Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Traffic, 1970 University of Chicago’s Campus North Parking Structure

It is easy to see how students walking to the Ratner Athletics Center or the Woods Art Center would miss this. Or mistake this object in a parking spot at the University of Chicago’s Campus North parking garage as a sculpture that looks like a car. However, it’s actually a real car—a 1957 Cadillac Sedan De Ville enclosed in 15 cubic yards or 16.2 tons or 32,4oo pounds of concrete. Wolf Vostell created Concrete Traffic in a January 1970 “happening” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. In the 1960s, Vostell was one of the young international, interdisciplinary, always experimental Fluxus that emphasized the artistic process over the finished product. After a half year on view at the MCA, the artwork was moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood at 60th and Ingleside, where it remained for four decades. Eventually, those brutal Chicago winters began to take their toll, and in 2016, it moved to its current location inside the parking structure. If you crouch down really low, you can catch a glimpse of the original whitewall tires, hubcaps, and underbody of the vintage vehicle.

The parking garage also houses a bowling alley, Seven Ten Lanes, that was previously a Lucky Strike that was once frequented by Barack and Michelle Obama (and not far from the Obama Kissing Rock, where they shared their first kiss outside of a Hyde Park Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop). In many ways, after nearly eight years of being in storage and under restoration, it is amazing that the work still exists. As one of the earliest works commissioned by the MCA, the project was initiated by the museum’s inaugural director, Jan van der Marck (1929–2010). Known for embracing controversy, van der Marck supported numerous provocative artists during his time at the young museum. He facilitated Dan Flavin’s first solo museum exhibition, showed Barnett Newman’s infamous Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, and gave Christo and Jeanne Claude their first major U.S. commission, Wrapped Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1968–1969). For all the museum’s playfulness, in the work’s original location in a dense urban space, they never thought about what would happen after their spot rental expired. Or who would pay for the parking tickets? 

On January 16, 1970, a crowd assembled at the parking lot at Ontario and St. Clair’s corner to witness MCA staff entombing a 1957 Cadillac Deville in concrete. With very general directions left by the artist, MCA staff prepared for the pour by swathing the car in steel mesh and constructing a mold ahead of time. On the day of the pour, they towed the car to the lot and constructed a mold around it. Then, a cement mixer was pulled up, and staff evenly distributed the cement from above. Six days later, the concrete had set, and they removed the mold, unveiling Concrete Traffic. The sculpture stayed parked in the lot, surrounded by cars and in and out of traffic, for the next five months. It was then hoisted onto a truck bed for a ride down the Dan Ryan Expressway to its new location outside Midway Studios on the University of Chicago campus, where it stayed for the next four decades.

Although it has a monumental presence, Vostell envisioned Concrete Traffic as more than merely a sculpture. He referred to it as an “Instant Happening.” He described its ability to “isolate an object or action and, by concentrating our full attention on it, forces us to question the whys and wherefores behind it. Suddenly, a man on the street, who is not quite expecting it, is confronted with something ordinary that is not quite right. Something disturbs his understanding of reality. His reactions are tested. He must begin questioning.” To probe and challenge modern culture, Vostell would dismantle and repurpose everyday objects like televisions, cars, and posters. He employed these unconventional techniques and materials to jolt people and capture their attention, believing he could inspire change “by disrupting the familiar.”

Through Concrete Traffic, Vostell sought to encourage people to deeply consider the significance of cars and the impact that cars play in our lives. He gave us a glimpse of the fantastic traffic jam in which the world may come to a standstill someday. Vostell made the automobile immobile by filling it and encasing it with a material that dominates the urban landscape—concrete that clogged the engine, filled the wheel wells, shattered the windshield, and inundated the passenger compartment. He mummified the car, both preserving and transforming the vehicle from a functional mode of transportation into a mausoleum, prompting passersby to pause and reflect on cars, concrete and how we live.

Vostell’s charged work remains as imperative today as it was in 1970. Cars are deeply tied to American culture, symbolizing the ingenuity of the assembly line, the American Dream, and the freedom of the open road. However, Vostell’s transformation of the Cadillac challenges these positive associations by highlighting the darker aspects: our mass consumption, fetishizing of material objects, and ideas (or misunderstandings) of independence. Rather than liberating us, cars often leave us stuck in traffic, feeling stressed and confined, instead of enjoying the wide-open highways. During the 1960s and 1970s, people started questioning the environmental impact of cars and consumerism. Concrete Traffic’s return to the University of Chicago continues to occupy a public space and provoke us to think about the world around us.

On September 30, 2016, Concrete Traffic once again was on a flatbed truck parading through twenty miles of Chicago streets, joined by other vintage Cadillacs, a cement mixer, and VIP trolleys, moving from Methods & Materials to its current home at the entrance to the university’s main parking garage. The procession paused for a lunchtime gathering at the MCA, where it was greeted by curious pedestrians watching a performance of fellow Fluxist Dick Higgins’s Danger Music Number Seventeen (1962), where performers interpreted the score “Scream! ! Scream! ! Scream! !” ! !”

Vostell’s experiments with concrete are a striking exploration of the symbolic potential of a material that shaped the twentieth century like few others. With the postwar rise of performance-based practices and the subsequent surge of art created from nontraditional materials, this question is frequently posed by curators, conservators, artists, and art historians today. Vostell’s legacy is characterized by his relentless innovation and willingness to confront societal norms. There is a continued relevance of his themes. His critique of consumer culture, environmental concerns, and media saturation resonates strongly in today’s context, where these issues are more pressing than ever. 

The return of Concrete Traffic to the parking garage at the University of Chicago suspends the work somewhere between the event and the sculpture. Its presence in an urban environment, juxtaposed with everyday activities, embodies Vostell’s vision of confronting the ordinary with the extraordinary. For a sculpture that is a car, and a car that is a sculpture, a parking garage is somehow the last place you would expect to find it. The piece remains a powerful commentary on the societal impacts of automobiles. Vostell’s work is as relevant today as in 1970, reminding us of the ongoing need to question and understand the world around us.