From the Carnegie International to the Airport


From the Carnegie International to the Airport

Author: Alex J. Taylor

Assistant Professor and Academic Curator, Department of History of Art and Architecture

When the Carnegie Museum of Art asked Alexander Calder to design a mobile for the 1958 Carnegie International, they hoped for something spectacular, ‘like a tremendous chandelier in an opera house.’ I rather fancy the idea of mobiles as a kind of modernist chandelier, and do not think it is such a stretch to understand the airport where this work ended up as the architectural heir to the opera house. The fate of this work has not been, however, quite as decorous as such comparisons would suggest. This fascinating and sometimes troubled history was the subject of a talk I recently gave to staff and visitors at the Pittsburgh International Airport, organized by the Office of Public Art.

Donated to the Allegheny County by Pittsburgh industrialist and collector G. David Thompson, the idea to install the work at the airport seems to have originated with museum staff, perhaps inspired by Calder’s mobile recently commissioned for the International Arrivals Building in New York. But once installed in Pittsburgh’s old airport terminal in 1959, the difficulties began almost immediately. Concerned that the work ‘might give the impression of a whirling saw that might decapitate travellers’, airport administrators urged Calder to allow modifications to the work. Calder refused, but they altered the work anyway – weighing the form down with weights to limit its mobility, and most alarmingly, repainting the sculpture in the county colors of yellow and green.

With Calder’s approval, the work was repainted red in 1960, but this paint job was also a problem, turning out rather more pink than expected. According to the memory of one attendee of my talk, the result was a muted shade of ‘salmon’. After Calder’s death in 1976, mounting criticisms of the condition of the work culminated in a series of impassioned articles by University of Pittsburgh student Diana Rose. Returned to the Carnegie Museum of Art for the 1979 Carnegie International, the work was restored to its original black and white scheme, and finally reinstalled in the new airport terminal in 1992.

First developed as a paper in a seminar for a class offered at Pitt by Professor Reinhold Heller, the pubilcation of Rose’s research turned the early history of Calder’s Pittsburgh into something of a textbook case concerning the mistreatment of public sculpture. But even after the material form of this sculpture was returned to Calder’s intention, it has endured other more immaterial interventions. Take, for instance, a 1990s flyer about the work that claimed that the work's ‘four large leaves under each other represent the four major steel industries’ and that ‘three large leaves under each other represent the three rivers’. By the time I read from this flyer, visitors to my talk were informed enough to recognize the absurdity of such symbolic claims, wholly contrary to Calder’s approach. ‘Fake news!’ exclaimed one in the audience.

The condition of the sculpture is now exemplary, and there is no doubt that everyone responsible for its care understands the importance of this task. But the meanings of the work deserve the same attention as its material form, and tall tales of the sort included in this flyer have a way of hanging around. I am pleased to have helped debunk at least one myth about this most unwaveringly abstract of Calder’s mobiles, and shed new light on its history for staff at the airport to share with others.

Thank you to Akemi May, Lulu Lippincott and Elizabeth Tufts-Brown at CMOA, and Rachel Klipa and Derek Reese from the Office of Public Art for assisting with my research.

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