About this Project

2013 – 2016

When Christine Mehring first saw Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic sculpture in 2011, it was, as she later wrote in Artforum, “ceding its precarious nature as art.” Commissioned as a “happening” by the Museum of Contemporary Art in January 1970, the concrete-encased 1957 Cadillac was donated to the University in June of that year—and then suffered from decades of weather exposure on a neglected patch of grass before being relocated to a storage facility. Mehring’s first encounter with the sculpture raised the questions at the core of the Material Matters research project. How do the changing qualities of materials alter the way humans experience and interpret art? At what point does a work of art cease to be art? Was it too late to conserve Concrete Traffic? If not, what form should the conservation take?

“I knew from the very beginning that I could not do this alone,” Mehring said. “It’s clear to me that the funding and the imprimatur from the Neubauer Collegium put the proper conservation and return of the sculpture within reach.”

Conserving the work required sustained collaboration among art historians, who studied Vostell’s intentions and situated the project within its historical and theoretical contexts, as well as structural engineers and art and technical objects conservators familiar with nontraditional art materials such as concrete and auto parts. A series of workshops and symposia provided the team with the insights and tools necessary to clean and patch the concrete; repair its underside and reinforce the structure without altering its original form; and identify a public site that would align with the artist’s vision and protect the work from further deterioration. Discussions linked these practical considerations to theoretical questions about aesthetic judgment, artistic intention, the ephemerality of performance art, and cultural translation and heritage.

Two exhibitions in the Neubauer Collegium gallery emerged directly from the Material Matters project. No Longer Art: Salvage Art Institute inaugurated the exhibitions program in the 2015 Spring Quarter with an exploration of works divested of value by insurance companies following accidental damage. Organized in partnership with Elka Krajewska, founder of the Salvage Art Institute, the show questioned the border between art and non-art, prompting visitors to consider how shifts in materiality affect the meaning, aesthetic experience, and commodification of artworks.

Fantastic Architecture: Vostell, Fluxus, and the Built Environment (Winter 2016) contextualized Concrete Traffic in relation to other works by Vostell and his peers in the Fluxus art movement, many of whom shared his interest in disrupting the urban environment through aesthetic experience. Thematically linked to concurrent exhibitions at the Smart Museum and the Special Collections Research Center, Fantastic Architecture was part of the University’s Concrete Happenings celebration, a nine-month series of performances, film screenings, lectures, workshops, and happenings that brought together academics and members of the public to explore the ways that contemporary art can form and transform its publics.

The Material Matters project galvanized an institutional interest in art conservation at the University. In recognition of the value and material sensitivities of its public art collection, the University has hired a full-time public art curator and a conservation manager for its public art collection. The Provost’s Office has convened a Public Art Committee to articulate and advance a campus art policy, oversee sitings and re-sitings of public artworks, evaluate acquisitions, and advise on communications and programming strategies. The project has also created new teaching and career development opportunities. Concrete Traffic is being taught in the recently revamped College Core class “Introduction to Art.” And two annual, newly developed Suzanne Deal Booth Conservation Seminars introduce students to the methods, theories, and strategies of conservation science. Leaders in the Department of Art History, the Institute for Molecular Engineering, and the Humanities Division have identified investment in the growing field of conservation science as a priority.

“If the sciences forge new understanding of materials and the environment at all scales, the arts and humanities can help us grasp the hermeneutic implications and practical applications of that work,” Mehring said. “Fundamentally interdisciplinary in their reach, conservation and conservation science are quintessentially UChicago fields that forge these very connections.”

News

Vostell, Fluxus and the Art of Protest

February 8, 2017

Chicago Tribune art critic Lori Waxman considers how the Neubauer Collegium Exhibition "Fantastic Architecture" offers "a timely study in the ways that certain avant-garde artists in the late 1960s and early '70s made art that looked like art while taking protest to heart."

Concrete Car Sparks Dialogue on Public Art

January 26, 2017

Three new exhibitions at the University of Chicago examine the meaning of Wolf Vostell’s iconic sculpture Concrete Traffic, conserved and restored by Faculty Fellow Christine Mehring (Art History) as part of the Material Matters research project at the Neubauer Collegium. "Having Concrete Traffic back, and staging these three exhibitions simultaneously, makes for an extraordinary moment for visual art on campus, an example of what can happen when scholarly research, pedagogical training, and public engagement come together," Mehring tells UChicago News.

Winter Preview: 10 Art Shows Not to Miss

December 28, 2016

The Neubauer Collegium exhibition Vostell, Fluxus, and the Built Environment is cited, along with the Smart Museum's "Vostell Concrete: 1969–1973," among the Chicago Tribune's must-see art shows of the season.
 

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