By Jeff Huebner
He first saw the artwork in 1959, when he was 17 years old. Melvyn Skvarla had taken a summer job as a cook at Marshall Field’s Cloud Room, an upscale restaurant in the terminal at Midway, then known as the Chicago Municipal Airport. The mobile was the centerpiece of the restaurant; its brass elements reflected the lights of airplanes as they took off and landed.
Skvarla never had a chance to see the mobile up close: “All the fancy people got to use the front entrance, but we had to come in the back.” He does recall being told that the piece was by Alexander Calder and that it was called “Birds in Flight.”
“I don’t remember a plaque,” says Skvarla, an architect with VOA Associates who has also taught classes on the history of design and architecture at various area colleges. “But I think I remember it slowly turning, rotating–it was supposed to be motorized.” Skvarla says the mobile was the only one Calder ever made out of solid brass. “You can see where, in my opinion, he was trying to imitate cirrus clouds.”
The artwork’s lack of attribution confused University of Iowa art professor Frank Seiberling. In his 1959 book Looking Into Art, Seiberling compared a well-known Calder mobile unfavorably with an unidentified mobile “in a fine midwestern restaurant,” writing that the latter was “inept” and “comparatively pedestrian and clumsy.” Skvarla came across the book in 1960 when he enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The book even included a photograph of the mystery mobile.
“I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute–that’s the Cloud Room,'” recalls Skvarla. “So I wrote to Seiberling and said, ‘That’s an Alexander Calder, and you’re comparing one Calder to another.’ We wrote back and forth for a while. Eventually he asked how old I was. When he found out I was only 17 at the time I first saw it, he said, ‘Get lost, kid, what do you know?’–though it wasn’t in that exact language.” When the Cloud Room closed in 1964, the mobile vanished.
Calder, who died in 1976, had a career that spanned more than half a century. Born in Philadelphia in 1898, the son and grandson of well-known sculptors, Calder was trained as a mechanical engineer, but in the mid-20s he went to Europe to study art. He made the transition from bent-wire pieces to abstract kinetic sculpture after visiting the Paris studio of Piet Mondrian in 1930: “How fine it would be if everything there moved,” he would later recall thinking of Mondrian’s colorful paintings.
Within two years, Calder had started to attach brightly colored metal plates to rods and wires, creating constructions that could be set in motion by air currents or motors. Marcel Duchamp dubbed these works “mobiles”–prompting artist Jean Arp to label Calder’s stationary sculptures “stabiles.” Soon after he and his wife, Louisa, returned to America in the mid-30s, Calder’s mobiles would make him this country’s most famous–and best-loved–sculptor. A compulsive tinkerer, he was also playful, knocking out toys as well as such useful creations as pans, ladles, sieves, and silverware.
Calder had a long association with Chicago. The city boasts three public sculptures by the artist. Red Petals, an eight-and-a-half-foot-high combination mobile and stabile, was commissioned by the Arts Club of Chicago in 1942, when it was located in the Wrigley Building; the piece is now displayed in the club’s facility at 201 E. Ontario. Flamingo, the soaring red stabile in the Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams, and Universe, a mechanical mural in the lobby of Sears Tower depicting the big bang theory, were both dedicated on the same day–October 25, 1974. On that day, the city staged a circus parade between the two works, and the 76-year-old Calder led the procession himself. There are also 3 Calder works in the Art Institute, and 13 pieces, dating from 1928 to ’65, in the Museum of Contemporary Art.
But Skvarla always knew there was another Calder in the local roster. After studying architecture at IIT, he became the director of campus planning at Northeastern Illinois University. Though he was “always curious” about what had happened to the mobile after the Cloud Room closed, it would be years before he undertook the research to determine the fate of that piece. “I kept putting it off and putting it off. Then when I had a little time, I said, well, OK, I’m just going to do it.”
In early 1997, Skvarla began sending out letters. He wrote to the city’s departments of aviation and cultural affairs, then sent a letter to Marshall Field’s corporate offices. His timing was fortuitous–it was the 50th anniversary of the mobile’s creation, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was planning a major retrospective, “Alexander Calder: 1898-1976,” which would open the following year to mark the centennial of the artist’s birth.
The Aviation Department’s Midway office was the first to get back to Skvarla; as far as it knew, the piece was still the property of Marshall Field’s. He went back to Field’s. What he discovered was this: For 31 years the artwork sat unseen in storage at the State Street store. Finally, in 1995, Field’s opened a store at Northbrook Court and took the sculpture with them. “They must have discovered it and said, ‘This is going to look nice,'” Skvarla says.
But when he saw the mobile again, in July 1997, the piece didn’t look right. Dangling above a temporary display of Elizabeth Arden products, “it was totally bundled up and wasn’t at all as free.” He concluded it hadn’t been hung properly. After corresponding with the Alexander and Louisa Calder Foundation in New York, Skvarla learned that the mobile’s proper title was Brass in the Sky, not “Birds in Flight.” He then found a 1948 newspaper ad for the Cloud Room’s grand opening that featured an illustration of the “modern mobile sculpture by Alexander Calder.” Skvarla copied the ad from microfilm at the Chicago Historical Society; that illustration, as well as the photo in Seiberling’s book, showed how Calder intended the mobile to be displayed.
A small counterweight at the end of a long horizontal bar was supposed to allow the other five brass elements to revolve freely on one side. But Field’s had the long bar and counterweight at the middle of the sculpture, with three elements on one side, and two on the other. The mobile also wasn’t moving–and it wasn’t even identified as a Calder, though the artist had inscribed his name and the year it was made on the largest piece of brass. Skvarla pointed out these problems in letters to the chairman of the board and to the president of the retail division of Dayton-Hudson, Field’s parent company in Minneapolis. He also sent copies of his correspondence to Field’s in Chicago. By early 1998, he and Paul Gray, director of Richard Gray Gallery, succeeded in getting the Northbrook Court store to rehang the piece correctly.
Now it’s suspended above a wide aisle separating swimwear and women’s apparel. Surrounded by hot pink “Clearance” signs, it might easily be mistaken for fancy retail ornament–a glitzy fixture meant to complement the three gold-colored mannequins standing just beneath it. The work still isn’t marked. Field’s spokeswoman Lynne Galia says the store currently has no plans to install a plaque. “We have looked at the space where the mobile is hung, and there’s no wall in that particular area that makes sense. There really isn’t a space for identification where people could readily see it. We’re still reviewing that.”
Skvarla, however, guesses that Field’s may be reluctant to identify the sculpture because of its value. “I don’t think they want to know how valuable it is,” he says. “It might be vulnerable. People may not purposefully vandalize it, but who knows what people might do today?” Skvarla has tried, but failed, to find out how much Field’s originally paid for the piece in 1947. Gray offered to have the work appraised but the store “wasn’t interested.” The brass mobile is a rarity in Calder’s oeuvre, Skvarla says, estimating it might fetch between $500,000 and $1,000,000 (the larger Flamingo cost $250,000 in the mid-70s). Paul Gray, Calder’s dealer in Chicago, agrees the piece would bring in at least half a million.
Skvarla is a longtime preservationist. As secretary of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois in the mid-1970s, he helped prevent the city from removing the two Tiffany stained-glass domes in the old Chicago Public Library, now the Chicago Cultural Center. And several years ago, on behalf of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, he was able to identify–and save–a series of 1890s murals by Edgar Cameron in Daniel Burnham’s Railway Exchange Building. Restoring Calder’s Brass in the Sky to public attention–and to proper display–has been no less rewarding. The Chicago Public Art Program–which has come under fire in recent years for misplacing several artworks in its own collection–extended its gratitude. “I got a nice letter congratulating me for restoring the sculpture to public knowledge,” Skvarla says. “They didn’t know where it was.”
As a result of his dealings with the store, Skvarla says, Field’s provided documentation of the piece in its current location to the Calder Foundation, which has extensive holdings and archives (Skvarla also sent along photographs). The foundation has been working on Calder’s catalogue raisonne for 11 years; containing some 16,000 works, the collection will eventually be published as a 35-volume encyclopedia, according to director Alexander Rower, a grandson of the artist.
Yet Rower downplays Skvarla’s sleuthing. “We’ve always known Marshall Field’s to own it,” he says. “It’s not like it was ever lost.” He says the foundation has files describing the mobile in detail, as well as a letter from Field’s to the artist informing him that the work would be moved from Midway.
When asked if Brass in the Sky ever rotated, Rower replies, “It was never intended to be motorized. It doesn’t need a motor. What it needs is air.” He says Cloud Room architect Alfred Shaw was confused as well. When he drew up plans for the restaurant, Shaw indicated a spot for a motor, thinking Calder’s mobile needed one. Rower doesn’t mind that the sculpture is hanging anonymously in a suburban shopping mall. “I don’t think it’s a tragedy if it doesn’t have a tag,” he says. “All that matters is that people are able to enjoy it.”
Skvarla agrees–up to a point. “It’s better to be hung in a public place where people can see it than to be put away in a storage room. But at the same time, I feel the space is too low. It should be higher up on a ceiling, with spotlights glistening on the brass.”
But for now, Skvarla says, he’s satisfied. He recalls studying the mobile one day last summer when a couple stopped to admire it. “They looked at it and walked around it,” he says. “It made me feel nice that someone was interested.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chicago Sun-Times/photo/Nathan Mandell.