From the Archives: Sculptor Katzen casts dreams into living art

[From the Daily Iowan, November 8, 1977]

Sculptor Katzen casts dreams into living art 
By Kittredge Cherry, Staff Writer 

Steel is not unlovable.

Sculptor Lila Katzen takes the immobile stuff and makes it dance for us. She swirls it like a velvet ribbon into flirtatious waves up to 20 feet high, and people adore it.

“So far my sculptures have been loved,” she said last summer. “I have never found any graffiti on my work.”

Katzen was at the UI Museum of Art Sunday to talk about her work, in conjunction with a show of her preliminary drawings and table-top models that are on exhibit there through Dec. 18.

The museum recently purchased one of her monumental sculptures, Oracle, with matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Friends of the Museum.

“People love it,” Katzen said of Oracle, which she admitted was one of her own favorites. “There must be photographs of it all over the United States of young girls in bikinis standing in the middle of it.”

Before it was sold and placed beside Riverside Drive, on the west lawn of the museum, Oracle, like many of her works, was exhibited at museums across the country. Her sculptures are in such demand that she doesn’t have to worry about storing them.

Oracle is made of stainless steel and self-weathering Corten steel. Katzen likes the rich rust color Corten gets after exposure to the elements.

“The piece here is an absolutely gorgeous color – a deep cognac color with a kind of resonance,” she said.

To form her sculptures, Katzen, who is not an engineer, works with industrial fabricators (“the guys who make pipes”).

“The first problem is to go in and convince them that I’m not a dope or a lulu,” she laughed. Once that is done she makes a template, or pattern for the workers to use while she supervises.

Katzen, who is now a sculpture consultant at the University of Texas at Arlington, was born in New York City and spent many years as a painter there.

Though she is now considered a sculptor, the 30 preliminary drawings in her exhibit belie her experience as a painter. They combine the cleanliness of architectural drawing with the artistic freedom to distort and add bright splashed of color. The result is something unique in contemporary art – drawings that so cheerfully represent something, it seems three-dimensional. Strips of tinsel glued on in strategic places to add sparkle.

The only distractions are the rulers Katzen attaches to some of the drawings in order to demonstrate the importance of measurement in her work. They appear to be scales for converting inches into feet and only serve to confuse the viewer.

The little sculptures are all variations on a single theme, all like baby Oracles. Each is completely linear when seen from the side, only taking on the bulk normally associated with steel when the viewer moves around it.

One is Bernini, named after the Italian sculptor of the 17th century. As if by a miracle, Katzen’s metal ribbons capture the flowing rhythm that Bernini gave the angels he sculpted.

Paintings usually stay in museums and may be judged by 10 standards of the elite, but monumental sculptures like Katzen’s are meant for very public places.  The public then has the right to decide their worth, and the best proof of Katzen’s genius is the wide public acceptance her sculpture has received.

This article was reprinted with permission from The Daily Iowan (


To view this article as it was originally published, see page 8 in this archived issue of the Daily Iowan.

After many years in the Iowa weather Oracle is in need of some TLC. You can read about the Stanley’s conservation plans, and see photos of the sculpture, here.