Set in stone

A groundbreaking sculpture returns to campus—and sparks a dialogue on public art.

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It was summer 2011 and Christine Mehring had just laid out her priorities as chair of the University’s campus planning committee. At the top of her list: public art.

Mehring, professor and chair of art history, felt it deserved more attention. While the University owned thousands of public artworks, from Henry Moore’s 1967 bronze sculpture Nuclear Energy to the presidential portraits lining Hutchinson Commons, their conservation had long been considered more a landscaping issue than an art history one.

And there was even more artwork off campus.

“There’s all this stuff in storage we should probably take a look at too,” another committee member chimed in.

“What’s in storage?” Mehring asked.

“Well, there’s this concrete car, for example,” her colleague responded.

Mehring took a breath.

David Katzive, installation view of Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic, January 1970. (Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo ©MCA Chicago)

A postwar German art specialist, she had often visited an art bookstore near a famous car sculpture by Wolf Vostell in Cologne. In 1969 the artist had poured concrete over an Opel Kapitän L and placed it next to a parking meter. The “happening” was quintessential Fluxus, an avant-garde art movement that sought to disrupt the ordinary. “It’s this sense of inserting art into everyday life,” Mehring says, “and having people go, ‘What?’”

Vostell reprised his performance the following year in Chicago, this time encasing a 1957 Cadillac DeVille in concrete near the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), which commissioned the project. Six months later, the museum gave the sculpture, Concrete Traffic, to the University. It lived outside Midway Studios until 2009, before the renovation of the studios and construction of the new Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.

Weighing more than 16 tons, it is the world’s largest existing Fluxus object.

And it was hidden in a Humboldt Park warehouse.

David Katzive, view of Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic as it moves down I-90 to the University of Chicago, June 1970. (Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo ©MCA Chicago)

“It was instantly clear to me,” Mehring recalls, “that we had a really important sculpture that was just sitting in storage because no one knew what to do with it.”

Luckily, she did. On September 30 the sculpture, Concrete Traffic, was resurrected after a massive four-year restoration effort that enlisted conservators, structural engineers, archivists, art historians, and vintage car specialists. The car processed through the city via flatbed truck, traveling from the MCA to campus. Its new home? Inside the Campus North parking garage at 5525 South Ellis Avenue.

Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic (1970) in its new location at the entrance to the University of Chicago campus north parking garage. (Courtesy Smart Museum of Art)

“It had to be exhibited the way that the artist would have really wanted it to be, among real parked cars, moving traffic, pedestrians, and busy life,” says Mehring. The vehicle’s return also kicked off Concrete Happenings, eight months of free campus exhibitions, performances, film screenings, and symposiums celebrating public art.

It’s a celebration Mehring never anticipated the first time she saw the sculpture up close. Nearly 40 years of exposure to the elements and a lack of professional art oversight had left the vehicle crumbling and covered with large, dark patches on its concrete. “The coloring was completely wrong,” Mehring says. “It just made the whole sculpture visually fall apart.”

Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic being raised for conservation work on the northwest side of Chicago. (University of Chicago News Office)

Putting it back together would require a top-notch team—and a lot of detective work. “Even among conservators this is a very unusual object,” says Mehring, who partnered with Christian Scheidemann, a New York–based conservator known for working with unconventional materials. Among their key challenges were addressing the patches, treating a damaged muffler on the car’s underside, and ensuring the concrete’s structural stability.

Complicating matters was the ambivalence of the work itself. As a Fluxus object, Concrete Traffic was at once a performance artifact and a sculpture, the remnant of a fleeting event and now a permanent artwork. “What we are doing here at the U of C is to preserve not only the physical substance,” Scheidemann says, “but also the attitude it was made in, the history of the work itself, and the time it was created.”

A 16mm film reel of Concrete Traffic’s making helped shed light on that history. Constructed on a freezing January morning—the concrete was mixed with salt to make sure it cured quickly enough—the sculpture was the handiwork of Vostell and local artists and fabricators he invited to help assemble the mold and pour the concrete.

An admirer of American car culture, Vostell saw the work (shown here in front of the new Campus North Residential Commons) as a “mummification and preserving these cars for the future,” according to Mehring. (Photography by Eddie Quinones)

“It seems so rare to have footage from that era of an artwork actually taking physical form,” says archivist Mary Richardson, the MCA’s library director, who discovered the long-lost video in the basement of the museum’s warehouse. The documentary, along with new footage of the car’s conservation, will play on a monitor near the sculpture in the garage.

The utilitarian parking garage is the ideal setting for Concrete Traffic. Imagine parking your car, walking past a row of other parked cars, then running into this huge concrete one. “That moment of surprise and shock,” Mehring says, “of trying to figure out what the heck you are encountering, is so crucial to this artwork.”

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