Rachel Cohen

Vostell Concrete

Vostell Concrete

Wolf Vostell, Basel-Breton (Basel-Concrete), 1971. Musée d'art modern et contemporain de Saint-Étienne-Métropole, France. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

In the fall of 2016, when we had just arrived in Chicago, I began to get emails about a concrete car, a 1957 Cadillac encased in concrete, that would be traveling the streets of Chicago before being permanently parked in a University parking garage. This seemed promising and suggestive, and though I was unable to attend the parade, a small trail of reflection began.

Concrete Traffic, Created 1970, Originally Installed 1970, Reinstalled 2016. Conceived by Wolf Vostell and created by Chicago artisans. Located at Campus North Parking Garage 5525 S Ellis Ave, Chicago. Photo Rachel Cohen.

There was then a show, “Vostell Concrete,” including the car and some fifty other works in concrete, which opened in early 2017 at the Smart Museum of Art. I was not prepared, when I walked in, for the immediate sensation of a sharpening understanding.

Why would covering, in concrete, a great variety of physical existences — parts of images that look like collages of drawings and large travel postcards, a book, a designer chair, parts of bodies, a car — give me the sudden feeling that I understood the material reality of modernity? Here, somehow, was landscape, and space, as I actually experience it. And why had I never paid enough attention to the terrible and quite beautiful matter of concrete?

Detail of Concrete Traffic, photo Rachel Cohen.

In my mind, I could see the people of the world producing this enormous volume of concrete and covering the earth in it. I could see the permanence of the concrete, but also the way that, viewed from another time scale, it moves and grows and erodes and breaks down. I could see its potential verticality. And the way it impedes circulation but is also in a kind of motion. Even now, when I go back to my photos, the work fills my mind with thoughts.

The curator of the show was Christine Mehring, a professor in the University of Chicago art history department, who was then a new acquaintance and has since become a friend. Christine gave me a tour of the show, and I went several times, so I am now working from a consolidation of things she said and things I noticed.

Wolf Vostell (1932-1998) was one of the co-founders of the artistic movement Fluxus, known for its performance and installation pieces, for creating artistic work by, for example, giving a group of viewers directions for a walk they were to take. Fluxus artists were connected with the ephemeral, the psychological, with a performance-based critique of the military capitalism that was getting a stronger hold in the 60s. Concrete can be suffocating and deadening, and it would seem like a material that is antithetical to performance, and yet it turns out to be a helpful material to think with.

This week I set out to consider vegetation, and, over the weekend, as I anticipated what I might write about, I knew that Vostell’s concrete ought to follow Vuillard’s tapestry in green and Mondrian’s abstraction through trees.

Concrete is a contrasting texture, radically different under the hand than leaves and stems. There is also something right in placing concrete next to plants – a sidewalk around and through which persistent green will work its way. Most surprisingly, concrete is also like vegetation, in its adherence to the ground, its spread, the way it is generated from sand.

for Christine Mehring

Vuillard and Vegetation

Vuillard and Vegetation

Édouard Vuillard, Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, 1899, Art Institute of Chicago. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

This week I want to think about vegetation and growth. I have been reading a long poem by Francis Ponge from Le Parti Pris de Choses, which my friend Massimo sent on to me – happily, since I cannot find my copy of it. In the poem “Faune et Flore” I find the line: “Il n’y a pas d’autre mouvement en eux que l’extension.” Extension is their only movement.

It has rained enormously over the last few days. The last five springs have been the rainiest five years on record in Chicago and the surrounding farmlands. It is impossible to continue to grow certain crops, like apples, at these rates of rain, and this is accelerating the closure of family farms in our region. Apple-picking is a part of the fall for Chicago children, but last year, there was nowhere to go.

This morning, the door to our back garden was still steamy from the rains. Through the thick dripping mist, I could see that the garden has grown inches and shades – the solomon seal, the ferns, the goat’s beard, bittersweet, and climbing hydrangeas have all shot upward and outward, the space between the plants has filled in and overlapped, dirt is almost no longer visible, and the whole garden has darkened and come into a mid-spring green, where yellow is less prominent, but not yet the darker shades of summer, an intense middle green, like the greens of grass, with some gray and white, here and there red undertones.

The Vuillard, Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, from 1899, was meant to invoke a tapestry. The borders and edges are deliberately handled to remind a viewer of medieval and Renaissance tapestries, with their areas of flowered ground, their banners and undulant terrain. It is made in textures of growth.

Today I am struck by the urgency of vegetal growth. The plants making themselves out of the soil in phenomenal bursts. That color green which is so sensitive to light, and derives extraordinary propulsivity from light.

Weekend Glimpse Vuillard

Weekend Glimpse Vuillard

This painting by Édouard Vuillard is called Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods. It was painted in 1899. It used to hang in a different room on the second floor of the Art Institute of Chicago, in a side room against a dark red wall. This was a quite wonderful color that brought out the richness and browns that are an important part of it.

It is always nice to take a deep breath before this painting, which is massive — eight feet high and more than twelve feet long. It was meant to feel like a tapestry, and it does.

Wishing you a deep breath.

Garden Windows

Garden Windows

Édouard Vuillard, Foliage--Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, 1918, Art Institute of Chicago, detail




I was standing in our kitchen this afternoon, and the light from the garden was coming through the windows, garden light, unlike any other, and I started to think of painted gardens.  How it is that sometimes the paint itself is even more beautiful than the real light.


rcohen 179





Yesterday and today the air is full of light, sixty-four degrees, sixty-seven degrees, days like April.  The trees are rushing to throw off their silver February garb.  Green shoots are already up in the garden, although next week it is to freeze.


rcohen 179





A friend of my friend’s has died.  We are in different cities and cannot take a walk together.  He wrote that it would be nice to go to a museum.  


The last time we were in the same city – he was here, in Chicago – we went to the Art Institute, and looked at this and that, and what we were taken by was Vuillard. In one room, there are two beautiful earth-banners.  Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, 1899, is twelve feet long, eight feet high.  


rcohen 179




The other, Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, 1918, is a little over nine feet across, some six feet high.  You could go every day to look at them.  


I had just seen them for the first time a few days before my friend’s visit, so we could begin together.  There is a woman on the left side, with a child, there, back in the leaves, that is the fruit seller.


rcohen 179


rcohen 179



In making Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, Vuillard used the medium of distemper, in which paint pigments are bound with melted glue.  You have to paint quickly, it dries very fast.  The wall text also points to the “closely ranged tones of the palette.”  Sage against olive against forest.  In life, friends are like this, right up next to each other, in contrast and bound in their shared medium.


rcohen 179



The abstraction of paint, that it may represent both the thing and the light, both the evanescent and the enduring, that would be a comfort, if we could go and look at it today.