and marble dust and will be installed near UMMA’s entrance on State St.

“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.”

The work first debuted in Manhattan in May 2019 at the inaugural Frieze Sculpture festival at the Rockefeller Center. The New York Times called it “the most instagrammed and photographed” sculpture at the event.

Outside UMMA, “Behind the Walls” will replace Mark di Suvero’s “Shang,” which was on long-term loan since 2009. It was removed in Oct. 2020 after it was acquired by a private collector.