Dialogo: Virginio Ferrari and Chicago takes as its topic a pivotal moment in the history of 20th-century public art that is, in many ways, a distinctly American practice of relating sculpture to architectural space—of designing sculpture to extend into a building’s surroundings and landscape. While the intersection of art and architecture today underpins many design discussions, its postwar history in the United States has primarily surfaced in the context of architectural discourse, and remains largely unexamined from the perspective of public artists. The relationship of art and architecture is a core theme of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, for example, which acknowledges that “both practices have evolved around the changing nature of public space, in the function of specific sites, and in the expanding definitions of national and civic identities,” but chiefly prioritizes the history of architecture. This series of programs will complicate that conversation and engage with the history of public art and architecture through the example of a Chicago artist whose work bridges those two intertwined contexts, while allowing recent, concrete examples of present practice from the Biennial and the city’s overlapping Year of Public Art 2017 (YOPA) to supplement that dialogue.
Virginio Ferrari’s connection to Chicago’s rich history of art and design is represented in more than thirty works around the city, with many more sculptures in Illinois, the U.S., and around the globe. These myriad works link his practice both to the national art world in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, as well as to the international art world in cities like Belgium, Ecuador, China, and his native Italy. His practice is representative of the work of his contemporaries within and around buildings in the 20th century, and can serve as a gateway to a broader understanding of the history of public art in relation to architecturally-defined spaces. Often abstract but biomorphic, often made from industrial materials but employed in unexpected ways, and often large yet human-scaled, these artworks both echoed and countered the austerity and consistency of so many Mies and SOM high-rises and the vast plazas framing them, redefining the image of American cities in a new age of international air travel and image circulation. As a result of Chicago’s extensive and exceptional mid-century modern architecture, no other city boasts so many, and so many great, examples of such architecturally-informed commissions of public art, ranging from corporate commissions (Harry Bertoia’s 1975 “Sounding Sculpture” for Edward Durrell Stone’s Standard Oil Building), to federal commissions (Alexander Calder’s 1974 Flamingo for Mies van der Rohe’s Kluczynski Federal Building), to institutional commissions (Ferrari’s 1971 Dialogo for the University of Chicago’s brutalist Pick Hall for International Studies).
Though many of Ferrari’s works across the city could feature prominently in this program series, the breadth of his work on the South Side provides a unique opportunity to have an intensive, localized discussion around a small set of sculptures, which will help create a conceptual frame within which to understand his other works and those of his contemporaries in similar contexts. The UChicago campus and Hyde Park community are in the singular position of being able to explore a variety of questions through a public art collection that spans decades of Ferrari’s career. Because he was a sculptor–in–residence at UChicago for a decade and has since remained intimately connected to Hyde Park, there are eight of his works within the immediate vicinity that can offer substantive experiences with public art from both the 20th and 21st centuries. One of these works even serves as a case study for the complex negotiations between artists and architects: during the creation of the building that became the Smart Museum of Art and the Cochrane Woods Art Center, Ferrari developed a design and maquette for the courtyard gates that the architect ultimately adapted only partially, raising pressing questions about creative agency and authorship amidst art and design collaborations. Another seminal work, Thirty Spheres, will offer an exceptional way to learn about the impact created by moving site-specific artworks from one spatial or architectural context to another—Thirty Spheres was originally installed in a tightly circumscribed space on the concrete floor of One Illinois Center in downtown Chicago and subsequently moved to a private home in Indiana, only to eventually be placed on an expansive lawn in the South Side’s Bixler Park next to a playground and the William H. Ray Elementary School, renamed by the artist as Like the Time They Go.