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Restored or Wrecked?

Israeli artist Yaacov Agam fights the reinstallation of his work at Michigan and Randolph.



Remember the op-art totem pole that used to stand in front of 150 N. Michigan? That's the slope-topped skyscraper on the northwest corner of Michigan and Randolph, iconic from a distance and incognito up close. The totem pole, a multicolored kinetic sculpture by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam titled Communication X9, was commissioned by the developer when the building went up in the early 1980s. It was clearly intended to provide some of the pizzazz at street level that the sharply sliced tower contributes to the skyline. But by the late 90s the paint had faded and begun to peel from the three-sided, 43-foot stainless-steel work, and two years ago the building's owner took it down for restoration. That was completed last summer, but we might not be viewing the sculpture anytime soon: Agam made a trip to Chicago to inspect it, decided the work amounted to a makeover, and doesn't want the sculpture to go back up unless it's redone. It remains to be seen whether his vote counts.

Agam says he suggested West Palm Beach-based restorer Dennis Carhart, who's worked on many of his pieces over the years, for this project. Carhart had examined the sculpture ten years ago for the building's previous manager and submitted a series of proposals; later he submitted several to the current building management firm, Jones Lang LaSalle. Carhart says his last proposal to them, submitted five years ago and all-inclusive, was $124,000. "I'm who the museums call to restore Agam's work," he says. "I know his style and how the colors move." But Jones Lang selected a well-thought-of Forest Park firm, the Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio. According to CSOS owner Andrzej Dajnowski, his contract with Jones Lang would have allowed him to do the job without even conferring with the artist, but when he found out Agam was alive, he says, "out of respect, I decided to contact him." (Carhart says that after Dajnowski got the job, he called and asked Carhart to mix the colors and advise him on preparing the surface; Carhart declined. Dajnowski says he was only asking for advice on both fronts.)

It was not a simple assignment: Dajnowski says the sculpture contains 1,410 different colors. He says he thought the artist would be the best source for guidance on mixing them and drew up a contract that called for Agam to provide a detailed model and color samples in return for an $18,000 fee, to be paid by CSOS; the contract was signed in December 2005. But when the samples arrived from Agam, they were not actual paint swabs but computer printouts on paper, whose colors can be inaccurate. Dajnowski says that Agam had coded the colors, "but the numbers didn't correspond to any manufacturer's code." Dajnowski took what Agam had sent him to the only Chicago supplier of the German-made auto and aircraft paint that was to be used and learned that the supplier couldn't work with it. When he reported that back to Agam, he says, the artist refused to supply real paint samples, and communication between them broke down. At that point, in the interest of getting the job done, Dajnowski and his staff began to mix the paint as closely as they could in their studio, working with nearly 200 base colors. They finished the job last June, and Dajnowski says he was more than satisfied with it: "The color matching was extremely good, the transition [of shades] was smooth... I was very happy with the result."

But Agam says he had an agreement with Dajnowski that the restorer would provide actual paint samples to him for approval before application. When months passed without further word from Dajnowski, Agam became concerned and arranged with the building manager to view the completed work at the warehouse where it was being stored. In July he flew from Paris to Chicago, but when he arrived, he says, he was given only a one-hour window to look at his sculpture—and had to fight for that. He was also informed by an attorney for the building that the artwork "belongs to us and we can do what we want with it." Then he was shown only one portion of the dismantled work. On the basis of that piece and what he could see of the rest, which was wrapped in plastic, Agam says, "I was shocked. Some of the surface was rough and some was smooth," and "the color was approximate, but not exact. It did not flow. The surface was not polished. It needed to be varnished, and it wasn't."

It seemed to Agam that the restorer had "erased" his work and produced an inferior copy. "This is not a true restoration—it's a reproduction. I think the restorer should reimburse LaSalle, and they should take it to a restorer who... works under the control of the artist," he says. "They left my signature on it, but this is not an Agam."

The idea that the work is now a copy has more than casual significance. Although this is the kind of mess the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 was devised to address, that legislation—which allowed Chapman Kelley to score a recent court victory over the Chicago Park District for destroying his Grant Park wildflower garden—won't help Agam. Communication X9 went up in '83, and the law isn't retroactive. Before VARA, artists had to rely on protections like copyright, and attorney Scott Hodes, who's representing Agam, says that area of the law would be applicable here. Hodes says Agam retains the copyright and so his permission would be needed for any derivative work.

Dajnowski says there was never any signed agreement that he'd provide paint samples to Agam. And he defends the quality of his work, saying that he conferred with upscale car shops for advice on how to apply the paint and purchased high-quality spray equipment specifically for the job. He also says the sculpture has been given two coats of a satin-finish varnish of the type Agam specified. Dajnowski's lawyer, Dan Derechin, says his client has "complied with all contractual terms."

A spokesperson for Jones Lang LaSalle says that the management company and the building's European owner, SEB Immobilen-Investment, are still "hoping for a spring 2008 installation."

Dajnowski says the $300,000 total project cost included construction of a new granite base and the dismantling, transportation, and storage of the sculpture as well as all the work his studio did. For now, there's just the empty block of the old pedestal squatting at Michigan and Randolph. If you'd like a look at an Agam in approved condition, stroll over to the Harris Bank at LaSalle and Monroe, where Remembrance and Growth presides over the lobby in all its color-in-motion glory.


Speaking of the integrity of artworks (and the past), the Chicago History Museum is still selling a World War II exhibit catalog with a cover image of Samuel Greenberg's We've Got a Job to Do poster, which it sanitized by removing swastikas.... Forget cool, says supercool designer and new School of the Art Institute prof Bruce Mau. At Archeworks last week he called for an end to the tyranny of how things look and predicted that "advanced sustainable design will evolve away from obsession with visual form and fashion."v

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