Frank Stella

Metcalfe Federal Building

On the fifth through ninth floors of the Metcalfe Federal Building at 77 W. Jackson, occupied by the Waste Management Division, people think about garbage all day long. And apparently for many of them the Frank Stella sculpture unveiled in the building lobby on September 15 is a grim reminder of the junk they spend their days trying to burn, bury, and haul away. Composed of one 22-foot-high leaning mass and another hunk about the size of a prize-winning pumpkin, The Town-Ho’s Story shows off some of the ways steel and aluminum can be processed in a foundry. Some sections are hard and bright, others more formless and seemingly timeworn. Like many of the artist’s works since 1985, the piece takes its title from a chapter in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

The Chicago Tribune was of two minds about the sculpture. On September 12, reporter Michael A. Lev characterized it as a typically incomprehensible example of postmodern art, agreeing with a crane operator who described it as “a lot of molten scrap.” Three days later Alan G. Artner, the paper’s regular art critic, attempted a more sensitive interpretation, calling it “a mushroom cloud of dense visual activity” and describing some of the stages of production it underwent in its birthplace, the Tallix foundry in Beacon, New York.

So far, according to Charles Lewis, a security guard whose station is only ten yards from the sculpture, those siding with Lev and the crane operator far outnumber those siding with Artner. In the couple of hours I spent circling the two masses, virtually all the remarks I overheard were querulous. “Who cares about a stupid whale?” one woman said scowling. Others mentioned a petition for removal that had been circulated. Failing to see a white whale, they saw a white elephant.

One of the most frequent complaints is about the work’s $450,000 price tag, which was set according to a federal policy that’s been in effect since 1963. As part of the General Services Administration’s Art-in-Architecture program, one-half of 1 percent of the estimated construction cost of a government building is earmarked for public sculpture. The same policy allowed for federal funding of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York in 1981, a minimalist monument that received constant, violent criticism until it was finally hauled away in 1989.

Choosing public sculpture is like throwing a dinner party and trying to find a menu the whole city can agree on. The Community Arts Panel, which included the building’s architect, Joseph Fujikawa, and a dozen arts and city-planning professionals, wasn’t trying to insult the public with its decision. Maybe they expected something on the order of the cartoon-colored relief paintings that Stella produced in the 1980s, because the sketch he submitted certainly doesn’t look like the finished product. If so, they got more than they bargained for: a piece with less instant appeal but more likely to offer genuine satisfaction in the long run.

In comparison with Chicago’s other modern public sculptures, The Town-Ho’s Story is certainly hard to love. Where passersby feel invited to touch and climb on works by Picasso, Miro, Calder, Oldenburg, and Dubuffet, Stella’s piece has jagged edges and dangling hunks that look as though they might come loose if tugged. This isn’t to say that it actively alienates the public–as detractors alleged of the Serra piece, which bisected a busy plaza. It won’t pose as a silly bird (like the Picasso) or a Brobdingnagian toy (like the Oldenburg) just to make them smile on their way to work. It refuses to symbolize civic pride, and if Waste Management Division employees want to see junk in it, that is what they’re going to see.

To help people see the “fun” side of the piece, the GSA has erected a display with photos of Stella’s past work, a text describing his career, an assortment of critical raves from sources ranging from the New York Times (“one of the most important artists of the day”) to Elle Decor (“Blade Runner meets Bernini”), and a videotape of the Town-Ho’s installation. Set to a slick jazz sound track, the tape shows cranes operated by men in hard hats lifting the segments of the sculpture out of the truck and setting them down in the lobby. Thanks to time-lapse photography, the whole process takes only about three minutes, with everybody hopping around like Charlie Chaplin. Stella, looking every bit the regular guy, chomps on a cigar, confers with the hard hats, and even sweeps up when it’s all over.

A more appropriate defense might have been one long time-lapse shot of Stella’s artistic output since 1958. (With a better sound track–maybe something from Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, an ensemble in which every instrumentalist is constantly soloing.) That way the development of Stella’s career would be understood in all its relentless logic, and the sculpture would be seen not as sculpture at all but as a large, multidimensional abstract painting.

Over the course of his career Stella has made an incredible journey from minimalism to maximalism. According to Chinese wisdom and Reebok ads, a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. To truly start at the beginning, Stella had to forget the entire history of art. That meant no catching a ride with the Renaissance masters who perfected the science of perspective, no hopping the trains of composition or color to the places they’d reached by the midpoint of the 20th century. That meant painting simple black squares over and over until the artist understood something of what it means to fill in a two-dimensional space, which is exactly what Stella did in the “Black Paintings” of 1958. (John Cage’s silent 4’33” might be their sound track.)

From that point Stella gradually, very gradually, increased the color and dimension of his works. For the artist, every step of the journey was thoroughly considered, and if sometimes it seemed he was making infuriatingly little progress, that just supports the contention that he was determined to follow his own course and not jump all over the map just to avoid boring himself and others. Stella experimented with new materials, making a series of paintings in aluminum, another in copper, and a third using house paint (the “Benjamin Moore” series). In the “Dartmouth” series (1963), he made his first transformation of the rectangular picture surface, painting on canvases shaped into Vs and trapezoids. In the 1970s, in the “Polish Village” series (Mogielnica, Brzozdowce), he moved into the third dimension, advancing a few more millimeters from the wall with each painting. In the 1980s he made paintings out of undulating aluminum shapes in highly artificial colors that by hanging on the wall at all seemed to defy gravity.

At every step Stella has taken care not to fall into the trap of illusionistic space, that seductive but counterproductive invention of past masters. Everything in his career has been done to measure the two-dimensional and three-dimensional space that the works actually occupy. (Images of protractors figured heavily in his 1960s work; in the next decade, he moved to French curves.) He is possibly the least fanciful artist around.

A year ago Stella stopped producing bulkier and bulkier paintings, moving off the wall altogether and onto the floor. Not so much a giant leap as yet another small step along the artist’s journey, that move forced him to think less theoretically about structure, space, and gravity than he had in paintings. Considering how the pattern of his career has evolved, he’s now taking the next logical step by moving into architecture: his next project is a public park in Dresden.

Even as an architect or sculptor, however, Stella is still exploring what a painting can be. He’s brought a depth to painting that goes beyond the dynamic between the wall and the person standing in front of it–which is after all only one way that a painting can define a space. As he’s said, “Abstraction today works to make its own space.”

Perhaps the hostility to The Town-Ho’s Story is an indication that Stella has accomplished his mission. At first the piece seems too big for the space in which it’s been installed. But with time it changes the shape of the lobby, creating a vertiginous sense of the space around it. Passing through the lobby has become a strange adventure, like walking on the moon or under the sea. Spend more time, and Town-Ho evolves a compelling narrative between the big piece and the small piece that, as far as I can tell, has little connection with Moby Dick. (Melville’s “The Town Ho’s Story” chapter actually has a reference to Lake Michigan, but I wouldn’t make too much of the Chicago connection.) Sometimes the big piece seems to threaten the little one, and sometimes it seems to shelter it.

After taking in the sheer variety of shapes and patterns in the work, the impression that it’s a randomly concocted mess disappears. Colors play hide-and-go-seek in these twisted metallic forms. Pea green, violet, fluorescent orange, and brilliant blues fly out at precisely the right dramatic moments. Negative and positive space change places. Gravity changes direction, ever so slightly. If I worked in the Waste Management Division, I’d look forward to passing the sculpture every day, on the edge of my seat as it were, waiting to see what happens next.

Lewis says it best: “When they first brought it in, I couldn’t stand the thing. They told me it would grow on me, and I said, ‘It’s going to fall on me before it grows on me.’ But I spend more time with that thing than anybody else does.” He pauses. “And you know what?” He’s fighting down a big smile.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven Sloman.