Imagine a tinker tape parade, thousands of spectators lining the streets, a smiling celebrity waving from the back of a bandwagon. As unlikely as it seems, this is exactly what transpired on October 25, 1974, when the City of Chicago unveiled its newest piece of public art- Alexander Calder's Flamingo. Certainly not the usual reception for Modern art, the circus-themed opening of Calder's bright red sculpture was met with great fanfare, and decades later the work still remains a beloved part of the Chicago landscape.
More on Calder's midcentury masterpiece on claass HAUS today.
The first work commissioned by the General Services Administration's (GSA) federal Art in Architecture Program, Alexander Calder's iconic Flamingo stands in Chicago's Federal Center Plaza. In contrast to the surrounding steel and glass Modernist buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (the Everett McKinley Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, the John C. Kluczynski Building, and the Loop Post Office) the abstract sculpture emerges from the urban square, bold and dynamic, its brilliant red color (Calder Red) juxtaposing against the dark facades of its Bauhaus-inspired neighbors. A stabile, a freestanding form of sculpture pioneered by Calder himself, the piece is transformative, visually uniting the plaza in its industrial materiality and shared affection for Modern design. Stationary but still somehow embodying movement, the Flamingo interacts with its environment, and despite its monumentality (50 tons and 53x24x60 feet), still connects with the individual, who is free to weave through its curves and angles. In true Calder fashion, the sculpture's immense curvilinear forms are both bold enough to counteract the adjacent Miesian Modernism and clever enough to acknowledge human scale.
While the Miesian buildings can seem muted and detached, Calder's Flamingo is organic and whimsical. Evoking that famous yard ornament (you know the one), the Flamingo is a playful piece of performance, its iconic vocabulary adorning the plaza like a red exclamation mark. The sculpture is daring and dramatic, bringing color, movement, and energy into the shared public space. Today, even after four decades, the Flamingo remains a true Chicago icon, a celebrated and crowd-pleasing piece of American Modernism.
You can visit Calder's Flamingo at 50 W. Adams Street (it's free!).
(Interestingly, Calder's Willis Tower mobile was recently disassembled and put into storage, causing some fear that the Flamingo could be next. Last March, Preservation Chicago expressed concern that Calder's red masterpiece could be removed from its location if the Federal Center site was sold to private developers (rumors of a sale have persisted), but for now the Flamingo still stands, offering plenty of good opportunities for dedicated Instagrammers.)
Image at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Sculpture "Flamingo" at Federal Center Plaza, John C. Kluczynski Federal Building, Chicago, Illinois, 2007. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2010719975.
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