Andre Borders Calder

There was a party today for the Bushnell Park Carousel’s 100th birthday. I wish I could have been there. I rode that Stein & Goldstein beauty, formerly of Canton, Ohio, soon after it opened in Hartford in 1976, during the Bicentennial.

At the top of each of the 24 sides of the carousel’s wooden pavilion—designed for its new home—are four little stained-glass windows showing nature scenes. As you circle around, the seasons change, as if the windows are pages in a flipbook. (The 96 stained-glass windows are the work of Tracey Cameron, who renovated the carousel with her brother Steve.)

I remember signs that said ‘Be nice!’ and ‘Sea cortés!’ In a population of about 125,000, Hartford has one of the highest concentrations of residents of Puerto Rican ancestry—a full third—in the northeast. Founded in 1950, its West Indian Social Club is the oldest organization of its kind in the United States. Jamaicans, Barbadians, Trinidadians, and others from the English-speaking islands settled in Hartford to work in the tobacco fields north of the city.

Because Hartford is so small in area, just 18 square miles, it has been an easy city for the white population and the middle class—white, black, brown, you name it—to exit. The demographic segment known as Non-Hispanic White fell from nearly two thirds in 1970 to about a sixth in 2010. And about 30 percent of the population of the capital of the state with the fourth-highest median household income lives below the poverty line.

But enough of this Moore-ish narrative, let’s talk about art.

Here’s how Carl Andre borders Alexander Calder in downtown Hartford. Andre’s “Stone Field Sculpture,” a triangular formation of 36 boulders, was installed under the artist’s supervision on a patch of grass next to Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground in 1977 (the year after the Bushnell Park Carousel sold its first ticket).

Known locally as “the rocks,” what is now recognized as a landmark of minimalism sparked a minor culture war. A hundred Gs—Andre’s fee was $87,000, but the boulders didn’t drop from the sky, they came from Bristol, Connecticut—seemed like a lot of money at the time, especially for something so conceptual and possibly idiotic. (The simoleons came from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the NEA.)

Though I knew nothing of minimalism, and only grasped the piece’s brilliant echoing of the adjacent cemetery years later, I saw how it worked as playful public art. You said, What the heck is that? You and your friends and family members—and strangers!—could play hide-and-seek, climb on the rocks, and jump on them and off them (as I recall, it was a feat to jump from one to another). It was like one of those dangerous playgrounds that are no longer allowed.

Now for Calder. Just across Main Street and a short walk south, between the Wadsworth Atheneum and City Hall, is one of Uncle Sandy’s most spectacular stabiles, “Stegosaurus.” Installed in 1973, four years before the rocks, this was also a controversial splotch of modern art on the city’s historic fabric. But it’s hard to hate a child’s orange-crayon drawing of a stegosaurus skeleton, fabricated in steel plates and standing 50 feet tall, especially by the guy who made those mobile-thingys.

“Stegosaurus” was paid for with funds left for a memorial to Alfred E. Burr, the founder of the Hartford Times, which went out of business three years later, in 1976. Also during that fateful year: the opening of “Calder’s Universe” at the Whitney—the first New York art exhibition I went to without adult supervision—and the sculptor’s death, a few weeks later. (Calder, whose birthday was July 22, died at age 78. Andre, meanwhile, will be 79 on September 16. A major show of his work, Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010, runs through March 2 at Dia:Beacon.)

The 1970s may have been the most culturally exciting decade in Hartford since the 1930s, when Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr., the Wadsworth’s young genius of a director, helped fellow Harvard bisexual Lincoln Kirstein bring George Balanchine to the U.S. (even then, Hartford did not impress Mr. B.), organized the country’s first Picasso exhibition, and premiered “Four Saints in Three Acts” (Virgil Thompson, Gertrude Stein, John Houseman, Florine Stettheimer, Frederick Ashton, all-black cast, whew!).

Austin was fired in 1944 and died in Hartford in 1957. The city’s dilapidated Front Street neighborhood, its original Little Italy, was torn down for highway construction and a sparkling office complex, Constitution Plaza. The Jewish community left the North End for the suburbs and there were riots at the northern edge of downtown after the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

After this traumatic period, the city began to revive. The Hartford Civic Center (now the XL Center)—home to our professional sports team, the Whalers, until they sailed south in 1997—was completed in 1974. (Okay, there was a little problem with the roof four years later.)

I started riding the bus downtown from Bishops Corner in West Hartford at age 14 or 15. But with a driver’s license, we could go to the Civic Center Mall sort of late at night to eat at Rein’s Deli or, with mature-looking female companions, be served alcohol while listening to jazz at that café I forget the name of.

In the fall of 1976 (quite a year), the editors of our high school newspaper, Hall Highlights, decided to create a special section, Highlights Hits Hartford. The arts correspondent headed downtown. I went to the Wadsworth, I took pictures of the Calder, I saw some kind of exhibition at the library, I visited the internationally known alternative art space Real Art Ways in its infancy, and…I met a guy named Bob Gregson.

Bob was a graduate of Hartford Art School, founded by Harriet Beecher Stowe and four other extraordinary women. (Originally at the Wadsworth, it became a founding school of the University of Hartford, just over the city line, in the 1950s.) Back in Hartford after getting his M.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he started running a storefront art space on Pratt Street called Sidewalk.

City schools would send classes of kids to Sidewalk for hands-on art experiences. And Bob and others would show up unannounced in Hartford parks and neighborhoods to play art-based games with little kids, older kids, grown-ups, whoever was attracted to their van by the music, costumes, and props (no ice cream, though).

These programs were incubated by the Knox Foundation, headed by architect and Hartford civic force Jack Dollard, who died in 2012. Knox was also the organization that brought the carousel to Bushnell Park (Dollard designed its pavilion). With funding from hometown conglomerate United Technologies, Sidewalk Bob, Ann Kieffer, and Tim Keating organized weekly downtown happenings in the summer of 1977 and 1978 called Thursday is a Work of Art. For footage, check out this video: http://vimeo.com/12575676. (An exhibition of Bob’s work coincidentally opened at the New Britain Museum of American Art the day I published this post. It’s on view through October 26.)

Meanwhile, in the mostly African American North End, Michael Borders, a Hartford High graduate who got his B.A. from Fisk and his M.F.A. from Howard, was for several years artist-in-residence at the South Arsenal Neighborhood Development Project, where he co-founded an after-school art program.

Across from the Civic Center, facing Trumbull Street above an empty lot, was Borders’s mural, “Genesis of the Capital City,” 68 feet tall and 110 feet wide. In a surrealist landscape with the onion dome of Sam Colt’s gun factory in the foreground, three black arms gently lowered the dome of the Connecticut capitol (architect Richard Upjohn, 1878). Six (painted) colored streamers led from the dome to the mural’s upper border, interrupted by two rows of six windows on the side of the Asylum Street building—with a McDonald’s at street level—to which the mural was attached.

Though the mural seemed to convey a positive message, in the ’70s the white mind associated black (apparently male) arms with Black Power. How could the same Hartford that objected to Calder’s dinosaur and Andre’s rocks welcome a mural like this? It amazed me every time I took the bus downtown.

The arms came down for an office tower in the ’80s. I miss them. (More recently, Borders has been touring a 40-foot “Connecticut Industry Mural” painted on canvas.)

A final vignette from “Coming of Age During Hartford’s Seventies Renaissance”: Hartford Stage, the city’s regional theater, wrapped up its 50th season this year. I ushered at its original building (a warehouse converted by Dollard) a few times when I was in high school. Among other shows, I saw a double-bill of Edward Albee’s “Counting the Ways” and “Listening,” with Albee—who was expelled from Trinity College in Hartford in 1947—on hand for a Q&A.

That’s all, policyholders. I hereby indemnify you against further Scrawling about the Insurance City. There will be residual benefits in my next post.

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