To understand the accomplishments of Fluxus and video art pioneer Wolf Vostell (1932-1998), a good place to start is with Concrete Traffic, a 1970 piece in which a 1957 Cadillac is encased in concrete. The artwork, after five years of conservation, has been returned to the University of Chicago, where it will be permanently located near the entrance of a parking garage not far from the Smart Museum of Art. Its restoration spawned three exhibitions across the campus, providing valuable insight into its creation, Vostell's career, and the unruly artistic milieu he helped shape.
Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the sixteen-ton work was meant to be both performance and street art. (The German-born Vostell's debut Happening took place in Paris in 1958, the same year he became the first artist to integrate television into a work of art. Titled Transmigration, the piece consists of a slashed canvas incorporating a flickering screen.) The entire construction of Concrete Traffic, including the building of the wooden mold and the pouring of the concrete, took place in full view of the public. The blocky object, in which only the bottom of the car's tires are left visible, was originally displayed in a gritty downtown parking lot, where a space was rented for it alongside regular cars. "Suddenly, the man on the street is unexpectedly confronted with something ordinary that is not quite right," stated a museum press release at the time. After the parking rental was up, Vostell and the MCA found a new home for the piece, transferring ownership to the University of Chicago in June 1970.
The Smart Museum's exhibition "Vostell Concrete, 1969-1978," on view through June 11 and featuring forty-seven objects ranging from sculptures to ephemera, zeroes in on the decade when concrete became the focus of Vostell's practice. One of the three galleries chronicles the realization of Concrete Traffic via a rich array of sketches, photographs, books, and even a short period film by David Katzive, the MCA's first curator. A key selection is the Smart's recently acquired Cadillac in Concrete (ca. 1970), a medium-size collage on chipboard that pairs an enlarged photo spread of the car in Artforum with a plaster relief of the sculpture below.
Vostell was skeptical of attempts to immortalize ephemeral art, yet he sought to document Concrete Traffic as thoroughly as possible. He had little reason to expect that this "event sculpture," as he called the work, would be around nearly five decades later, especially since the concrete he used was susceptible to degradation. Today Concrete Traffic can be seen from the street, but a far better view is up close. The delicious incongruity of this startling sight draws a chuckle, as it probably did all those years ago.
Concrete was a way for Vostell to intervene, alter, and comment on the world around him. Sometimes his concrete projects were realized, as with Concrete Traffic, and Berlin Chair (Concretification), 1971, which was on view at the Smart. But more often they were imagined endeavors that existed only in various renderings, such as his fanciful notions of encasing entire cities like Berlin and New York in concrete. Vostell's preferred medium was collage, and he would include low-relief shapes, often using cement or plaster as a concrete stand-in.
In some cases, Vostell capitalized on concrete's innate bulkiness and impenetrability. But in others, as the Smart exhibition makes clear, he ignored or defied its physical properties, seeing the material as a kind of all-purpose elixir. In Concrete Cloud Over Chicago (1970), a concrete shape is affixed to a black-and-white photograph of clouds. In the more politically charged B 52 in Laos on a Mission (1970), a plaster collage decrying the Vietnam War, he imagines the lethal bomber in concrete.
Deserving particular mention is Concrete Book (1971), since editions of this iconic piece figure significantly both in the Smart show and in "Concrete Poetry, Concrete Book: Artists' Books in German-Speaking Space after 1945," which recently closed at the Special Collections Research Center. The work weighs twenty pounds and consists of a copy of Vostell's book Concretifications (1971)––comprising unbound cards and transparent sheets with drawings of some of his real and imagined projects––hidden in concrete. Subverting the functionality and easy commodification of an ordinary book, the work speaks to the artist's ambivalent attitude toward documenting transient art. At the same time, it is an artistic commodity in itself.
"Concrete Poetry, Concrete Book" explored how artists of the period like Vostell, Richard Hamilton, Jörg Immendorff, Allan Kaprow, and Dieter Roth used books both as tools to document their work and as artistic materials. On view was Roth's Literature Sausage (1969), in which a copy of the Bild newspaper has been shredded, spiced, and placed in a sausage casing. Examples of concrete poetry included Gerhard Rühm's Motion (14.3.1957), 1964, a loose-leaf book in which the type is arranged in an arrow form, and Hansjörg Mayer's Type-Actions (1967), a fold-out piece that plays with the alphabet.
Conceptual interventions in urban space are considered in the third related exhibition, "Fantastic Architecture: Vostell, Fluxus, and the Built Environment," on view at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society through May 17. Among several images from an influential 1969 Fluxus book by Vostell and Dick Higgins, which provides the show's title, are Vostell's wild photomontage mash-ups of a giant television attached to the Hradcany Castle in Prague and an oversize electric iron atop the Cathedral of Aachen. In addition, the show makes clear the obvious connection between Vostell and Christo and Jeanne-Claude by including a collage related to the couple's Project for a Temporary Wall of Metal Drums, Rue Visconti, Paris VI (1962). As Vostell used concrete, Christo and Jeanne-Claude use fabric, treating it as a tool with which to wrap buildings, encircle islands, and block canyons. While Vostell never gained the international celebrity that has followed the artist couple, his tradition-busting work as well as that of his peers resonates strongly today in an art world preoccupied with transitory interventions and unorthodox materials.