“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 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.
Whether the Abilene offer was the thing that turned the tide, the tide got turned and quickly. The Times Herald reported in a front-page story that an effort seemed to be under way by a group of Dallas private citizens to buy and restore to the library the controversial mural if the library board would guarantee its acceptance. Boude Storey, president of the library board, said he knew of no reason why it would not be accepted as a donation. Mayor Thornton quickly announced that the city had no objections “if someone will sponsor it privately.” By the beginning of August the citizens’ group had announced that it not only had collected enough to buy back the mural but probably might even donate a few hundred excess dollars for books (the city having chopped the library book budget by 40 per cent).
The formal opening of the new library was set for Sunday, September 25. It was the most spectacular day the Dallas library had known, thanks to the Bertoia screen. Even Uncle Bob Thornton said he had decided he liked the device since he found out it was not a mural but a metal screen. “That makes more sense,” he said.
The Bertoia screen became a much-loved feature of the library, remaining over the main desk for 27 years, until that new library became the old library. The screen was moved in 1982 to the new central library where today it hangs, its tribulations forgotten, over an outdoor walkway.
The contretemps over the screen didn’t end attempts at public censorship in Dallas, but it marked a swing in civic sentiment. Dallas was no longer a village, guided by outspoken rural anti-intellectualism. Dallas felt that it had become a more sophisticated place and expected better of its officials than the embarrassment of calling the work of a respected artist “a bunch of junk,” even if that might be their personal view. After the Battle of the Bertoia, newspaper columnists and editorial writers quit automatically taking the peckerwood side of every cultural question. In 1976 Councilman William E. Cothrum protested the Henry Moore bronze scheduled for the new city hall plaza. By the time it was installed in 1978, Cothrum’s views had changed enough for him to escort Henry Moore to a Dallas Cowboys game.
Dallas continued to go through artistic yahooism, but it was political, not cultural. Earlier in 1955 the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts had been pressured to remove paintings by Picasso, Diego Rivera, and others. The pressure came from citizens who thought that the artists were communists. But the Bertoia incident gave arts supporters enough spunk to fire back at the philistines, and in December 1955 the museum board announced that it would acquire and exhibit items “only on the basis of their merit as works of art.” On the other hand, there is no record of whether Uncle Bob Thornton ever again looked at the badly welded bunch of junk.