Calder’s The Universe Sculpture at Willis Tower Disassembled With Future Unknown

Chicago is home to one of the world’s finest collections of 20th Century public art and sculpture. That collection was started with the 1967 installation of the Picasso at Daley Center. The two Alexander Calder masterpieces of Flamingo in Federal Center and The Universe in the lobby of the Sears Tower were unveiling on the same day, October 25, 1974. Their installation were cause for city-wide celebration.

“Chicago hosted a parade for the sculptor, which featured more than a dozen circus wagons, clowns, unicyclists and multiple marching bands. Calder was in the parade and was introduced by Chicago architect Carter Manny as “the one and only, Alexander the Great.” and were celebrated with a parade lead by the Mayor and Sculptor.” (Kamin, 2/1/17)

The Universe is a monumental, colorful, kinetic, motorized, playful mobile that depicts an abstract version of the celestial bodies including the sun, moon and starts. For 43 years, it has stood as a delightfully whimsical visual counterpoint to the serious, monochromatic, and highly geometric Sears Tower.

At the time of publication, work crews were actively dismantling this world-class work of art. A spokesperson for the current owner of the Willis Tower wrote that Blackstone/Equity Office was “taking every precaution to safely transfer the sculpture, which will be stored at a fine art handling company until its owners determine its next destination”

Its unclear where the next destination will be, but it can be assumed that it will likely not be reinstalled in the lobby of Willis Tower. The first sign of trouble surfaced in February, 2017 when renderings of Willis’ lobby redesign were released and The Universe was notably absent from the $500 million renovation plan.

New York based Blackstone purchased the landmark skyscraper in 2015. Blair Kamin has reported that Calder’s The Universe was excluded from the sale and that a legal dispute remains on-going between Sears Holding Corp, the original owner, and the consortium that purchased the building in 2005 which included Skokie-based American Landmark Properties.

Preservation Chicago’s decision to include 20th Century Public Art as a 2017 Chicago 7 most endangered has proved to be highly timely. Preservation Chicago’s decision actually preceded the emergence of the Calder threat. It was based upon the ongoing threat to the Dubuffet at the Thompson Center/State of Illinois Building and the tragic loss of other important works of art including the monumental Henry Moore bronze that once dominated the lobby of Three First National. It vanished during a lobby remodel and then in 2016 was sold at auction in London for millions.

Even more concerning, Preservation Chicago has received credible information that Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons at First National Bank and the Plaza itself might be in jeopardy as the Plaza is being quietly being marketed for as a vacant site for a new high-rise development.

Additionally, the world-renown Flamingo by Calder that creates such a powerful and iconic contrast to Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center modern masterpiece is possibly endangered with redevelopment options being explored for the one-story post office and Federal Center Plaza.  Ward Miller provides greater details in this Chicago Tonight article, Preservation Chicago Sounds the Alarm Over “Flamingo” Sculpture

Mayor Emanuel and Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism wing, have dubbed 2017 the “Year of Public Art in Chicago” to celebrate Chicago’s magnificent art collection in the Loop and artistry throughout the neighborhoods. Ironically, it might prove to be the year in which some of Chicago’s greatest public art disappears from the city.

The possibility of losing such extraordinary masterpieces is truly shocking. Preservation Chicago is profoundly concerned about this trend and is advocating for a Thematic Chicago Landmark District to be created to protect the most important examples of 20th Century Chicago Public Art, along with the contextual plazas in which they are installed.

Preservation Chicago believes that a first class sculpture, like The Universe, should remain in Chicago in the public view. If not at Willis Tower, then perhaps it could be donated to major Chicago art institution such as The Art Institute or The Museum of Contemporary Art. To this end, Preservation Chicago has been in touch James Rondeau, Director of the Art Institute, who has indicated a willingness to accept a donation if it were to be materialize along with the funds to properly mount and prominently display such an important work of world-class art.

Additional Reading and Listening

Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago was interviewed on WBEZ’s Morning Edition regarding threats against 20th Century Chicago Public Art and in which he “broke the story” regarding the imminent threats to both the Chagall and Calder’s Flamingo and Federal Center.

The 3 Most Endangered Public Art Installations In Chicago, WBEZ Morning Shift, 3/29/17, (15 Minute Interview Recorded Live) 

Preservation Chicago Sounds the Alarm Over “Flamingo” Sculpture, WTTW Chicago Tonight, Erica Gunderson, 3/30/17

Willis Tower Calder mobile coming down, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 3/28/17

Alexander Calder sculpture will no longer live in Willis Tower lobby, Curbed Chicago, AJ LaTrace, 3/28/17

The fate of Alexander Calder’s Universe hangs in the balance, The Art Newspaper, Victoria Stapley-Brown, 3/29/17

Calder’s ‘Universe’ sculpture not part of Willis Tower renovation, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 2/1/17


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