Chicago and Public Sculpture, 1965-1975

Just outside the door, 41 years earlier, John Dillinger had died in a spray of bullets. At the party upstairs the guest of honor, Mark DiSuvero, and a partner were the sole dancers. The fervor driving his stunted legs, powerful arms and huge hair rendered him into the gyrating image of one of his sculptures.

This was my first party in Chicago. Crowded at the edges of the dance floor stood most of the movers and shakers of the Chicago art scene back in 1975. Among these was the small group of men who had, for the last decade, played the major role in defining public sculpture in America.

The fact that as late as 1975 most of the players in Chicago art would gather at one loft party attested to the cloistered, small town character of that community. Its sculptors, as often as not, were small town natives drawn to the energies and relative comforts of this over-sized Midwest town. To the vision that had steered them to Chicago in the first place, these sculptors mixed in the no-nonsense craft ethic and individualist values of their upbringing. In doing so they established the heroic brand of formalism that was to characterize the first generation of contemporary public sculpture in America.

John Henry was a case in point. Lured from central Kentucky to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by a Ford Foundation scholarship, this contractor’s son displayed the "steel driving" work ethic and knack for aggressive planning that soon earned him the role of ramrod for the first generation of public sculptors in the Midwest. Henry himself hands much of the credit off to Steven Urry, whom he cites as his mentor.

" Steve taught me that anything could be made," Henry says, "plus he had the most impressive aesthetic mind I’ve ever seen."

Urry, reared on Chicago’s south side, was then busy defying a paradigm that had governed fabricated metal sculpture since its inception in the early decades of this century. The notion that welding was an industrial process and therefore obligated to generate industrially inflected forms and meanings had ruled metal sculpture from the Cubists and Constructivists through David Smith and Anthony Caro. Urry’s fabricated works, in contrast, trailed lithely organic lines in space. He fully exploited the enormous strength-to-weight ratios of stainless steel and aluminum to obtain fanciful cantilevers, contorting and enlivening space.

Urry, who left for New York in 1974, had not so mastered control of his own life. Weakened by cancer, Urry died of a heart attack in 1993. Having abandoned his career and having ignored his health, he was then occupying the apartment over his parent’s garage.

Henry’s work seemed, at first glance, much the opposite of Urry’s: it was clean and geometric, built from modules of rectangular beams. Yet, he deployed these beams in organic narratives of similar spirit. Recalling the vocabulary of the surrounding Chicago architecture, their articulated joining suggested the lines of giants in motion. Urry and Henry both adhered to the notion that the function of sculpture in architectural space was to mediate and humanize that space.

Both men forged the materials and techniques of architecture into a personalized and organic restatement of traditional constructivism. The affinity of their work with DiSuvero’s expressionist assemblages of architectural scraps lead to a fast friendship among all three. DiSuvero, a frequent sculptor-in-residence at art patron Lewis Manilow’s farm in the far southern suburbs, became the link between Chicago sculptors and the New York sculptors affiliated with the Park Place Gallery, and later the Max Hutchinson Gallery.

The technology embraced by these Midwest and Eastern sculptors earned them comparison to the Bauhaus and its constructivist ideologies. But, as Barbara Rose proffered in a 1967 essay in Art in America (1), their aims were sharply different:

 "(The Bauhaus) had a coordinated, communal program of design reform based on Cubism as a style and Utopian socialism as an implicit political philosophy. It exalted technology as the potential savior of man and art. Machined forms were assigned moral values …Nothing could be further from the attitudes of present-day American sculptors, who have no program, no unified stylistic basis, a distaste for cooperative enterprise, and who see technology as the handmaiden rather than the muse of art." But for the phrase "distaste of cooperative enterprise", Rose’s declaration stands as an apt description of emerging Chicago sculptors at that time. In Chicago "cooperative enterprise" marked the aggressive mounting of what were among the first group exhibitions of abstract public sculpture. The most notable of these was 1968’s Eight American Sculptors show mounted in Pioneer Court, the plaza fronting the Equitable Building at the river just off Michigan Avenue. Henry, who was then still a student at the SAIC, recalls: "This may have been the first such exhibit anywhere. Before this, exhibits usually held work large enough to be shown outdoors, but not specifically built to be shown there."

Chicago had already demonstrated a willingness to site modern abstraction in its downtown plazas with the dedication of the Picasso three years earlier. A selection team had flown to Picasso’s studio under the late Mayor Richard J. Daley’s fiat to seek out a sculpture by the world’s most famous artist for the plaza of the new civic center. Scanning a series of paper maquettes resting on shelves, the aged artist offered one to the team. For all practical purposes Picasso’s involvement ended then and the sculpture became the province of the engineers and fabricators. The sculpture still retains the frontal pose and over-sized base of a trophy best viewed on a shelf.

Procuring that trophy was, however, a far cry from the scrappy grassroots organizing behind Eight Americans. Focused collaborative planning and the commandeering of each other’s flatbeds and pick-ups bestowed the look and feel of an old time barn raising on its installation. In this sense, as well as in the show’s homesteading of a major urban plaza in order to site art, the term "Pioneer" in the plaza’s name is apropos.

As is the term "Americans" in the show’s title. In the same essay cited above, Rose implicated a specifically American aesthetic in new public sculpture: the canons of European Modernism as merged with American individualism and machine shop technology (2). By its choice of artists – Henry, Urry, Richard Hunt, Jerald Jacard and Edwin Strautmantis from Chicago; DiSuvero and Michael Steiner from New York; and Michael Hall from Detroit – Eight Americans exemplified this aesthetic.

The show’s participants thus shrugged off any regional label. They offered welcome melioration to the Chicago Imagists’ obstinate localism, which had been turning off many outside observers to the Chicago art scene.

Among these disgruntled observers was a new generation of MFAs awaiting graduation. By the early 1970s graduate schools of art were swelling under the first wave of baby boomers, who had entered college art programs in the 1960s. With Eight Americans and subsequent plaza shows garnering national attention, the many sculptors of this new generation saw in Chicago a scene that was gaining the depth and breadth of vision to vie as an international art center.

Among the first attracted by these goings-on was Jerry Peart, a Winslow, Arizona native then in graduate school at Southern Illinois University. Peart would go on to inherit much of Urry’s role in Chicago sculpture as well as achieve a national renown of his own on the basis of his sculpture’s vibrant color and dynamic shapes. He arrived in 1972 and joined Urry as his assistant. Peart fabricated portions of "Arch", Urry’s contribution to the upcoming Sculpture off the Pedestal exhibit.

Hosted by the City of Grand Rapids, this exhibit gathered the 13 best known practitioners of public sculpture. It proved to be the exemplar and, quite likely, the peak of public sculpture exhibitions of the decade. At the time the "public" in public sculpture meant public patronage and public hosting. Sculpture off the Pedestal was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Its educational program received its support from the Michigan Council for the Arts. In-kind contributions of business and industry, fund-raising events, volunteers and local homes to house the artists further attested to the truly public character of the event. In Grand Rapids in 1973 Main Street America celebrated mainstream art.

Implicit in the celebration was the belief that modernism that could translate individualistic expression into public monuments. Countering the euphoria of this exhibit’s success was the growing critical challenge to this heroic brand of formalism.

The challenge came on a number of fronts. By definition formal abstraction, which marked late Modern art, is drained of most symbolic content. Could such a form then really express public values? And had not Minimalism already posted all of formalism’s "Dead End" signs? In addition, Post-Modern rumblings were then just surfacing, questioning the idea of a mainstream and how much that concept was affiliated with seats of power. Rose, herself a proponent of new public art in her 1967 essay, begins the final paragraph of that same essay with this prescient observation: "the possible re-integration of art and society would mean, of course, the end of the avant-garde."(3)

Ironically, one of the most telling critiques of heroic formalism was Max Kozloff’s ambivalent essay for the catalog of the 1974 Sculpture in the Park exhibit in Grant Park at Chicago’s lakefront. This exhibit mounted massive works by Henry, Hunt, DiSuvero, Michael Hall and Kenneth Snelson.

With the exception of a bubbly tribute to DiSuvero, Kozloff’s essay gave the exhibited work short shrift, and stressed instead the failure of public art, past and present, to be truly public. He argued that absence of communal values, under-representation of outsider groups, ciphers inherent in advanced art and promotion of elitist values subverted a truly public art (4). Kozloff was in the unenviable position of being paid to write on art that was losing favor in his New York City base.

With the critical winds blowing against Chicago’s brawny abstraction and with eyes ever to the windsock, the Museum of Contemporary Art excluded Henry, Peart and others of Chicago’s growing contingent of public artists in its 1975 Abstract Art in Chicago show. Arguably the most important show in the history of contemporary Chicago art, the exhibit sought to confirm a significant abstract alternative to the city’s Imagist hegemony. In doing so the curators ignored the only homegrown abstractionists to affect a national movement.

Instead the exhibit highlighted the Post-Minimalist installation sculptors who had established themselves in a burgeoning alternative gallery scene. Their names -- Edith Altman, Andrea Blum, Lynn Blumenthal, Barry Holden, Dennis Kowalski and Mary Stoppert -- are strikingly different in gender distribution from the all-male cast of Sculpture off the Pedestal. The snubbed "big metal" artists, a group that was in essence egalitarian and working class and who prided themselves on their craft and their ability to go toe-to-toe in boardrooms, had unfortunately transmogrified under a new public eye into an old boys’ network in cahoots with a corporate aesthetic.

The decade 1965 to 1975 had paralleled its fostering of public art with a countervailing shift in public values, in the perception of what it means to be public. Bold monuments serving individual expression had shouldered the values of a world yet willing to believe in heroes and salvation through technology. New art, though, was to serve a world where outsider groups sought political parity, where individualism rationalized capitalism and rugged became a macho pose. Kozloff’s Marxism and Lucy Lippard’s feminism threw social critique into the critical stew and threw out Clement Greenberg’s aesthetic teleology.

If critical reception were the only measure of artistic significance, then this history effectively ended twenty years ago. Rather than the sole mode for public sculpture, heroic formalism is now one of several accepted modes. Henry, Peart, and others, like S. Thomas Scarff and Barry Tinsley, continue their prolific careers with regional, national and international activity.

The model, developed by Henry, of artist instigated and artist managed public exhibitions of sculpture continued to guide sculpture here. In 1975, with the sponsorship of the Art in Public Places group, Henry conceived and chaired the Sculpture for A New Era exhibit in Chicago’s Federal Center for the U.S. Centennial. With an increasingly broad base of Midwest sculpture that included installation work and a number of women artists, this exhibit garnered national exposure, and attracted even more young sculptors to Chicago.

Consequently, the years from 1975 to 1980 witnessed what may have been the years of greatest growth for Chicago sculpture.

Art in Public Places continued on under the direction of Ann Farmer with a series of annual exhibits Museum without Walls to showcase the newcomers. Public art exhibitions in Chicago have since grouped into similar annual series. The Mile of Sculpture exhibits of the early 80’s, the Sculpture Chicago series of the late 80s and early 90s and the current Pier Walk adhered to this pattern and owe their vision to Eight Americans.

Another eight Americans anchored the first Mile. All were members of ConStruct, arguably the most unusual of Chicago’s artist run spaces and Henry’s last major enterprise in Chicago. Joining DiSuvero, Henry and Peart were Linda Howard, Lyman Kipp, Snelson and, a year later in 1978, Charles Ginnever and Frank McGuire. A frankly out-for-profit space, ConStruct bivouacked in an office suite on an upper floor of a high-rise overlooking the MCA. After a successful ten-year run ConStruct disbanded. "Across the country I still run across people who equate ConStruct with public sculpture," reports Peart.

Two years ago Peart and I stood in the middle of his bright cavernous studio sizing up the piece he was fabricating for the Atlanta Olympics. Peart once occupied the loft over the Biograph Theater, famed as the site of John Dillinger’s demise, and now works out of a former CTA electrical generating station. Peart suddenly asked if I’d like to see his retirement "fund".

He led me to a small side room. Enshrined on shelves were 28 small polychrome sculptures. "These are the maquettes for each of my commissions", he told me. "I’ve never sold them and they keep going up in value. This is my retirement."

A big, no-nonsense vision. In Chicago.

Stephen Luecking is a public sculptor and writer who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago.


  1. Rose, Barbara; "Shall We Have a Renaissance?" Art in America, March-April 1967, Volume 55, Number 2
  2. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.
  2. Kozloff, Max; "Sculpture in Grant Park", catalog of Sculpture in the Park, August-November 1974

Mark DiSuvero, For Lady Day, 1968-1969, painted steel, 54’ x 40’ x 35’

Steven Urry, Arch, 1973, painted aluminum, 21’ x 4’ x 6’

 John Henry, Bridgeport, 1984, painted aluminum, 25’ x 15’ x 35’

Jerry Peart, Splash, 1986, painted aluminum, 22’ x 32’ x 16’