Bolt of Lightning. . . A Memorial to Benjamin Franklin (1984)

by Isamu Noguchi (1904 - 1988)

Photo Caption: Photo Caitlin Martin © 2013 for the Association for Public Art
  • Title

    Bolt of Lightning. . . A Memorial to Benjamin Franklin

  • Artist

    Isamu Noguchi (1904 - 1988)

  • Year

    Conceived 1933; installed 1984

  • Location

    Monument Plaza, Base of Benjamin Franklin Bridge, near 6th and Vine Streets

  • Medium

    Stainless steel, painted steel base, steel guy cables

  • Dimensions

    Height 101’5″ (base, including “key, 37’7″; lightning 45’4″; kite structure 23’4”); base area 32′ x 32′

  • Themes

    Benjamin Franklins

Commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art)

Owned by the City of Philadelphia

At A Glance

  • Originally proposed at the Fairmount Park Art Association’s first “Sculpture International” exhibition in 1933

  • Commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) as a civic gift in celebration of Philadelphia’s tricentennial

  • The 58-ton sculpture refers to the famous experiment in which Franklin flew a kite in an electrical storm

The 58-ton “Bolt of Lightning” refers to the famous experiment in which Franklin flew a kite in an electrical storm.

At the Fairmount Park Art Association’s (now the Association for Public Art) first Sculpture International exhibition in 1933, Isamu Noguchi exhibited eight sculptures and a number of drawings, including a design for a monument to Benjamin Franklin in Fairmount Park.

The idea lay dormant for nearly half a century, until in 1979 the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented a retrospective exhibition of Noguchi’s work. A reproduction of the 1933 proposal caught the attention of the trustees of the Association, and the project was reborn.

Artist Isamu Noguchi stands in front of his "Bolt of Lightning" sculpture
Artist Isamu Noguchi with Bolt of Lightning. Photo Penny Balkin Bach for the Association for Public Art.

With financial help from the estate of George D. Widener, the Association commissioned the sculpture as a civic gift in celebration of Philadelphia’s tricentennial. Noguchi himself selected the site, Monument Plaza, between the bridge and the square named after Franklin.

For assistance with technical details, Noguchi consulted his friend Paul Weidlinger of Weidlinger Associates, a New York engineering firm. Though Weidlinger’s usual responsibilities involved bridges and skyscrapers, he had also worked on large-scale sculptures with such artists as Picasso and Dubuffet. Computer analyses were used to determine how the asymmetrical sculpture could withstand the force of gravity.

The 58-ton Bolt of Lightning refers to the famous experiment in which Franklin flew a kite in an electrical storm. A four-legged painted-steel base supports an image of the key that Franklin attached to the kite. On top of the key is the lightning bolt, a 45-foot truss clad with multifaceted stainless steel plates. From the bolt emerges a 23-foot tubular steel structure with a representation of the kite – all balanced by the tension of four steel guy cables. The cables appeared in Noguchi’s 1933 drawings, symbolizing, he said, the eternal and essential contact between air and earth. Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz created the dramatic lighting.

Adapted from Public Art in Philadelphia by Penny Balkin Bach (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992).

 

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