Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Rusting Giants: Sculpture and Big Steel in the 1960’s

Dr Alex Taylor of the Tate Gallery presented a seminar on ‘Rusting Giants: Sculpture and Big Steel in the 1960’s’ in which he drew attention to the connection between US industry and US modern art.  The focus of Dr Taylor’s paper was the involvement of the US Steel Corporation in the construction of the ‘Chicago Picasso’ which was built using their Cor-Ten alloy.  Cor-Ten, launched in 1933, was an alloy patented to US Steel and promoted for industrial use because of its resistance to corrosion.  Cor-Ten developed an outer layer of corrosion when exposed to the elements and although it required more steel than aluminium buildings, it had a higher profit margin because costs, such as painting, were eliminated. 

The steel industry faced a problem because rust had negative associations and US Steel itself was described as the ‘rusting giant’.  Rust was visible to the public and was viewed as evidence of bigger problems that were affecting the industry.  In an effort to improve its corporate image and promote itself as a community partner, US Steel began to promote the use of Cor-Ten for public projects, such as the ‘Chicago Picasso’.  Although Cor-Ten had been around since the 1930’s, US Steel promoted its use in the 1960’s as innovative and progressive.

The success of the John Deere Administration Centre in Illinois in 1964 led to US Steel promoting Cor-Ten for architectural purposes and by the late 1960’s there were a burgeoning number of buildings which had used the material.  US Steel itself used it for its own new building in Pittsburgh.  In a significant change in the perception of steel, Cor-Ten’s skin of rust was seen as a sign of beauty and durability, rather than decay. 

Cor-Ten was used to build the Chicago Civic Centre in 1967 and this led to the ‘Chicago Picasso’ sculpture on the same site also using Cor-Ten.  This was the first prominent use of the material in a public context.  Until then, artists had previously used stainless steel for their sculptures.  During the planning of the sculpture, Picasso had avoiding committing to using a particular material.  However, he did approve the use of Cor-Ten after being shown the material and the modifications to his design which would be needed for practical reasons.  It is interesting to note that Picasso, who donated his sculpture to the people of Chicago, never visited the city or saw the finished product.

US Steel played a role in promoting the ‘Chicago Picasso’.  American Bridge, which was a division of US Steel, produced the sculpture at a cost of $300,000 which was much cheaper than producing the sculpture using a material such as bronze.  US Steel’s public relations staff recognised the potential of the ‘Chicago Picasso’ in showcasing Cor-Ten.  The Civic Centre and its sculpture were considered a work of art which had positive repercussions for US Steel.  Not only did the sculpture promote the potential of their material as artistic and durable, it also promoted the company as interested in the cultural life of the community.

As Dr Taylor explained, the ‘Chicago Picasso’ was not US Steel’s first foray into the art and cultural life of America.  The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair displayed ‘The Unisphere’ – a stainless steel representation of Earth which had been made by US Steel.  The company realised the promotional value of the sculpture, which represented global interdependence, and a mandatory credit line was attributed to US Steel.  The company’s subsidiary, American Bridge who had produced the ‘Chicago Picasso’ also displayed Picasso’s maquette in 1966 before the sculpture was unveiled in 1967.  Picasso’s modernist refusal to explain the sculpture’s meaning led to interpretations of steel as being positive and progressive.  As a result, Cor-Ten showed US Steel as innovative despite the material having been invented thirty years previously.  Rather than steel being viewed as toxic and decaying, US Steel were able to focus on it durability and aesthetic value.

The ‘Chicago Picasso’ was theatrically unveiled to a crowd of 50,000 in August 1967.  Public and religious leaders were present, speeches were made and a Presidential telegram was read.  US Steel had a documentary made about the building which was shown on TV.  Apart from highlighting the positive aspects of their material, Dr Taylor pointed out that it also promoted the idea of masculine labour activity.  The sculpture was used in US Steel adverts and Cor-Ten was described as ‘handsome’, another gendered attribute.  Being so closely associated with the ‘Chicago Picasso’ enabled US Steel to portray itself as being concerned with civic aesthetics, community engagement and social responsibility, as well as its corporate interests.  The company also successfully used this opportunity as a political lobbying tool and successfully secured limitations on the import of foreign steel.  US Steel also donated Cor-Ten to art schools in return for them supplying photographs of the students’ art which would be placed in US Steel’s corporate magazine.  The schools they donated to were often in areas with connections to the steel industry and their efforts once again presented them as a socially responsible corporation.

Although the 1930’s-created Cor-Ten had been lauded for architectural and artistic purposes in the mid-20th Century, its shine began to wear off when it became apparent it was highly problematic for use in sculpture.  US Steel’s claim that Cor-Ten was ‘self-repairing’ was not the experience of those trying to conserve it and they were instead faced with a material which had a very fragile surface finish.  By 1981, destruction and decay were again seen as symbolising steel and the industry itself.  Despite their earlier self-promotion through the ‘Chicago Picasso’, US Steel refused to sponsor one of the artist’s latter exhibitions.

Dr Taylor’s paper was an interesting juxtaposition to Professor Glenn Willumson’s seminar during last year’s Centre for American Studies seminar series.  In ‘Exploiting the Archive: The Photographs of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad’, Professor Willumson focused on the photographic archives of the Central Pacific Railroad Company.  In the same way Central Pacific used material culture to promote their agenda, it appears US Steel acted in similar ways to promote Cor-Ten through its association with the ‘Chicago Picasso’.  Central Pacific highlighted the importance of technology, innovation and progress to their project to ‘sell the dream’ to the public and investors.  US Steel promoted Cor-Ten as innovative (despite its thirty year history), durable and culturally relevant in its efforts to convince consumers, and the public, of steel’s worth and relevance to mid-20th Century America. 

Valerie MacKenzie

PGR – University of Glasgow

The next lecture will be given by Prof. Kristin Hoganson (University of Illinois and University of Oxford) and is entitled: ‘Farmers’ Alliances: Grass-Roots Perspectives on Trans-Imperial Politics.’ This will take place at 5.15pm on Wednesday 23rd March 2016, and will be held in Room 208, 2 University Gardens. All very welcome    

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