At nine feet tall, Mother and Child cuts a striking silhouette in dark bronze against the red brick of the Life Sciences building. Chosen for this spot by Nathan Cummings—who donated the funds for the building, Pulcinella II at the north entrance, and the previous sculpture that occupied of this landing—the sculpture must contend with the job of making a statement in its own right and in the context of being a replacement for half of a pair of sculptures that were donated at the christening of the building. A marble sculpture by Antoine Poncet had previously occupied this pedestal but was beginning to experience conservation issues at the time of donation in the early 2000s.
The sculpture, called Oreillart, was chosen in concert with Pulcinella II, another Etrog bronze (albeit from a later period). Oreillart had been a graceful white marble piece forming an “O” shape and coming to a gentle point like a candle flame, a perfect contrast to the extraordinarily phallic Pulcinella II chosen for the north entrance. It was balanced on the south with a companion Poncet piece called Aileronde, an inverted, similar shape in dark grey marble. These two pieces created a visual relationship in front of the Cummings Life Sciences Center that yo–yoed between light and dark, calling to mind the Yin–Yang symbol. However, they were unable to withstand the elements and thirty years after their installation they had to be removed. The Sara Lee Corporation, which Nathan Cummings had founded, was eager to replace one Cummings donation with another and settled on a second Etrog bronze to replace the damaged works. The new sculpture had to fill the void left by a pair of sculptures chosen at the inception of the building, a task it performs admirably.
Mother and Child is composed of two figures that morph into one another before the eye, as though the bronze itself can move. This shifting image of early life draws on the earliest visual vocabulary Etrog learned from the indigenous art collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In this return to core techniques and visual vocabularies for creating art in three dimensions, Etrog taps into something accessible regardless of art historical heritage or location of installation. Indeed, this piece has moved from New York to Toronto to Venice to Washington DC, among other places, and in each context its depiction of the connection between parent and child and of the impulse to move forward has been praised and made approachable. In context at the University of Chicago, it becomes the perfect replacement for the balanced Poncet marbles. It represents a universality that encapsulates the balance of two sculptures in one.
By depicting a biological relationship, Mother and Child connects the University and medical campuses just as it connected New York to Toronto, past to present, and figure to figure. Moreover, it complements the reaching ventilation shafts of the Cummings Life Sciences Center as it reaches forward, offering itself to whatever might come next and to whoever might pass by as they enter the building. With Pulcinella II, this sculpture creates balance as it stretches outward from its pedestal and away from the building to welcome those in transition of all sorts; as Pulcinella II reaches straight upward away from the ground, Mother and Child reaches forward, creating a visual metaphor for the momentum of a life—grounded in the earth and in history but forever leaning toward the next thing.