Oldenburg’s ‘Split Button’ Sculpture at Penn Refurbished

Jill DiSanto | jdisanto@upenn.edu | 215-898-4820
Monday, August 28, 2017
Phtoo by scott spitzer the button 2010

The Split Button, 2010. Photo: Scott Spitzer.

A legendary University of Pennsylvania landmark has undergone a makeover.


Photo: Steve Minicola.

Artist Claes Oldenburg’s “Split Button,” a 6.5-foot-by-13-foot aluminum sculpture, was installed in front of the Van Pelt Library in 1981.

The 36-year old piece has been painted a number of times, but before this summer’s sprucing up some areas of paint had been rubbed away by as much as five layers, the wear attributed to its many visitors.

“Certain areas on this sculpture had been abused, such as where skateboard wheels and shoes have hit the surface and, over time, wore down the painted surface,” says Heather Gibson Moqtaderi, the assistant director and associate curator at the Arthur Ross Gallery.

“The conservators sanded it down, primed it and applied a top coat of paint.”

In August, Kreilick Conservation completed a two-week restoration of the sculpture.

split button 1987 university archives.jpeg

The Split Button, 1987. Photo: University Archives.

“The Button doesn’t look any different,” says Moqtaderi, “just clean.”Known for creating giant sculptures of everyday objects, the Button is one of Oldenburg’s several famous pieces in Philadelphia. One of his best known, the “Clothespin,” rests near City Hall. It commemorates the 1976 Bicentennial in Philadelphia.

Quaker in the button, vertical

The Quaker, Penn's mascot, inside the Split Button. Photo: Scott Spitzer.

Penn commissioned Oldenburg for a sculpture in front of the library in December 1978.

After visiting the campus, Oldenburg’s wife and partner, Coosje van Bruggen, a sculptor and art historian who passed away in 2009, proposed the idea of a button.

The “Split Button” is made of reinforced aluminum and painted with polyurethane enamel.

It weighs 5,000 pounds.The total cost in 1981, when it was installed, including transportation and installation, was $100,000. The funds were generated by the University, private donors and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

At the unveiling, the Button created controversy on campus, with critics calling it “a poor addition to College Green.” Today, however, it serves as a landmark and a focal point of Penn’s campus.

Aaron Weinstein Glee CLUB IN BUTTON

The Penn Glee Club stopped at the Button on their way to deliver their "Singing Valentines," 2017. Photo: Aaron Weinstein.

“It conflates humor and an everyday object. It has become a favored meeting place,” says Lynn Marsden-Atlass, the director of the Arthur Ross Gallery and curator of the University of Pennsylvania Art Collection. "The Office of the Curator regularly conserves our outdoor sculptures, which greatly enhance Penn’s beautiful urban campus.”

“To have an Oldenburg sculpture,” says University Architect David Hollenberg, “right next to more traditional public art pieces like the Benjamin Franklin sculpture on the front steps of the campus is a testament to Penn’s culture. What better place than right in the core of the campus across from College Hall.”

The Button, The Simpsons

The Split Button was included in an episode of The Simpsons (Season 19, Episode 11), which was written by Matt Selman (C'93). Photo: Instagram, uofpenn.

The “Split Button” has evolved to become a “must see” among the public art at Penn, along with Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, George Lundeen’s Ben on the Bench and Jennifer Holzer’s “125 Years.”

The Button has become so well-known that it has cemented itself in popular culture through its appearance in an episode of The Simpsons, where an animated “Split Button” can be seen on the campus of “Springfield University,” as well as a student-generated blog, Under the Button.

Oldenburg gave an interview to The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 9, 1981, in which he said that the crack in the button represents the Schuylkill River and it divides the button into four regions: a nod to William Penn’s original design of the city.


The Split Button, before its restoration. Photo: Rebecca Elias Abboud.


The Split Button after its 2017 restoration. Photo: Rebecca Elias Abboud.