Photos courtesy University of Chicago, except where noted.
How does one forget about a 1957 Cadillac? More puzzling, how does one forget about a 1957 Cadillac encased in concrete that, all told, weighs more than 16 tons and requires cranes and crews of men to move around? Somehow, the imposing piece of modern art titled “Concrete Traffic” languished for years before one art professor located it and decided to put it back on public display this fall.
“Concrete Traffic” took form – literally – in January 1970. Artist Wolf Vostell, who had employed concrete and auto parts in his artwork as far back as the late 1950s, began to envision entire cars encased in concrete by the end of the 1960s. He started with “Stationary Traffic (Ruhender Verkehr)” in a parking space on Domstraße in Köln using his family’s 1960 Opel Kapitan in October 1969. That led to a commission later that year from Jan van der Marck at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and while Vostell came up with the idea behind “Concrete Traffic” – specifically, he conceived of it as a “happening” or as an event, focused on the ephemeral moment of creation as much as on the permanence that concrete represented – MCA employee and Art Institute of Chicago graduate James O’Hara did the actual work.
Photo by David Katzive, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
MCA began by purchasing a 1957 Cadillac Series 62 Sedan de Ville out of the newspaper for $89. “I’m not sure why he chose a 1957 Cadillac,” said Christine Mehringa, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago. “He was most likely looking for a vintage American car – probably one of the cheapest he could get – but there was also a huge fascination with mid-century American cars among Germans at the time.”
O’Hara placed the forms and a reinforcing steel frame around the Cadillac as it sat in a parking space in a city-owned lot at the corner of Ontario and St. Clair streets and then proceeded to pour about 27,800 pounds of concrete over it, leaving only the wheelcovers and bias-ply tires showing. As Vostell intended, the end result stripped away the details of the Cadillac and merely suggested the form of a car: The basic three-box shape remained, as did hints of the tailfins and dagmars, but if it weren’t installed in a parking lot, an incurious passerby could easily mistake it for a bunker or oversized bench.
As art historian Lisa Zaher put it, the shape that “Concrete Traffic” took is actually not that important when it comes to understanding or interpreting the sculpture. “As it exists materially, Concrete Traffic does not simply conform to a predetermined shape—neither the concept sketched out by the artist, nor the shape set forth by its mold, nor to the car underneath,” Zaher wrote. “Despite Vostell’s identification of the work as an ‘event sculpture,’ made of industrial concrete and steel, the sculpture does not satisfactorily adhere to the model of a durational entropic structure; its enduring materials contrast to the temporality of the performance event of the sculpture’s making. Yet both sculptural types are embedded in the history of the sculpture and are therefore necessary for understanding the sculpture’s form and the efforts to conserve it.”
Mehring said Vostell left it very ambivalent as to whether he considered “Concrete Traffic” an ephemeral performance of a sculpture intended to last. The Fluxus art movement that Vostell helped establish didn’t focus on making objects that lasted, she said, but “from 1969 he was transitioning into making more permanent artwork. That was a huge change for him, and I don’t know that he was aware of making that turn consciously.”
Vostell went on to create two more similar cars-in-concrete sculptures: “V.O.A.EX. (Viaje de Hormigón por la Alta Extremadura)” in 1976 in Caceres, Spain, and “Zwei Beton Cadillacs in Form der Nackten Maja” in 1987 in Berlin.
Unlike the concrete-encased Opel, which was relocated from its parking place in 1989, “Concrete Traffic” only spent a few months in its original location – with the MCA feeding the meter for it – before the museum donated it to the University of Chicago. In June 1970 crews moved it to a sculpture garden where the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts is now located. It remained there until 2009, when it made its way to Methods and Materials, an art and sculpture storage and conservation facility in Humboldt Park, where Mehring came across it.
Mehring, who was cataloging the University’s public art for the Neubauer Collegium at the time, said she had no idea “Concrete Traffic” existed, but became determined to get it out of storage and back in the public eye. “It was kind of forgotten, abandoned,” she said. “We had no specialist on campus, so nobody knew what it was.” Fortunately, Mehring specializes in postwar German art, so not only did she know exactly what the university had in storage, she also could assemble a team to preserve the sculpture.
Consultation with New York-based conservator Christian Scheidemann – along with years of research into subsequent repairs and touch-ups to the sculpture – helped Mehring and her team determine how to preserve the concrete. She also brought in Stephen Murphy of Chicago Vintage Motor Carriage to advise her on what to do with the actual automotive bits that remained exposed to the elements for 40 years.
Murphy said he encountered the usual rustscape one would expect for a used and unrestored car exposed to Chicago winters. “Repairs had been done to the exhaust system and front suspension, it had been undercoated, and the tires were worn and mismatched (there is one Vogue whitewall fitted, as a funny side note),” he wrote. “Our job was to stop the decay in the components and stabilize them for the next 20-30 years.”
That meant repairing what undercoating that had come loose as well as treating bare metal surfaces with a mild tannic acid solution and Cosmoloid H80 wax. It also meant finding a piece of household electrical wire just like the one that had been employed to hold up the exhaust system sometime in the 13 years the Cadillac had been on the road. Murphy said his team tried to get a look at the engine and interior with a borescope, but were ultimately unsuccessful at determining the condition of the rest of the car.
With preservation efforts completed, Mehring plans to load up the sculpture later this month and swing it past the University of Chicago on its way to its new permanent home, a space in the University’s main parking garage on South Ellis Avenue. Mehring plans for the re-installation to become a “happening” of its own, with Cadillacs and concrete trucks joining the procession through the city and a number of lectures scheduled at the University and at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
“Concrete Happenings,” which “invites art-lovers and car-lovers, artists and scholars, drivers and pedestrians to confront the power of public art” will kick off on September 30 with the procession to the University parking garage and will be followed by a “Drive-In Happening” featuring a screening of Vostell films about his concrete-encased card on October 14. The Museum of Contemporary Art has also scheduled a lecture about Vostell for September 30, and the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago has planned a Vostell exhibition for next year. For more information, visit UChicago.edu.