Alexander Calder’s lost Bicentennial banners have just reappeared at the Free Library
Lost for 20 years, and believed destroyed, the banners resurfaced a decade ago — and then vanished again. They will be permanently on view at the library's main Parkway Central branch.
Eight colorful banners designed in the 1970s by Alexander Calder that were lost for decades, then thought destroyed, and then serendipitously found and displayed for about six weeks a decade ago — only to vanish again from public eye and memory — have been found once again, and will be exhibited permanently in the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
On Tuesday, the first two of the Calder banners, newly cleaned and conserved, went up. Their new home is on the north wall of the library’s Robert and Eileen Kennedy Heim Center for Cultural and Civic Engagement, the only space with a ceiling high enough to accommodate the works, which range in length from 18 feet to nearly 27 feet.
The banners feature Calder’s organic and natural forms in blue, yellow, and red, transforming the rear wall of the Heim Center into a kind of abstract kudzu jungle with a bright shining sun.
The series of eight Calder banners — part of one of the greatest infusions of public art in the city’s history — were donated to the library anonymously.
"We are honored to be a part of the ongoing story of these beautiful works by Alexander Calder, which were created as public art and which will continue their life as such at Parkway Central,” said Siobhan A. Reardon, Free Library president and director.
The banners were originally commissioned by developer Jack Wolgin in partial fulfillment of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s requirement that 1% of the budget for Wolgin’s Centre Square, of “Clothespin” fame, be devoted to public art.
Centre Square, which opened in 1976, was a massive project and Wolgin, an art collector, met his obligation with gusto.
Not only did he persuade Calder to design the only banners the artist ever executed, but he arranged for Claes Oldenburg to create his giant sculpture of a clothespin to tower over Centre Square’s entrance. Wolgin then acquired sculptor Jean Dubuffet’s giant Milord la Chamarre, which reminded the developer of a Philadelphia Mummer. (The title roughly translates to My Lord of the Fancy Vest.)
The banners and the Dubuffet were installed in the Centre Square atrium.
Wolgin once told The Inquirer that he sought “to provide art that would enhance Philadelphia by integrating into the daily life of those who live or work in the city the joy and inspiration derived from great art.” Mary Kilroy, then head of the RDA’s public art program, called Wolgin’s effort a “breakout” moment for the city. The Bicentennial year of 1976 was, in her view, a transformative moment, paving the way for Philadelphia to become one of the world’s great nurturers of public art.
Then Wolgin sold Centre Square in the early 1980s and the new owners decided to renovate the atrium.
The Dubuffet was moved outside to Market Street, where it huddled against a guanoed wall, becoming guano-encrusted itself.
And the Calder banners were taken down and disappeared.
Periodically an Inquirer reporter would ask different Centre Square building managers, as the complex was bought and sold over the years: “What about the banners?” One manager said they were irreversibly damaged. Another said they had been destroyed. Another said, “What banners?”
Enter Susan Davis, Kilroy’s successor at the RDA. She kept asking the same questions.
In 2000, Metropolitan Life of Virginia bought Centre Square and Davis managed to interest the building manager in solving the mystery.
Then the unexpected happened.
“He called me on Friday at 5:30 and he said, ‘I found them!’
"My heart stopped. ‘How are they?’ I asked.
“'They all seem fine.’”
Nine more years passed before the banners were brought out of storage. Met Life lent them to the Free Library and four went on view at Parkway Central for a few weeks in 2009. They were then returned to storage.
Centre Square went through a couple of owners in the intervening years, and none was interested in donating the banners, according to Davis.
But last year, the banners were “anonymously” donated to the library, presumably by the new Centre Square owner, Nightingale Properties. (Nightingale could not be immediately reached Tuesday for comment.)
The first two banners, installed Tuesday, will be followed by the rest, which are being conserved in New York City, where they’ve been stored in plastic tubs for years, awaiting conservation. There appears to be no significant damage to any of Calder’s primary colors. His organic designs are as lush and suggestive as ever.
“They were always on my mind because they were so close, somewhere in Centre Square,” said Davis, now an independent art consultant. “I just felt kind of desperate, but sometimes you just have to wait and not give up.”
The Free Library is raising funds to complete conservation, officials said, and expects that all eight banners will be installed by the beginning of summer.
The massive armature that once held the banners in the Centre Square atrium remains at the building in a sub-street-level parking garage, too big to even consider moving.
“It’s still there,” said Davis. “They have yellow caution tape in front of it. It’s right there. It’s gigantic. It’s huge. It’s a work in itself.”