The John Crerar Library was first established in 1894 when Chicago resident and railroad supply industry tycoon John Crerar requested that a large portion of his estate be used for “the erection, creation, maintenance and endowment of a free public library.” In 1981, the University of Chicago and the John Crerar Library began the process of combining their holdings, and the University designed and built the library building to meet the needs of the newly merged collection. Construction was already well underway when Mooney began working on the sculpture, and as a result, in many ways, both intentional and seemingly unintentional, Crystara is inextricably tied to the building’s architecture. The sculpture’s materials—the modern production of welded aluminum and the age–old craft of blown glass—echo the bridging of modern and traditional design that the joint architectural team of Stubbins Associates and Loebl, Schlossman, and Hackl sought in their building design. The sculpture’s materials also reprise those out of which the atrium skylight is constructed: aluminum and glass.
However, Crystara's relationship to its site runs much deeper than any superficial connections that might be drawn between the object’s form and facture and the architecture that surrounds it. Mooney describes his choices in material and the ultimate sites of production of those materials as motivated by pure functionality—his desire to realize a specific vision. That vision consisted of several primary factors: refraction of the light that would filter through the skylight during the daytime; a curved, stair–stepped frame with a pewter–like surface; and a sculpture that could be suspended from the ceiling while still occupying a large amount of the space of the atrium. In an effort to achieve those factors, a series of experimental processes occurred in Muncie, Indiana and Waterford, Ireland. Mooney’s artistic labor and the labor of production of his collaborators and assistants are ingrained in the sculpture’s material form, rendering those sites of production inextricable from the sculpture’s meaning.
With respect to the question of light refraction, Mooney explains, “I was working under a prismatic solution to refraction. So I wanted a prism of light to go across.” Frustrated in his attempts to manufacture solid, triangular prisms of the length he desired to appropriately occupy the space of the atrium, Mooney began investigating the possibility of collaborating with a crystal company to produce a hollow form. The clarity and strength of Waterford’s crystal were key to his design goals. However, it was not until he was on site in Waterford working closely with the craftsmen that Mooney determined how to engineer the crystal bars. Working with the limits of the material and age–old methods of handcrafted crystal production, Mooney learned that he would need to produce the bars in twelve–inch sections and find a way to adhere those sections together. Furthermore, the patterns of cuts in the crystal that Mooney designed to refract the light were inspired by his study of Romanesque carvings in nearby Cashel, Ireland. Traces of the labor of Waterford’s craftsmen, the long history of crystal making, and Irish history more broadly, are each carved into the crystal.
With respect to the metal frame, Mooney saw a stair–stepped form as a solution to the problem of propelling library visitors forward. Having settled on aluminum as a means of keeping the sculpture light enough to suspend in space, Mooney was determined to find a way of achieving the pewter–like surface treatment that he envisioned. In contrast to the crystal, which Mooney describes as a “twelfth–century technology,” the reflective surface, primarily industrial associations, and potential for mass production of aluminum allow it to serve as a “neutral” medium—a medium “which cannot be ascribed traditional meanings.” After “twenty–two passes of different grinding discs” run across the frame, primarily performed by Mooney and a single assistant, the desired surface treatment was achieved. Just as the reflective surface of the aluminum was gradually ground away, so was any neutrality of the material. Crystara's aluminum frame indexes those collaborative processes of shaping and welding, of grinding and experimenting and more grinding that all occurred on site at the Watson Steel Center in Indiana.
Despite being mostly created outside of Chicago, Crystara is closely woven into its architectural context in the library. The glass walls of the atrium on the second and third floors of the building provide alternate points of view and offer a means of looking closely at other parts of the sculpture. The rainbows that the sculpture refracts and the shadows that it casts reach outside of its physical boundaries and fluidly integrate the sculpture with the floors and walls of the atrium. Integral to the work, those rainbows and shadows depend upon the skylight above the sculpture. In the words of artist Richard Serra, famously spoken of his site–specific sculpture Tilted Arc (1981),
To remove the work is to destroy the work.
Removing Crystara from its physical context—its specific scaling to the space of the atrium, the access to a multiplicity of views that the three–floored atrium provides, and above all else, the interaction with the skylight above—would destroy it.
Still, in describing his planning process for Crystara in comparison with past site–specific works, Mooney explains that, in the case of the new library building, “The richness of the association is not there in the space. Normally I would go into a site and pull back layer after layer after layer after layer to make sure that I’m working with the cultural identity of a space…those layers didn’t exist in terms of history.” For Mooney, the newness of the physical site of the library was lacking in cultural substance, and was unable to support any deep–seated connections to content. Instead, the inspiration for content had to be located elsewhere. It had to exist somewhere in between the site of display and the sculpture’s alternate sites of creation—somewhere in between Ireland, Indiana, and Illinois, and somewhere in between the large–scale production of crystal in Ireland that had been established by at least the sixteenth century, the explosion of the steel industry in Indiana at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Mooney’s contemporary moment of the 1980s.