Life Force, 1988

David Bakalar

The sculpture is located on the campus of Columbia University, on the south side of the plaza that stretches over Amsterdam Avenue between 116th and 118th Streets (it would be above 117th Street if 117th Street crossed Amsterdam Avenue, which it doesn't).

The sculpture Life Force looks as if it is growing out of the grassy area on which it sits, its gracefully bending stem supporting a spherically-shaped head. There is a round hole cut through the middle of the sphere, visible from either the north or south of the sculpture. On the north side, a section of the sphere is scooped out, revealing a series of irregularly placed concentric circles moving from the edge of the hole outward to the surface of the sphere. Looking from the south, the hole is bigger, meaning that the hole itself is conical in shape, rather than cylindrical. On this side, the edge of the hole meets the outer surface of the sphere.

Looking from the east or the west, the hole is not visible. Instead, the viewer sees a cut along the diameter of the sphere, stopping part-way into the middle. One side of the cut is flat, and on the flat surface is another series of concentric circles, looking like the rings of a tree that are only visible after the tree has been cut down.

The surface of the sculpture is smooth all over, with the exception of the two areas showing concentric circles. Although Life Force has an organic quality, growing out of the earth, there is also something machine-generated about it, with perfect circles, and sharp edges that are not reminiscent of natural forms.

David Bakalar was originally trained in physics and metallurgy, and was a practicing electronics executive before he turned to sculpture [1]. Bakalar often creates pieces that explore the connections between humans and science [2], and around the time of the creation of Life Force, he considered all of his works to draw on the theme of the life force, which he defines as "the force that has created the life we know in all its myriad forms" [3]. This force includes "the mating forces, the birth force, death force, competitive force, nurturant force..." [4]. According to Bakalar, "ultimately, life itself is mysteriously surreal, and that is why I consider myself an abstract surrealist sculptor" [5].

Life Force was not commissioned for Columbia University, but was given to the school by an anonymous donor after it had already been made. Bakalar was consulted as to the way in which he wished his piece to be displayed, and he asked that it be placed in a grassy area, where people would be able to interact with the work [6].

Possible discussion themes
How does outdoor placement affect the way we see a work of art?
Because of its placement, it is difficult to look at Life Force as an entity separate from its environment. In looking through the hole in the sculpture, a viewer also can see far down Amsterdam Avenue, bringing the city and the sculpture together. Additionally, the organic aspects of the sculpture are accentuated by its placement in a section of grass.

Related art works
Three-Way Piece: Points.
Like Life Force, Three-Way Piece: Points is located at the end of the overpass above Amsterdam Avenue, inviting the viewer to look both at the sculpture and beyond.

Since Flight is made of a highly reflective stainless steel, it is impossible to look at the sculpture without seeing the surrounding buildings reflected in its surface. For this reason, the placement of the work has a definite effect on the way in which a viewer sees the piece.


  1. Brozan, N. "Chronicle: It takes a sculptor to know a sculptor," The New York Times, Sept. 11, 1992, sec. B, p. 4, col. 3.
  2. Brozan, N.
  3. Hunter, S. Gallery pamphlet from exhibition "David Bakalar: Life Forces," Kouros Gallery, 1992.
  4. Hunter, S.
  5. Hunter, S.
  6. letter from Sarah Elliston Weiner, Curator of Art Properties, to William Phipps, Manager, University Senate, Jun. 12, 1992, Office of Art Properties files, Columbia University.

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