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Vol. LXII, No. 24
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
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Revived Paul Robeson Art Center Shines a Light on Its Surroundings

Stuart Mitchner

It’s safe to say that both Jacques Tati and Maurice Sendak would feel at home in the renovated and expanded Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. Besides creating a colorfully appealing venue for the Arts Council, Michael Graves’s design illuminates the heart of downtown Princeton as surely as if he’d personally envisioned it, framed it, and put it on display.

One of the central images in Tati’s film, Mon Oncle, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, is a futuristic house meant to represent everything impersonal, antiseptic, and status-driven. But being a true artist, Tati loved his absurd creation so much that he couldn’t resist making it a work of art in itself, as happens most memorably in the night scene where the two round second-floor windows become a pair of eyes that, with the lights on and someone in either window looking out, seem to be staring right at you. According to Wikipedia, one fan loved the Tati house enough to build a real-life version of it near Paris.

Michael Graves and everyone involved in this impressive makeover also have reason to love the work of art that the Robeson Center has become. The Center’s new face even has its own version of the Tati eye, along with a multitide of smaller ones, all of them looking right at the world outside.

Walking around the building on opening day, I thought, too, of the city of giant milk bottles, coffee pots, canisters, and nut crackers in the Sendak classic, In the Night Kitchen. Probably this is because of my affection for that household icon, the tea kettle Michael Graves designed for Alessi; if a portion of your everyday domestic life has been brightened by the little red bird that fits in the spout and the light blue casing on the handle, you’re likely to notice how prominently these cheerful colors figure in Graves’s new creation.

From the Inside Out

I should admit that at first I wasn’t thrilled by the new facade of the Robeson Center. I had doubts about that one round window and the odd, seemingly unnecessary “lid” jutting over the entrance atop a skinny pole like a displaced spatula (speaking of kitchens), or maybe a paper-towel holder turned upside down.

It was another story last Thursday when I found myself staring out of that big round window as opening day visitors milled around. To truly appreciate the design, you have to be inside it experiencing the profusion of natural light and the diverting color scheme. This space has a special charm all its own. Once again the effect is the framing and picturing of the Princeton scene. When you look through the curving array of windows facing on Paul Robeson Place, you could be in the wheelhouse of a ship. More important, the exalted vantage point establishes the view in a way that makes it seem the definitive image of that central Princeton intersection. While the new library’s been there long enough to be taken for granted by now, when you see it from the Robeson Center, it gets a fresh presentation. Back up and walk around to the windows overlooking the cemetery and the same thing happens. An everyday scene has been brought into sharper focus. It’s as if Michael Graves visited his design not only on the building, but on the neighborhood around it. The nature of his accomplishment recalls Business Week’s caption for the Graves line of kitchenware as “making the mundane extraordinary.”

Return: Home

Although it stands to reason that a first view of so special a building deserves special attention, it means giving a necessarily abbreviated account of the work of the 11 artists represented in the inaugural exhibition, “Return: Home.” It’s a bit like visiting the Night Kitchen without mentioning Mickey, who dreams it, or the three Oliver Hardy lookalikes who bake the magnificent cake. The artists in Michael Graves’s “night kitchen” are Manuel Acevedo, Siona Benjamin, Terry Boddie, Judith Brodsky, Zhiyuan Cong, Dahlia Elsayed, Kate Graves, Eva Mantell (with students from HomeFront), Soyoo Parkhjunjoo Caltabiano, Faith Ringgold, and Andrew Wilkinson. Their subjects include identity, Diaspora, familial and cultural memory as well as personal experience through photography, painting, video, mixed media, textiles, sculpture and collaborative installation. And then, of course, there is the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Quilt created by Gail Mitchell from photos and documents gathered, chosen, and organized by Lois Craig, Minnie Craig, Cynthia Fisher, and Shirley Satterfield. On permanent exhibition on the second floor, this tribute to the surrounding community makes a nice counterpoint to Ik Joong Kang’s “Happy World,” the permanent mixed media wall installation across the way in the lobby of the Princeton Public Library.

The exhibit, which will continue through September 6 in the first-floor Taplin Galleries, was curated by Arts Council of Princeton Executive Director Jeff Nathanson. For more information contact E. Carmen Ramos at (609) 924-8777 or

Funding for “Return: Home” has been provided by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the NJ State Council on the Arts, the NJ Council for the Humanities and Timothy M. Andrews.

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