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 painted mural, and told him he would have to pay for it, that they wouldn’t. Dahl, a man of strong opinions and statements, said if he paid he’d by God take it with him. So, on Friday, July 8, a truck backed up to the library’s front entrance; the metal screen was dismantled, put under wraps, and hauled off to an undisclosed destination. Dahl was disgusted. “I hope everybody who had a part in getting the mural removed is proud of himself,” he said.
Harry Bertoia was deeply incensed. A major designer, he was enjoying immense national success. He had executed sculptural screens for such clients as General Motors, Manufacturers Trust Company of New York, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (In 1956 he would win the American Institute of Architects’ Craftmanship Medal.) “I think I gave the city of Dallas one of my very best efforts,” he told Bob Stanley of the Times Herald, “The judgment is beyond me. Perhaps, in time to come, Dallas might even repent of having done such a thing.”
To the gleeful antis, the removal of the mural ended the controversy. The council issued a pious official statement. “We think to buy more books and things of that character for the benefit of most people would be a much wiser investment for the taxpayers than a mural which only a limited number would understand and enjoy.”
To this point this story has been based on articles and columns published at the time. The writer will now reveal his never-before-disclosed role in the chain of events, a role that was minor but turned out to have a somewhat more than minor impact.
Although I had spent some prior years as a journalist, in 1955 I was the owner of a bookstore in Abilene. When I read about the much-abused mural that had been banished by the Dallas city fathers, an idea occurred to me. The Citizens National Bank was erecting a new office building, the first in Abilene since the Wooten Hotel was constructed in 1929. Knowing that bank president Malcolm Meek was an ambitious, public-relations-conscious executive—and a contemporary of Thornton, who was a banker as well as mayor of Dallas—I suggested that he offer to buy the Bertoia and install it in his new building to show that Abilene was cognizant of the importance of Bertoia and his sculptural art, even if Big D wasn’t.
Malcolm Meek immediately liked the plan. He first contacted Dahl saying his certified check for whatever amount Dahl needed was ready to be cut. He called Uncle Bob, sympathetically suggesting that letting Abilene have the mural would be the best disposition of the affair. He was also going to call the New York Times, which had been spotlighting the Dallas art assault. I am not sure that Malcolm Meek was any more appreciative of modern art than was Uncle Bob, but he knew a publicity windfall when he saw one.