Gonzalo Fonseca (Uruguayan, 1922–1997) studied architecture but soon became involved in El Taller Torres-García, the influential transdisciplinary workshop founded in Montevideo by artist and educator Joaquín Torres-García. Inspired by Torres-García’s interest in universal symbols, Fonseca explored archaeological sites in Bolivia, Peru, and Syria and worked for a time with Gerald Lankester Harding, the British archaeologist who helped preserve the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1957, Fonseca received a Guggenheim Fellowship and settled in New York with his wife, Elizabeth Kaplan Fonseca, daughter of the philanthropist Jacob M. Kaplan. The elder Kaplan supported causes across the city, from the New York Botanical Garden and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to the campaign to save Carnegie Hall from demolition; his gift to the school allowed for the razing of a brownstone adjacent to the original Urban building and the construction of a new entryway and annex on 12th Street. A midblock courtyard linked to yet another new structure, the Albert List Building at 65 West 11th Street (now housing Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts), designed by the firm of Mayer, Whittlesey & Glass and completed in 1959. The lobby of the 12th Street building, now known as Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall, became the site for Fonseca’s work.

Gonzalo Fonseca, Untitled, 1961. Photographer unknown, 1960s. Gonzalo Fonseca © Gonzalo Fonseca Estate.

Untitled is the sole site-specific work in the New School Art Collection that was commissioned in the 1960s.1 Yet the mosaic belongs to a particularly fertile period in the history of the institution and of the downtown Manhattan art scene in general.2 The only courses ever taught by the poet Frank O’Hara were taking place at The New School in these years, along with John Cage’s Experimental Composing classes. The Art Center and Collector’s Circle, funded by Albert and Vera List and directed by Paul Mocsanyi, began to host lectures and exhibitions and to acquire works—first for the Collector’s Circle, then occasionally for The New School Art Center, which in turn gave rise to The New School Art Collection.

Fonseca’s mosaic was commissioned—with the support of the new lobby’s architect, Albert Mayer—by Dr. Hans Simons, a political scientist who had arrived at the University in Exile as a refugee from Germany in 1935 and served as New School president for a decade (1950–1960).3 As the only large-scale mosaic that Fonseca produced, the work is anomalous in his oeuvre, which centers on stone sculptures evocative of pueblos, temples, ritual objects, and/or children’s toys. Yet the installation kept alive the school’s interest in place making through art and, as one of Fonseca’s first public projects in New York, paved the way for his other grandly scaled endeavors, including a forty-foot cast-concrete monument, La Torre de los Vientos (The Tower of the Winds), commissioned for the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, and an exhibition for the Uruguayan Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennial.

  1. In 1959, a pair of murals by the French artist Michel Cadoret (1912–1985)—who later taught at The New School for a short period—was commissioned by the French-American Scholarship Committee to commemorate the school’s provision of safe haven to French scholars fleeing totalitarianism. Welcome and Cooperation were located for several decades on the second and third floors of 65 West 11th Street but were later lost. See Announcement of committee to celebrate twenty years of French-American scholarship, October 12, 1959, New School press release collection, The New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive http://digitalarchives.library.newschool.edu/index.php/Detail/objects/NS030107_000406 (accessed May 2, 2018).
  2. Visual art acquisitions had not been a priority under Alvin Johnson’s successor as president, Bryn Hovde, though other arts flourished: Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop found a new home at The New School; the first-ever college class devoted to jazz was offered; and Sterling Brown, W.E.B. DuBois, and Alain Locke taught courses in African American culture and history.
  3. The period following Simons’ retirement saw two episodes (in 1960 and 1963–64) during which acting presidents served the institution, as well as a short term filled by labor historian Henry David (1961–62). John Everett, founding chancellor of the City University of New York, became New School president in 1964 and served until 1982.
Gonzalo Fonseca