Petah Coyne

Petah Coyne

Untitled #820S-01, 1992-2001

Wax, wire mesh, found objects, mixed media


83 in. x 70 in. x 75 in. (210.82 cm x 177.8 cm x 190.5 cm)

Gift of Vera G. List

Best known for her large-scale hanging and floor-bound sculptures, Petah Coyne explores humanist themes of faith, fragility, beauty, death, and decay in mixed-media. Coyne’s work is distinguished in its complex materiality and a labor-intensive process, both of which are palpable to perception. The production of a single work often spans multiple years. An assemblage wire mesh, feathers, ribbons, artificial flora, and millinery birds, all covered in translucent layers of wax, Coyne’s Untitled #820S-01 is materially lush despite its monochromatic starkness. 

Coyne’s work engages representational imagery through formal juxtaposition and material transformation. In Untitled #820S-01, her process of making results in a poetic abstraction that resembles accumulations of ice, snow, or a pandemic fungus. The veil of trickling wax, which covers the surface of Untitled #820S-01 both conceals and exposes the work’s embedded objects, such as birds in flight, that seem to be suspended in time. The work is unsettled in form and feeling. Untitled #820S-01 appears to hold opposed sentiments—preservation/decay, animation/stasis, beauty/grotesque, public/intimate—in equilibrium without resolving their oppositions. The suspended form is at once delicate and imposing, ostensibly fragile while dangling precariously over its viewers.

*Note - this artwork is accessible to the public by appointment only.

Building Number: NW86

Accession Number: 2002.007 a-l

Audio Transcript

Petah Coyne is known for vaguely anthropomorphic works fusing unconventional material such as mud, ribbons, statuary, and feathers. An avid reader, Coyne keeps a large collection of books on birds. And many of her pieces, including this one, feature millinery birds, in this, case peacocks.

"There's a lot of peacocks in it, which is about transformation. I've been drawn to birds. And I suppose it has to do with this whole medieval idea that the birds take the souls to heaven."

Exploring themes of death, transformation, and beauty, Coyne's imposing, often monochromatic sculptures also appear fragile and vulnerable. For Untitled #820S-01, completed in 2001, she covers a piece with a translucent skin of dripping wax so that it seems to hover in the air like a half melted icicle.

"I love wax. It's so much of my childhood, you know, in the churches. It's very religious. And it's so sensual. And there's something about things being very ephemeral."

This work came to MIT as a gift of Vera List, whose generosity also founded the List Visual Arts Center. A great patron of the arts, List was an enthusiastic champion of Coyne's work. And the two became friends.

"Vera was incredibly special because she was not schooled in art. She was just one of those very rare intuitive people. And she had an amazing eye."

Coyne recalls a day Vera List first saw the work.

She was in a wheelchair and very ill at this time. And her grandson was with her. And he said, "Let's take you home. You've been out for a little bit". And she said, "No, no, no. I want to go under Petah's piece over there." She was very insistent, "I want to be alone here under this piece."

And finally I went, and I remember I kneeled down. And I said, "Vera, what do you see? What do you think about?" And she said, "Oh, Petah. This must be what it's like to really die a beautiful death."