‘Gray box’ maintains mystery

Before the mid-1970s, students at Northern Kentucky University, then known as Northern Kentucky State College, saw a bare, grassy knoll between Nunn Hall and the Fine Arts Center.

But actually, during that time, most of campus was bare, rather than decorated with sculptures and art as it is today.

But in 1975, the ball began to roll when Northern Kentucky State College asked the state to match funds of $50,000.

The $100,000 wasn’t for a new building, academic program or roadwork, it was for the gray box and other pieces of art throughout campus.

“It would certainly be a mistake to build a new multi-million dollar campus architecturally without giving any thought whatever to artistic development,” said an Oct. 14, 1975 memorandum requesting the matching funds, according to NKU’s Special Collections and Archives.

Chosen from more than 300 applications, the gray box, which sits across from the Fine Arts Center in the middle of campus, is still a mystery to most. Students have used it as a tent, a slide and even as a place for hide-and-seek, and artist Donald Judd would probably agree with all of those uses.

Judd visited campus before creating the commissioned aluminum piece. He was known at the time for his minimalist approach to art.

The only information in NKU’s Special Collections and Archives explaining Judd’s thinking during the piece’s conception is that it “symbolizes and perhaps comments on the plainness and angularity of campus architecture,” according to “Groundbreakings: Northern Kentucky University’s first 25 years,” written by former English professor Frank L. Stallings Jr.

“Donald Judd prefers to think of his works as primary objects because they suggest an ideal of simple perfection. Through the use of minimal form, geometric design and a scale that is neither human nor architectural, Judd’s sculptures challenge the viewer’s conception of art. His use of industrial materials and process prevents the viewer from establishing a familiar relationship with the work, resulting in an experience that is confrontational,” according to the Steely Library Web site on sculptures throughout campus.

That November, the college met with Judd to discuss the art and June 10, 1977, Judd’s gray box was dedicated.