The Historicity of Form: Challenges Posed by Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic

Lisa Zaher

The form of a work of art, at once materially present and self evident, we are told, makes manifest an internal logic and significance.

Something very different happens when our account of the art historical object addresses the question of form while also acknowledging the work’s existence in historical time. For this condition opens form up to systems of transformation, subject not only to the effects of entropy (for example, the aging of materials and their exposure to the conditions of display), but also to instances of artistic intentionality that can be wildly at odds from one moment to the next (particularly when artistic agency rests with multiple agents and the work exists within diverse contexts). Acknowledging a work of art’s existence in historical time means opening up the possibility that the material presence of a single work of art may not reveal a singular intention. Mapping a work of art’s material existence back to moments of artistic agency may in fact reveal that the form of a single work of art itself—the confluence of its material conditions and internal logic—is an historically contingent concept, one that can fluctuate from an emphasis on the conceptual to the material, and may embrace, in turns, the intentionality of form and the contingencies of formlessness.

An acknowledgement of the historicity of form is necessary in the case of the German Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic (1970), a large, outdoor, public sculpture consisting of a 1957 Cadillac DeVille encased in concrete. The sculpture has been the subject of a five-year material investigation and conservation study led by Christine Mehring, Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago, and Christian Scheidemann, Senior Conservator and President of Contemporary Conservation, Ltd., New York.[i] This technical study has foregrounded the importance of considering the historicity of the sculpture’s form, as marked by various stages of the sculpture’s development, in order to conserve the work and preserve its historical significance.

Vostell conceived the sculpture in 1969, upon the invitation of Jan van der Marck, the first director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA), as an “event sculpture,” a kind of happening or performative intervention into everyday life. In this case, the intervention involved pouring concrete over a car, set within a large wooden mold, inside a busy commuter parking lot in downtown Chicago on a wintery morning in 1970. While the artist conceived the sculpture (and had previously created a version of it in Cologne, Germany in October of 1969, with the assistance of a structural engineer and another sculptor), he left the fabrication of the Chicago iteration largely in the hands of a young sculptor named James O’Hara, who had recently graduated with an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and worked at the MCA as a preparator.

Understanding the form of Concrete Traffic requires knowledge of several different factors:

  • The conceptual drawing made by the artist likely prior to fabrication.
  • The molds that James O’Hara built around the 1957 Cadillac, intended to establish the contours of the sculpture.
  • That immediately after the molds were removed in January 1970 it was revealed that in several areas the concrete did not completely fill the mold form.
  • That several months later patches were applied to smooth the edges of the sculpture and fill in gaps where the concrete did not fill in.
  • The previous iteration of the sculpture in Cologne: Ruhender Verkehr—a prototype (of sorts) made three months prior, consisting of an Opel Kapitän encased in concrete, notably without exposed wheels. Ruhender Verkehr has its own history that provides further insight to our understanding of the form of Concrete Traffic.

All of these factors demonstrate the significance of the historicity of the sculpture’s form. As it exists materially, Concrete Traffic does not simply conform to a predetermined shape—neither the concept sketched out by the artist, nor the shape set forth by its mold, nor to the car underneath. Despite Vostell’s identification of the work as an “event sculpture,” made of industrial concrete and steel, the sculpture does not satisfactorily adhere to the model of a durational entropic structure; its enduring materials contrast to the temporality of the performance event of the sculpture’s making. Yet both sculptural types are embedded in the history of the sculpture and are therefore necessary for understanding the sculpture’s form and the efforts to conserve it.

Understanding the historicity of the sculpture’s form is particularly important for the conservators as they address the question of what to do with several repair patches that were applied by individuals other than the artist or the fabricator (according to testimony), sometime between February and June 1970. The patches are not a good match to the original concrete’s texture or color—a visual imperfection that has become exacerbated over time as the contrasting materials have aged differently. The handling of the patches is inconsistent with the artist’s treatment of the patching of Ruhender Verkehr, where the sculpture adheres to the linear form of the mold. In some areas, the patches appear to be failing, as they exhibit cracks that may be detrimental to the concrete below.

One approach to conserving the protruding Dagmars, sagging not from time but from a less-than-perfect repair, would be to render its edges into clean lines and flat surfaces, to fill up the space that chance and entropy left vacant. This approach is a push towards the conceptual and the formal, and an acknowledgement of the intentionality inscribed in the artist’s sketch and framed by the fabricator’s mold. Another would be to return the sculpture to its moment of origin in order to see the rough dips and grooves of the original casting event, the imperfect contours and accidental furrows that record this landmark Fluxus event, performed (after all) without the artist present and through an industrial process. Either approach constitutes an aesthetic and formal decision with implications for the readability of the sculpture’s form in the present.

Locating the form of Concrete Traffic from its material conditions, where its conception is but a ghostly trace and several marks of its inception are solidly concealed, warrants an act of recuperation through historical time. Demarcating the artist’s intention means recognizing that intentionality is shared and embedded in shifting forms and processes. What kind of art history do we write when we acknowledge that the essential principles governing a work of art are temporally contingent and variable, and the shape of time is an irregular aggregate of contrary actions?

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Lisa Zaher is an art historian whose research and teaching focus on modern and contemporary art history and visual culture, with a specialization in the history and theory of photographic media.  She currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.