On Friday, June 24, 1955, Harry Bertoia completed the installation of a large, textured multiplane sculpture, made from copper, brass, and nickel alloys that hung from the ceiling in the new Dallas Public Library building. The work was the result of a positive, thoughtful collaboration between the artist and architect George Dahl, but within two weeks the commissioned work was disassembled and removed from the building. Though today such a work may seem a rather benign abstract sculpture, the amputation of Bertoia’s screen was the opening salvo of a public maelstrom that raged in Dallas over the entire summer of 1955.
The city of Dallas hired Dahl, a native Texan, to build a new downtown central library facility that was intended to serve as a major cultural and social step forward for a city not known for its progressivism. In addition to being modern in its architectural styling, the building was racially integrated, with front door access and full privileges for all of Dallas’s citizens, including its then 15 percent of the population which was Black. With a budget of $2.5 million and exceedingly high expectations, the new library became one of the most significant building projects for the city during the immediate postwar period.1
Dahl included a major artwork in the original architectural design but did not hire Bertoia until relatively late in the process, paying him from a budget approved by the city. Bertoia submitted four designs, though arrived in Dallas with a sculpture that combined elements from all of them, which had taken him and two assistants 10 weeks to fabricate. The artist re-created the exact conditions of the library in his Pennsylvania studio, which allowed him to create as he went along while keeping the specifics of the space in mind. This attention to site became a hallmark of Bertoia’s large-scale commissions during the postwar period, as was its abstract form and lack of a title. Bertoia remarked, “It is very modern and contemporary of course. I have no name for it, for I do not think it should have any one name. A sculptor’s art is his way of communicating.” In what became a frequently quoted statement in the controversy that ensued, Bertoia concluded, “I have been asked many times what my work means. And really what it represents is very much up to the observer. It is a mirror of the man or woman who looks at it. Those who find significance and meaning in it are those prepared to give it significance or meaning. Those who find nothing have, evidently not prepared their lives and probably are very happy about it.”2
The people of Dallas were apparently not prepared to be reflected in such a modern, abstract sculpture, and the controversy erupted when then mayor R.L. Thornton, along with members of the City Council, previewed the sculpture shortly after its installation. Thornton declared the work a “bunch of junk” and in the following weeks the hanging screen became a citywide debate, with hundreds of articles, columns, and letters to the editor devoted to the subject.3 While many expressed dismay over the sum paid to Bertoia and the allocation of taxpayer funds, criticism also focused on the aesthetic merits of the sculpture and Bertoia’s “outsider” status as an Italian immigrant and artist based on the East Coast.
The removal of the piece, however, came about because of Dahl. Essentially dismayed and infuriated, he voluntarily offered to purchase the mural himself. Within weeks, a group of private donors bought back the screen from Dahl, who had been storing it at his home.
With the official obstacle of taxpayer obligation removed, the city had little choice but to accept the gift and reinstall the work, though it did come with a firm stipulation from Dahl: The City Council would have to agree by letter that the screen would be restored to its original location. By the public opening of the library in September 1955, Bertoia’s metal screen was once again above the book return desk, just to the right of the main entrance on the ground floor. Mayor Thornton upon seeing the work reinstalled even declared that he now liked the work because he found out it was not a ‘mural,’ but a metal screen.4 In the end, the new Dallas Public Library, inclusive of the Bertoia, was considered a great success, and by the late 1950s, the sculptural screen became a shorthand logo for the library. The sculpture continued to appear on promotional materials, even after the sculpture was relocated to the J. Erik Jonsson Central Dallas Public Library in 1982, where it still resides today.
1 Vernon Porterfield, “New Dallas Library,” Library Journal 80, no. 21 (December 1, 1955): 26-69.
2 “Art for Art’s Sake: Library’s Abstract Mural Sparks Query: What is it?” Dallas Times Herald, June 26, 1955.
3 Allen Quinn, “‘… A Bunch of Junk’ Mayor Comments on Gilded Mural,” Dallas Morning News, June 28, 1955.
4 “Art Screen up Again at Library,” Dallas Times Herald, September 1955.
Marin R. Sullivan (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is a Chicago-based art historian, curator, educator, and consultant. She is the director of the Harry Bertoia Catalogue Raisonné and co-curator of Harry Bertoia: Sculpting Mid-Century Modern Life. Sullivan specializes in the histories of modern and contemporary sculpture, especially its interdisciplinary, intermedial dialogues with photography, design, and the built environment.
Harry Bertoia’s untitled multiplane construction at the Dallas Public Library, c. 1955. 2022 Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy of Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library.