Review: Vostell Concrete at the Smart Museum of Art

To celebrate the return of Concrete Traffic, a 1970 sculpture conceived by Wolf Vostell (1932-1998) specifically for Chicago, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago has organized “Vostell Concrete: 1969-1973,” one of three exhibitions across the campus that place Vostell’s significant sculpture in context.

Wolf Vostell, Concrete Traffic, 1970, silkscreen, private collection
Concrete Traffic, 1970, silkscreen

Concrete Traffic, a 1957 Cadillac De Ville encased in concrete, has returned to public view at the University of Chicago after more than seven years in storage, where it was moved to make way for campus construction in 2009. The sculpture was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1970, a year after Vostell “concretified” his own parked car and left it in a lot in his hometown of Cologne, Germany; the Chicago car was given to the University of Chicago in June 1970. The current series of exhibitions and programming across the university is a celebration of the car’s restoration and new installation in a ground-level spot in the campus’s North Parking Garage, near Court Theatre.

Wolf Vostell  is primarily known as a frontrunner of the Fluxus movement, a transatlantic effort that began in the 1960s and stretched into the ’70s. Drawing on absurdity, chance, the everyday experiences of life, and the participation of others, Fluxus artists sought to challenge the traditional barriers between art and life, arguing that art should be defined not by museums and galleries, but by those who participated in its creation. Acts called “Happenings” were often the vehicle for this challenge, taking form in random or planned performances that deliberately disturbed traditional or expected methods and ways of life. Wolf Vostell was known to initiate politically motivated Happenings that sometimes resulted in tangible objects. Aligning with the nature of a Fluxus Happening, Vostell’s concrete Cadillac continues to engage participants, upending the traditional habits of society. Unable to perform its function and drive, the car is a static surprise in the parking garage, unexpectedly encountered and necessarily navigated by people and cars using the garage as expected.

“Vostell Concrete” showcases the artist’s additional uses of concrete in a selection of mixed-media works, sculpture, books, drawings, and pamphlets. One room focuses specifically on the production and effect of Concrete Traffic, including drawings and a silkscreen depicting the Cadillac in its original Chicago location (see above), in a rented parking space near the Museum of Contemporary Art. In this environment, the car’s cold, heavy presence and sharp lines must have made a startling impact.

Foreground: Berlin Chair (Concretification), 1970. Background, right: Concrete Cloud over Chicago, 1970.

In its new location, Concrete Traffic replicates a Fluxus moment by disturbing the conventional habits of society; in the exhibition, the first object the viewer encounters, a three-dimensional pentagonal concrete block on a low pedestal, also serves as a physical obstacle. Berlin Chair (Concretification), from 1971, is the lasting result—a so-called “event-sculpture”—from the public encasement in concrete of a Bofinger chair at a Berlin furniture store. The Bofinger chair was ubiquitous; developed in Germany in 1964, it was the first mass-produced chair to be made from a single element (plastic), and, with its portable, lightweight, and stackable attributes, it had become a symbol of efficiency and modern production. By encasing this ordinary but revolutionary object in concrete, Vostell denies its function and symbolism as a consumer object while creating a tribute to the moment in which it was created. Berlin Chair introduces themes of preservation and destruction that are continuously highlighted throughout the exhibition, individually and together, to emphasize loss and creation. Preservation has other consequences as well: it can honor and maintain the past, but it can also create a burden for the future to carry, making history an oppressive responsibility. Vostell implies all of these facets with the “concretification” of objects like the Berlin Chair.

Arrival of the Concrete Cloud from Chicago in Zurich, 1972

Vostell also reimagines cityscapes, incorporating concrete into mixed-media wall works to highlight themes of urbanization, globalization, and consumerism; humor is scattered throughout to balance out the literal and symbolic weight of the material. A gelatin silver print and a silkscreen both track a nomadic concrete cloud as it floats from the skies over Chicago to an idyllic view onto Lake Zurich from the city. For Concrete Cloud over Chicago (1970) and Arrival of the Concrete Cloud from Chicago in Zurich (1972), Vostell used the same jagged rectangle mold to cast a concrete block and affix it to the printed scene. In Concrete Cloud over Chicago, the block is a jarring addition to the fluffy black-and-white scene behind it; in the Zurich piece, the concrete cloud occupies an otherwise cloudless sky, a heavy but amusing presence over the lakeside city. In creating a work of art, Vostell again denies the properties of thing he concretifies; the regeneration of clouds from water to air and back are the expected cycles of nature that Vostell aimed to upset. The fact that this disruption could travel across the Atlantic is a nod to the rapid growth and connectivity that Vostell was seeing, particularly with the Fluxus movement, across the world.  

Left: Olympia I-IV, 1972. Right: Concrete Cuffs, c. 1972

Vostell was also interested in how concrete could alter and transform the human body. His Concrete Cuffs (1972) two of which are on display in a case, also appear two-dimensionally in a series of four silkscreens, Olympia I-IV, that the artist made to protest the 1972 Munich Olympics. Appropriating imagery likely taken from newspaper photographs of victims of the Vietnam War, Vostell superimposed concrete cuffs onto the arms of the dead. The cuffs add an idea of weight to the already heavy appearance of the lifeless figures, and the photographic reproductions of the bodies are contrasted with empty, ice-blue colored space, adding to the chill of the overall effect. The physical cuffs themselves are squat tunnels meant to lay over an arm or leg; with their rounded interior shape and blocky or faceted exterior, one can imagine, and perhaps fear, the weight imposed by them.The silkscreen images are both moving and overwhelming, palpable illustrations of Vostell’s frustration not only with the senselessness of war, but of celebrating the Olympics while war and destruction were raging. The label for Olympia I-IV includes his motivating question: “‘Why does someone being chased in a time of war and running for that reason not receive a medal, when the Olympics practice a cult of medals?’” The gravity of this question weighs heavy, and Vostell could only answer it by layering even more weight on top.

Vostell Concrete is an incisive and rewarding consideration of the various meanings concrete would take as Wolf Vostell used it in different ways to dramatically alter and reimagine aspects of society, nature and human life.

Vostell Concrete: 1969-1973 is on view through June 11 at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Admission is free. For more info on the exhibition visit the Smart Museum’s website.

Taylor L. Poulin
Taylor L. Poulin