“A Bunch of Junk” [January 1986]

Dallas' cultural aspirations take a beating when city fathers reject a sculpture.

ON A MONDAY IN JUNE 1955, before the weekly council meeting at city hall, Dallas mayor R. L. “Uncle Bob” Thornton and members of the city council strolled across Commerce Street to view the three-thousand-pound metallic mural that had just been installed in the unfinished $2.5 million public library building. The 24-by-10-foot sculpture by Pennsylvania artist Harry Bertoia consisted of hundreds of gilded multishaped pieces of steel roughly welded to a framework some four feet in depth, which made the gleaming work vibrantly three-dimensional. It stretched its stunning length above the library’s main desk. Bertoia himself had been in Dallas the Friday before to supervise the installation.

The council members gazed up, and in the words of a Dallas Morning News writer, “Although all had been prepared by descriptions of the $8,700 ‘object d’art’ … there were some surprised expressions.” The mayor was the first to voice his surprise: “It looks to me like a bunch of junk painted up,” he said. ” Besides, that’s a cheap welding job.” Councilman W. H. Harris asked, “I wonder just what he was thinking about when he made it. He must have had the whole family working on it, including the children.” Mayor Pro Tem Vernon A. Smith protested, “People will come in and forget what they came for when they see that collection of junk,” and Councilman J. R. Terry was quoted as saying with a sigh, “I guess I just haven’t been educated up to it.” The mayor did see a bit of silver lining. “It has advertising possibilities. It’ll attract attention.”

Then some unidentified council member asked the question that was undoubtedly foremost in everyone’s thoughts: “Have we paid for it yet?” Standing there, casting their eyes on the modernistic artwork, the Dallas City Council felt the chill winds of a latent political cyclone.

Mayor Thornton’s comments and the council’s reaction made the local front pages, then were spread across the nation by the wire services. Local philistines had a carnival. Letter writers to both newspapers opened fire, sight unseen, on the Bertoia mural, which, incidentally, was not a mural at all. It was called that because the official library building specifications—approved by the council—had stipulated “a mural painting on the plaster wall” to the right of the entrance.

The attack against the Bertoia sculpture was led by Morning News columnist Lynn Landrum. Landrum was famous as a reactionary against almost anything arty that came within range of his typewriter. The Columntator, as he referred to himself, admitted he’d not seen the piece but explained, “The proper viewpoint for surveying non-representational art is the non-representational viewpoint. In this case, the viewpoint is approximately one mile west of the masterpiece. The view is even better from Fort Worth.” Landrum suggested titles for the metallic screen: Billy Goat Fodder; Cancan at the Crematorium; Think, Thank, Thunk. Letters to the editor, as published, ran 80 per cent against the artwork.

Within two weeks of its hanging, the mural was down. The council privately called in library architect George Dahl, who had commissioned the Bertoia metal screen in place of a traditional

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