A 5-Year Checkup of Chicago’s Calder Flamingo

By Warren Brand | Chicago Corrosion Group

Flamingo was dedicated in 1974, shortly before the death of its maker, Alexander Calder, at the age of 78. Calder was an innovative American sculptor most noted for making large kinetic mobiles. As his craft developed over the years, he shifted toward fixed sculptures—which grew larger and larger—yet he strove to maintain the fluidity and “lightness” of his original mobiles.

When most people first glimpse the towering, 53-foot-tall Calder Flamingo in downtown Chicago, their emotions vary. Awe is probably the most common. From a distance, it looks like a gangly spider-like thing, but you really can’t grasp the size until you get closer. Walking under and around the sculpture, is, by all accounts, inspiring. The graceful arms and breadth of the artwork are secured to the base at only five small points, giving it the appearance of floating.

When I first saw Flamingo, on the other hand, chills ran up my spine — and not in a good way. At the time, I was on a mission to provide inspection services for the complete removal and recoating of the entire exhibit slated for the summer of 2012.

It was a beautiful Chicago spring morning. The dull, deep red of the sculpture was in dark contrast to the vivid blue sky and the steel and glass of the surrounding buildings. I had the 100-plus-page specification in my hand, a camera in my bag and hesitation in my heart. As I walked around the stabile, I was lost in thought and so focused that I could not appreciate the quality of the art, but was focusing instead on its geometric complexity and the challenges associated with repainting.

Sculptural Challenges

Flamingo was dedicated in 1974, shortly before the death of its maker, Alexander Calder, at the age of 78. Calder was an innovative American sculptor most noted for making large kinetic mobiles. As his craft developed over the years, he shifted toward fixed sculptures — which grew larger and larger — yet he strove to maintain the fluidity and “lightness” of his original mobiles.

Even though the piece was welded, there were hundreds—perhaps thousands—of
bolts roughly the size of a walnut.

While I appreciated the aesthetics, I was humbled by the challenge. The geometries of the sculpture might be artistic, but they were nightmarish from a painting perspective. The bulk of the structure was made up of ¾-inch-thick steel beams. Yet, brilliantly, where the massively thick beams connected, Calder had cut the thickness of the steel down by half so the beams would blend beautifully together in a flush, rather than lapped, joint. Although elegant from a distance, it left open linear voids upwards of a ¼-inch wide or more, which would lead to challenges when blasting and painting.

Then there were the bolts. Even though the piece was welded, there were hundreds — perhaps thousands — of bolts roughly the size of a walnut. Each and every bolt, including the threads protruding from the nut, would require complete blasting to remove every speck of paint, which meant the blaster would have to position the nozzle behind every single bolt and we would have to use a mirror to peek behind each one to inspect it.

The same was true for every coat of paint. The applicator would have to lean over, paint or spray behind every bolt, and we would have to inspect it. The numbers of challenges began to add up.

I quickly calculated that each individual bolt would have to be “touched” in some manner at least seven times. The crew would have to:

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Posted by on Apr 1st, 2018 and filed under Feature Story. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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