High winds delay Barnes sculpture's installation for a day

(right) chats with Barnes Foundation president Derek Gillman. At center is Joseph Neubauer, foundation vice chairman. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
(right) chats with Barnes Foundation president Derek Gillman. At center is Joseph Neubauer, foundation vice chairman. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer (Artist Ellsworth Kelly)
Posted: April 10, 2012

The artist Ellsworth Kelly was there.

Joseph Neubauer, the Barnes Foundation vice chairman and donor extraordinaire, was also there. So were dozens of skilled movers, installers, crane operators, and art handlers.

A swarm of project managers and members of the Kelly entourage talked and looked on in the shadow of a giant yellow crane angling from the parking lot of the Barnes' new gallery on the Parkway.

They had all turned out Monday morning, waiting, as the artist put it, to "bring something back to Philadelphia" - a monumental sculpture by Kelly, his 40-foot-high, eight-ton, stainless steel The Barnes Totem. The Neubauer Family Foundation made the acquisition possible for the Barnes and, as Joseph Neubauer said, for "everyone in the city passing by."

It is the first public work installed here by Kelly, 88 and an undisputed master of American art, since his massive Transportation Building Lobby Sculpture was quietly removed from the old Greyhound office building on Market Street and sold in 1996.

"This is happier," said Kelly, dressed in black and clearly excited Monday, despite the countless times he has watched over and tended installations.

Not 20 feet away, The Barnes Totem lay on its side, strung with a half-dozen taut straps attached to the bright yellow crane. Kelly looked at the work, wind whipping through his white hair and rustling the red leaves of maples along a reflecting pool.

"What you see here now," he said, gesturing toward the totem, "it doesn't look like much. But when it goes vertical, it soars."

And when the light hits it, it will shine and reflect in unexpected ways. "It will be a beacon," he said.

Alas, that wind whipping through the red maple leaves and blowing pale green plastic bags into the ruffled reflecting pool did not augur well for Monday's installation effort.

Kelly kept glancing nervously at workers who gathered in knots around the crane.

"You're going to wait for the wind?" Kelly said to one group. "Don't want it swirling around up there."

They would wait, they said. They waited. The wind punched along Callowhill Street, gusting through the parking lot at 20th Street.

Finally, the effort to lift and swing the totem to its spot of prominence at the head of the reflecting pool was postponed until dawn Tuesday.

A small installation ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. at the site. (The new Barnes building, where the foundation's extraordinary collection of early modernist works will be housed, opens May 19.)

The postponement did not seem to cause any dismay, even for Neubauer, who is so anxious to see the work up that he said he slipped onto the site Sunday and "lifted the tarp" off the sculpture and "took a look."

"The truck driver stuck with it all weekend," Neubauer, head of Aramark Corp., told Kelly. "He didn't want to let it go."

The Barnes Totem, Neubauer said, "is remarkable."

The artist said he had done more than two dozen totems all over the world. The one Neubauer has given the Barnes rises like a sheath - only a small stepped element breaks its vertical line.

"I don't know how I got on the totem thing," said Kelly as he walked, blithely pulling a small oxygen tank behind him, a necessity because of a lung ailment.

"They're spiritual without religiosity," he continued.

"The piece is made of two elements," he said.

"The first element is buried in the ground. It's sturdy. The second element, halfway up . . . rises into the sky. Both connect with the earth and rise into the sky."

By this point, Kelly and most everyone else on-site was concerned about the wind.

"Look at the ripple on the water," Neubauer said.

No one wanted to see an eight-ton piece of steel sculpture whipped around above 20th Street or anywhere else. After another long wait, the installation was put off.

Totem will greet rising sun, weather permitting.

"Some things you can control," said Neubauer. "Some things you can't.

"So you go with the flow."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or follow @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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