Route 66 sights: Alexander Calder’s public art – Flamingo and The Universe

Five streets apart along Route 66 in downtown Chicago – less than three city blocks – are two highly entertaining works of public art by the late American artist Alexander Calder.  The one that sits outside is better known, but both of them were unveiled and introduced to the city on the same day, October 25, 1974, and were immediately accepted by the public.  And you can see them both for free, on any given day.

Calder is perhaps best known by the public for his whimsical mobiles, such as Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1939), which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  There’s an entire room devoted to his mobiles and other sculptures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  Calder also created small-scale sculpture and jewelry, paintings, prints, a series of tapestries and even designed stewardesses’ uniforms and an exterior paint scheme for the airplanes of Braniff International Airways back in 1973, but he was absolutely prolific in creating public works of art, which are installed in at least 23 states and 19 countries.  His public art was of two kinds, kinetic installations (sculpture that moves) and stabiles (immobile).  Chicago has one of each just off Jackson Boulevard.

Flamingo stabile, 1974 by Alexander Calder  (Photo copyright 2012 by and courtesy of Stacy Conn; all rights reserved)

Flamingo stabile, 1974, by sculptor Alexander Calder sits in the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago  (Photo copyright 2012 by and courtesy of Stacy Conn; all rights reserved)

Flamingo is a stabile that sits in Federal Plaza off Dearborn Street, between Jackson and Adams Street.  Federal Plaza, aka the Federal Center, consists of two office towers, a squat post office building, an open plaza, and the Flamingo, which – like the John Hancock Building or the Sears Tower – has become iconic of Chicago and is as firmly identified with the city as any famous building here or even the lakefront itself.

Flamingo is a fun, playful construction that is built so that you can walk under and through it, thus bringing it down to human scale.  Its neon color gives the plaza life amid all that charcoal-colored glass and steel, bringing smiles at the sight of it even on a dark, damp, blustery day.  Although it’s curvy, in contrast to the linearity of the modern skyscrapers on either side, Flamingo shares some of the same design principles and thus relates to the architecture that surrounds it.  Its creator was just as playful:  the day that the stabile was unveiled and dedicated, Calder arrived for the ceremony at the front of a circus parade, complete with elephants.

Flamingo is 53 feet tall, weighs 50 tons, and is constructed from steel similar to that used in the buildings that surround it, which were designed by the late architect Mies van der Rohe.  You absolutely can’t miss it:  Flamingo is painted a particularly vivid shade of vermilion known as Calder red or Chicago red.  This is a color you don’t see just anywhere.  For many years, the modern Damen Avenue bridge across the north branch of the Chicago River was painted in that same red; a few years ago, however, it was repainted in Chicago blue, the same shade as that present in the city’s flag.  That disappointed a lot of people, including Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who noted that red was vibrant and pretty eye catching; the blue, on the other hand, just blends in, rendering even a bright blue blah instead.

The stabile was commissioned and designed in 1973 and constructed and installed in 1974, whereas the various parts of the building complex were constructed between 1959 and 1974.  A floor-sized maquette of Flamingo is on display in the Art Institute of Chicago, currently near the east entrance off Columbus Drive; for several years before arriving at AIC, the model was on display inside the post office at the Federal Center.

Maquette (scale model) of Calder's Flamingo at the Art Institute of Chicago  (Photo copyright 2013 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Maquette (scale model) of Calder’s Flamingo at the Art Institute of Chicago  (Photo copyright 2013 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

A few blocks west and safely inside the foyer of the Sears Tower (now don’t start: we don’t call it the Willis Tower, no matter what) is Calder’s kinetic installation called The Universe.  You can visit The Universe any time the building lobby is open, which is pretty much every day.

My only quibble with the work is what’s in front of it, which is the fault of the building owners.  The Universe sits behind the main reception desk off of Wacker Drive, against a wall of gorgeous travertine marble – which means that said reception desk partially obscures a full frontal view of the piece, damn it (couldn’t they have put that annoying desk off to one side?).  However, there’s enough distance between the installation and the back of the long desk that you can come around and see the installation from either side.

The Universe, 1974, a kinetic installation by Alexander Calder at the Sears Tower, Chicago  (Photo copyright 2014 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

The Universe, 1974, a kinetic installation by Alexander Calder at the Sears Tower, Chicago    (Photo copyright 2014 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

And you do want to watch it for a while, because it moves – thus providing a constantly changing view.  In fact, the view is sort of hypnotic.  Calder abstracted five different elements of the cosmos and deployed them here for your visual entertainment.  The best way to describe what’s there is to simply tell you what the accompanying plaque says.  And here you go:

The Universe is composed of a number of moving elements:  the spine, three flowers, a pendulum, a sun and a helix.  The moving parts create illusions of fluidity, vitality, diversity and perpetual motion, characterizing the elements of the cosmic universe.
The spine is a black metal pole form floor to ceiling with non-symmetrical, rigid metal flags painted red, yellow, blue and black.  The flags protrude at different angles form the vertical base and rotate horizontally.
Three irregularly shaped flower petals in yellow, red and black rotate into each other like petals moved by a breeze.  The petals are mounted on the wall approximately 20 feet above the ground.
The black metal pendulum, approximately six feet in diameter, hangs from the wall and swings at a natural frequency.
Four half-circles painted red, orange and black, connected at right angles, represent the sun.  The circles rotate around a central axis hanging from the ceiling, creating the illusion of sunrise to sunset.
The helix is a gigantic, hollow spring made of black metal that rotates clockwise at 15 rpm.  The coil measures approximately seven feet high and rests on black bases at each end.

Calder started out as a mechanical engineer but turned to art soon enough – which was entirely predictable, considering that he came from a long line of artists (none of whom ever became as famous as he did).  He was the son and grandson of sculptors.  His grandfather Alexander Milne Calder, a Scottish immigrant from Aberdeen, created the colossal bronze statue of William Penn that sits atop the tower of Philadelphia City Hall, whereas his father Stirling Calder was best known for the bas relief sculpture George Washington as President, Accompanied by Wisdom and Justice, which adorns the Washington Square Arch in New York City.  Calder’s mother, Nanette Lederer, was a professional portrait artist.

Both Flamingo and The Universe have aged well.  Neither looks dated, and millions of people have seen them by now.  Unfortunately, even though Calder’s portable work is highly collectible and brings high prices today, like many artists Calder never got rich from his own work.  A mobile named Untitled, 1957 was expected to fetch between $3 million and $4 million at auction in 2012 (and did), which is way more than Calder was ever paid.  Few people collected his art while he was alive.  But at least he had fun with it, and now so do we.

Until next time,
your art guide Marie



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