HYDE PARK — A University of Chicago professor has rediscovered one of the first pieces ever commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, and with the help of her colleagues is reviving it on the university’s campus.
Christine Mehring, an art history professor at the university and a researcher at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, found a major work by a German artist in storage and has spent the last six years trying to get it back into the public.
On Sept. 30, “Concrete Traffic,” a 1957 Cadillac encased in 16 tons of concrete by artist Wolf Vostell in 1970, will come out of storage for a procession with Cadillacs and cement mixers past the museum to its permanent home, a parking spot at the university’s north parking garage, 5505 S. Ellis Ave.
Mehring and other researchers at the Neubauer Collegium have been cataloging all of the university’s public art over the past six years, rediscovering major pieces put into storage.
“I love that work, it was unbelievable that I didn’t know it existed,” said Mehring, who specializes in mid-century German art.
She said it is one of the most important works in the United States by one of the leading artists of the fluxus movement, which included artists like Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys and others interested in ephemeral and temporary work that often left little physical behind.
“There aren’t a lot of objects of fluxus out there,” Mehring said. “It happens to be the largest fluxus object in existence.”
“Concrete Traffic” was itself conceived as an “art happening” and not strictly the creation of a sculpture for the museum, which had no permanent collection at the time and was still at its old home at 237 E. Ontario St.
On the cold morning of Jan. 8, 1970, crews poured 32,400 pounds of concrete over a 1957 Cadillac in a commuter parking lot at Ontario and St. Clair and then left it, just as Vostell intended.
“He talked about it as a mummification process,” Mehring said. “The car may decay underneath, but the concrete should preserve it.”
The car stayed in the parking lot racking up parking tickets for six months before coming to the University of Chicago, where it was displayed in a sculpture garden on the south end of campus, until it was put into storage in 2008 when the Logan Center for the Arts was built.
The problem now is the car and concrete have both decayed, it was covered in moss and poorly patched with concrete when Mehring found it in storage at Methods and Materials warehouses in Humboldt Park, where large art is stored and restored.
Mehring said the hardest part so far of getting “Concrete Traffic” back in front of the public has been the research to make sure it looks how it’s supposed to.
Vostell and other fluxus artists were interested in decay, so it took years to figure out what part of the car’s deterioration was intentional and what should be conserved.
Over the past year, the moss has been cleared away, the concrete has been patched to match the original and a new plinth was devised for the piece that originally sat on the car’s tires.
Mehring said she’s become the “crazy car lady” on campus during the process, but has also enlisted lots of other departments in the conservation and return to campus. The Institute for Molecular Engineering helped with the conservation and the Department of Music is now preparing recitals of fluxus pieces for the celebrations around the piece’s return.
On Oct. 14, the parking garage will host film screenings of the creation of “Concrete Traffic” and other films by Vostell, and the Neubauer Collegium will host a series of free exhibitions, screenings and symposiums.
Mehring said after all the events for “Concrete Traffic” wrap up, she will turn her attention to another long-neglected work on campus.
She said her next project is finding a new home for Elka Krajewska’s “SAI, Untitled,” which sits disassembled in a fenced lot at 60th Street and Stony Island Avenue, looking more like a pile of ductwork than its original form.
“One [of the portions] is now incomplete and some pieces have gone missing and we’re not sure why,” Mehring said.
She said she’s working with Krajewska to come up with a proposal to have the sculpture reassembled on the lot as a temporary showing space until the university decides what to do with the area.
Mehring said that project is still in the distant future, and right now she’s concerned with finishing the installation of “Concrete Traffic” and finishing up a full survey of all public art on campus.
But she could see another project in the survey by expanding it to include all public art in Hyde Park.
“We have such amazing stuff,” she said.
The piece was created on site in a commuter parking lot Downtown by pouring 16 tons of cement over a 1957 Cadillac.
The work has been in storage at Methods and Materials in Humboldt Park since 2008.
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