Is it a Caddy, Daddy?
By Patrick F. Cannon
There was great jubilation at the University of Chicago recently when a work of art that many had feared might have been lost forever was returned to its rightful place on the University’s Hyde Park campus.
Titled “Concrete Traffic,” it was by the well known German modernist Wolf Vostell (1932-1998). Vostell was a leader in the early days of video art and in organizing the “happenings” that were such a feature of the art world in the 1960s and 1970s. In this case, he took a 1957 Cadillac Coupe Deville and encased it in concrete. Commissioned by the fledgling Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, it was finished in 1970 and parked in a nearby parking lot. It was there for some time and apparently accumulated numerous parking tickets. Who paid the tickets seems lost to history. As for me, I wondered how they were attached, since there were no windshield wipers. Perhaps the cops taped them on the concrete, artfully one hopes.
Anyway, the sculpture was eventually donated to the University of Chicago, where it graced the campus until moved into storage to make way for the construction of the Logan Center for the Arts. In storage it may have remained – slowly crumbling away – were it not for art historian Christine Mehring. She heard about it, and arranged a visit. What she found appalled her. Here was this great work of 20th Century art moldering away out of public view. Hunks of concrete were actually missing, as if it were merely a public sidewalk or something!
It was a challenge, and one that Professor Mehring has heroically met. At a cost of some $500,000, “Concrete Traffic” has been restored and proudly placed in a stall of honor at the University’s main parking garage. You may wonder how it could have possibly cost that much to do a bit of concrete patching. Instead of going to Craig’s List for a local concrete guy, they sought out the experts who had restored the concrete at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. While the niceties might be lost to the layman, there is a great difference between a concrete conservator and a concrete repairer. The former usually has a beard and charges more. I should mention that the only part of the Caddy that’s visible is its white wall tires. As you might expect, expert opinion was also sought on the proper tire pressure.
The result, according to Mehring, is a work from an “important transitional period from the happenings in the 1960s to the monumental sculptures and environments of the 1970s.” Since Herr Vostel is no longer with us, his intended meaning is lost to us. Most people think it was an ironic comment on the wasteful consumer culture of America, typified by the land yachts that floated over the (concrete) superhighways that connected our car-mad cities, towns, villages and hamlets.
Europeans in the 1960s, burdened as they were by astronomical gas taxes, tended to drive around in cars like the VW Beetle and the iconic French classic, the Renault 2CV, which, I recall, had a suspension that consisted of husky rubber bands and tore down French roads at a breathtaking 50 miles per hour.
As it happens, I was in France in 1961-62, courtesy of the United States Army. In 1962, the Tour de France was going to pass through La Rochelle, where I was stationed. One day, my buddies and I were watching some of the preparations from a table at a harbor-front outdoor café. Imagine our surprise when a pink Cadillac convertible pulled up and parked in front of the café. Out came two couples, middle-aged and prosperous looking. The spotted us for Americans immediately and happily (for us) plied us with drink and food. They were Texans and, for a lark, were following the Tour around France.
While all this was going on, the Caddy was drawing a crowd. The looks on the French faces was not ironic disgust, but wonder and envy. The only place in France where one could then see a Cadillac was Paris, where they tended to be black and chauffer driven.
Alas, there aren’t too many Caddy convertibles of that vintage to be seen here any more. Those that survive are cherished; many are housed in museums. But, thanks to Professor Mehring and her colleagues, you can at least sense the existence of a 1957 Coupe Deville beneath the concrete at the University’s parking garage at 55th and Ellis. If you want to park near it, it will cost you four bucks an hour. But walk-ins are always free. At the cost of a little shoe leather, you can relive the ironic “happenings” of a bygone era. And wonder, as I have, how they’re going to change the tires when they inevitably collapse under the 34,000 pound weight of German irony.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon