Out in the Cold: What will the University of Chicago do with its deteriorating public art?

"Concrete Traffic" ; Sam Bowman

Concrete Traffic; Sam Bowman

Just outside the University of Chicago’s Midway Studios stands a time-worn Cadillac entombed in a 20-ton coat of concrete. This 1970 Wolf Vostell sculpture, “Concrete Traffic,” has sat outside the Studios for 40 years. Nearly 20 feet in length and 6 feet in height, “Concrete Traffic” once monumentalized the Cadillac as a pinnacle of American aspirations. Yet just as the image of the majestic Cadillac has faded, so too patches of the concrete have deteriorated into cottage cheese-like curds and moss has grown over the wheels. The sculpture, originally on display downtown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was donated to the University in 1970. But as the decades passed, “Concrete Traffic” transformed from an innovative monolithic sculpture to a storage space for homeless men and women. Now, as construction on a new performing arts center is about to begin, the University is exploring options for its future.

Two weeks ago, Jane Foley of Litas Liparini Restoration Studios, a sculpture conservation company in Evanston, took a survey of the sculpture’s condition. “The sculpture will require a great deal of conservation,” says Foley. “A treatment proposal would involve moving and storing the piece as well as extensive restoration. Altogether the cost would be around $20,000.” More than the flat cost of conservation, the University must consider the changing value of the sculpture.

When “Concrete Traffic” was constructed, Vostell was at the forefront of the Fluxus movement, which valued simplicity and use of non-artistic material. Interest in his work cooled in following years. But in 1998, after Vostell’s death, an exhibition of his work in Berlin brought back public interest. “We’re interested in knowing whether the MCA now wants the sculpture back,” says Theaster Gates, a local artist and Coordinator of Arts Programming at the University. “We are also researching the current value of the sculpture, and how to incorporate the piece into the plans for the new arts center.” The administration not only has to make decisions about “Concrete Traffic,” but two other neglected sculptures as well.

Within the inner courtyard of Midway Studios are two sculptures from the studio of famed artist Lorado Taft, the building’s former owner. The first, “Shaler Memorial Angel” is a six-foot bronze angel mounted on a marble block. Built in 1923, the seated angel gazes down at a book she holds in her hands. The memorial, which is the same as Taft’s family memorial in Waupum, Wisconsin, has sat in the secluded studio courtyard for decades. The surface bronze on the angel is entirely covered in copper chloride corrosion product. Bird droppings dot the right side of the angel’s wings and gown, and a purple streak runs across the face. Next to the angel is “Beethoven’s Head,” a marble bust made by Gilbert Riswold, one of Taft’s students. Many of the features have decayed over time, most noticeably the nose, and moss and other small fungi have grown within the crevices of the sculpture. Although Taft’s works were almost exclusively built for outdoor presentation, due to their material they require fairly regular restoration. Yet the effects of time were an integral part of Taft’s work, particularly in sculpture. For Taft, a sculpture’s breadth and life came from its place within a community. And naturally, in Chicago, a city of severe weather conditions, a sculpture is bound to change over time. But in sequestering his sculptures and failing to restore them, the University has deprived Taft’s works of the public life he so highly valued.

As the University begins a new era marked by bigger funds for a growing artistic community, revisiting these three sculptures–“Concrete Traffic,” “Shaler Memorial Angel,” and “Beethoven’s Head”–would both preserve them as emblems of the University’s history and pave a path towards a stronger artistic community among students, faculty, and community members alike.