When I was a graduate student in downtown Chicago I would often walk by Federal Plaza, on the corner of Dearborn and Adams, usually finding the plaza teeming with business people. My eye was initially drawn to Alexander Calder’s monumental sculpture Flamingo, which sits in the plaza. At the time, this sculpture from 1974 seemed to me to be quintessential “plop art”.
The idea behind plop art came from Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. She explains in her book that “Initially, from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, public art was dominated by the art-in-public-places paradigm- modernist abstract sculptures that were often enlarged relics of works normally found in museums and galleries. These art works were usually signature pieces from internationally established male artists (favored artists who received the most prominent commissions during this period include Isamu Noguchi, Henry Moore, and Alexander Calder). In and of themselves, they had no distinctive qualities to render them ‘public’ except perhaps their size and scale.” (60) Kwon, arguing the merits of site-specific works, believed these works to be “plopped” onto public spaces without any thought given to the sculpture’s interaction with the surrounding area.
Going back to the modernist plaza, though, I began to notice the relationship between the curvilinear bright sculpture and the rigorous grid-like buildings. Both the buildings and the sculpture were made of steel and shared basic design principles, such as the importance of the structure versus ornamentation. The sculpture’s graceful curves help break up the buildings’ angles, giving the eye a rest and providing the plaza with additional dynamism. The colors, Mies’s black and Calder’s red, complement each other and again add to the perceived vitality of the plaza. I observed pedestrians walking underneath and around the sculpture; touching the material, while gazing up at the surrounding buildings. Flamingo did interact with its surroundings, both with the architecture and with the people frequenting the area. Suddenly, I realized that Calder’s work was not plop art after all. Instead, it seems like the perfect modernist complement to Mies Van der Rohe’s creation.
Guest Contributor Claudia Mooney, Chipstone Foundation Assistant Curator and New Media Manager/Milwaukee Art Museum Adjunct Curator of Decorative Arts
Photo by MARIA from Flickr› Read more