November 24, 2008

The Mystery Of Life: Who Designed This "Modern Playground Equipment"?

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The search results for "playground" at Life magazine's photo archive are dominated by one series of images: nearly 200 photos of surrealist bent steel playground equipment from 1951-2 created by an unidentified female sculptor.

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The stuff is awesome: creatures and figures combined with traditional playground elements like a butterfly-shaped slide, a bunny(?)-shaped swing, and a see-saw. It reminds me of Alexander Calder's early bent wire caricatures and figures writ large. Though I think the legs on the swing/jungle gym below are less Calder and more potato masher.

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All the photos are credited to Peter Stackpole, a Life veteran who was himself the child of artists in the Bay Area. There were at least two shoots: one dated December 1951, which shows kids playing on the equipment in a studio.

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It also includes portraits [hopefully posed, since she's not wearing safety goggles] of the rather beautiful artist herself welding in a smock. There are wire maquettes of the equipment in the foreground, and in the back, what I assume is the artist's more traditional work: fragile-looking wire sculptures which appear to be abstractions inspired by the forms of a row of dried reeds, branches, and grasses.

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The equipment was photographed again in January 1952. This time it was in the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which was a pioneering haven for young artists in Abstract Expressionist-dominated New York. [Though there's no caption information at all beyond "Modern Playground Equipment" and the dates, the gallery's name can be seen painted on the window in several photos. Yes, I read Encyclopedia Brown as a kid.] By that time, some of the pieces had been painted with all-over AbEx-ish brushstrokes that make it look kind of beat up from a distance.

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In her awesome book, American Playgrounds, Susan Solomon wrote extensively on the "connection between playgrounds and sculpture in the 1950s," but I can't match these pieces to any of her references.

I've searched for mentions of the playground equipment in places like MoMA, which sponsored a competition of artist-designed Play Sculptures with Creative Playthings and Parents magazine in 1953-4. If they were among the 350+ entries, I can't find them. And I've looked through the available archives of Tibor de Nagy, and tried to compare the photo of the artist and her work to known associates of the gallery at the time. So far, no luck.

Did these photos ever appear in print in Life? If they did, maybe I could figure out who this artist was. So if you were hanging around with Pop artists and post-minimalists before they were famous, or if you have a stack of Lifes from Jan-Feb. 1952 and can tell who did these things, the history of modernist playground equipment will be rewritten to accommodate your contribution.

"Modern Playground Equipment" photos by Peter Stackpole for Life [images.google.com]

1 Comment

These shots are great bits of history... but still, are all those installations really creepy in a surreal/nightmare sort of way, or is it just me?

(Especially the last one that’s presumably an elephant-inspired slide. Yikes.)

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