Artist: Louis Glenn Zirkle
(American, 1932-1986)

Location: Central Campus,
SE of Noyce Science Center
Louis Glenn Zirkle, Untitled, 1975



Campus Sculpture Tour

Louis Glenn Zirkle


Cor-ten steel
153 x 37 x 36 inches
Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund

Louis Zirkle’s steel sculpture Untitled stands tall in the center of campus—a fitting location for the first piece of Grinnell College’s outdoor sculpture collection. The sentinel-like structure connects the many interweaving paths across campus, grounding itself and its surrounding space. It also stands as a monument to Zirkle’s commitment to public art, his dedication to examine art and environment. Although now made of cor-ten steel and located outside the west entrance of Noyce Science Center, Zirkle originally conceived of the piece as a small brass sculpture. He found, however, that its form begged for a monumental scale. Though he did not usually work on such a large scale, and though the College did not yet have a collection of outdoor sculpture, Zirkle persevered—and initiated Grinnell’s program of outdoor art.

Zirkle carefully planned to create a piece meant for the outdoors, changing the medium from brass to cor-ten steel, a type of steel that develops a protective rust coating. This corrosion process stops at a certain depth, preserving the form and producing its distinctive maroon color. Pleased with Untitled’s size and color, Zirkle affectionately referred to the sculpture as “Big Rusty.” Although he wanted to construct the sculpture by himself, its size again prompted Zirkle to adapt. He had the steel bent and welded by professionals in Chariton, Iowa, and he finished the details by hand. Untitled serves as an expansion of scale in Zirkle’s career, both in size and intent. This sculpture is the only one of its size created by the artist, and its intent was impressive in scope: to serve as the impetus for a larger collection of artwork.

The meaning and inspiration for the sculpture are mysterious; however, as the artist’s wife, Merle Zirkle, explains, “The sculpture is uplifting, but controlled; it is a type of celebration.” Like Zirkle’s aspirations, his sculpture strains as it reaches confinement. Its top and bottom expand from its slender center as Zirkle experiments with concavity. Although each side is unique in shape and curvature, the basic shape of the piece is rectangular, suggesting a stretched, squeezed duct. Tensions define the form of this piece: its asymmetrical sides and inconsistent curvature allow the sculpture not only to expand and contract as it grows upward, but also to lean as if charging forward.

The piece interacts with its environment in the scientific sense, through the physical and chemical decomposition of its steel, but it also interacts with the student population on a regular basis. Although Zirkle left his sculpture untitled, students of Grinnell College affectionately refer to it as “The Zirkle.” The sculpture has become a cultural icon of sorts, serving as a meeting point, appearing in student films, marking—as Zirkle hoped—the benefits of public art and the dynamic ways in which sculpture and site interact.

About the Artist: Louis Zirkle, sculptor and professor of art, Grinnell College, received a B.S. from Southern Illinois University in 1957 and an M.F.A. in 1959. He and his wife, Merle Zirkle, also an art professor, came to Grinnell in 1961 as artists-in-residence and shared a teaching appointment. Although known for his sculpture that stands in the center of campus, Zirkle worked in several media including jewelry, silversmithing, design, and ceramics, all of which he taught at Grinnell.

Essay by Meredith Ibey '00 and Christine Hancock ‘06
Updated 2006


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Louis Glenn Zirkle, Press, 1969
 last updated 5/25/06   Copyright © 2006 Grinnell College     Grinnell, Iowa 50112 641-269-4660