In 1976, a Dystopian River and Inflatable “Plumes of Fire”
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In 1976, a Dystopian River and Inflatable “Plumes of Fire”

Trevor Schoonhoven, No River Wall Painting, 1976

American muralist Terry Schoonhoven was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to create his mural No River Wall Painting for the 1976 exhibition The River: Images of the Mississippi. It loomed large—24 by 35 feet—and foreboding in the Walker’s outer lobby, depicting the riverfront as dystopian industrial district, going to rack and ruin in mounding decay, a parched riverbed supporting barges going nowhere and tipped oil drums lodged in the scorched silt. Meanwhile, just off in the distance, gleaming new city buildings emerge—reaching up and away from the riverfront and the industry of the past.

It must have been an eerie experience gazing upon this almost-life size view of the “Mighty Mississippi” looking so miserable. Schoonhoven and The Fine Arts Squad, which he co-founded, had a knack for creating fantasy environments which enticed the viewer with their potential reality. The riverbed depicted here is a scene from a dark dream but one that must have resonated at the time, as environmental concerns were fueling a rapidly growing ecology movement in the 1970s.

Schoonhoven sketch

In this preliminary sketch, also included in the exhibition, Schoonhoven includes these notes: “Dry river view. Sky cool and metallic. Looks like it’s imported from another planet. Mississippi river bed cracked, features similar to area around Badwater in Death Valley. Evidence of drifting land, sand flats. Clear brilliant light. The Los Angeles river would feel right at home here.”

Schoonhoven preliminary sketch
Terry Schoonhoven working on No River Wall Painting in the Walker lobby, 1976

Another highlight of The River exhibition, albeit brief, was Otto Piene’s Black Stacks Helium Sculpture. It was commissioned by the Walker and installed on October 30, 1976, at the Northern States Power (NSP) South East Steam Plant (located at SE Main Street and 6th Avenue).

1976 Helium Stacks install_002sm
Otto Piene

Otto Piene, then director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on hand for the installation of this work of “Sky Art,” a term he coined in 1969 and which allowed him to use landscape and cities themselves as the focal point of his work.

The entire installation process of the four 300-foot-long red helium-filled balloons was estimated at three to five hours. The streamers, three feet in diameter, were to be pumped up every two days for as long as they would last, an expected two weeks.

1976 Helium Stacks install_001

Lisa Lyons, a Walker assistant curator at the time, recalls a meeting with then-Walker director Martin Friedman and officials at NSP about using the stacks: “After looking at Otto’s preliminary drawings, they were concerned that the big red balloons issuing from the top of the disused stacks would call to mind smoke and pollution. But ultimately, they signed on, and the piece was installed without a hitch, until, that is, someone took aim at it.”

Originally scheduled to be on view through November 13, vandals shot three of the four streamers full of holes within the first days of the installation. The work was not reinstalled.

Article from the Minneapolis Tribune, November 1, 1976

“An inflatable sculpture that was installed Saturday on the smokestacks of a power plant had been shot full of holes by vandals by Sunday afternoon, according to Walker Art Center spokespersons,” read a news story in the Minneapolis paper. “Of the original four 300-foot-long, red helium-filled balloons only one was floating yesterday from the stacks of the NSP Co. steam plant at Main St. and 16th Ave SE. The work by Otto Piene had been commissioned by the Walker Art Center in conjunction with its exhibit called The River: Images of the Mississippi.”

Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene
Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene
Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene

Martin Friedman, Walker director from 1961 to 1990, described them as abstract plumes of fire.

Opening day cake for the 1976 exhibition, The River: Images of the Mississippi

The exhibition ran from October 3, 1976 to June 9, 1977. And, of course, there was a cake for the opening.

An issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the exhibition

Mickey Friedman wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue:

River imagery is explored in this exhibition as it exists in painting, prints, photography, maps and, indirectly, as it occurs in planning and architecture. Though architecture does not immediately reflect an image of a river, the character and course of the waterway affects the forms and functions of architecture related to it and conversely, future river imagery may be the consequence of architectural proposals made today.

Her opening paragraph foretold the future. Schoonhoven’s noir-ish view of the riverfront gratefully did not come to pass. Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge today offers a cityscape that took decades to form and was indeed the consequence of conversations and proposals that had begun in the 1970s and ’80s. Instead of warning people away from its banks with mounds of aggregate and earth-moving machines, the river now invites exploration, into its present amenities as well as its stories from the past, and is the “next frontier” in Minneapolis’ nationally known parks system.

2014 Mill District from Stone Arch_crop
Riverfront 2014 photo by Barb Economon

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