October 4, 2009

DT Found It: 'Sculptures For Children,' By Frances Weiss


Last fall, I'd wondered aloud who the unidentified artist was in Life Magazine's 1951-52 photos of some surreal sculptural playground equipment.

All I could figure out was that some of the Jan. 1952 pictures were taken at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which was on East 53rd Street at the time. Well, I had a couple of credits expiring on the NY Times archive, so I started searching for any Tibor de Nagy shows listed in the early 1950s.

Shows like Frances Weiss's exhibition in January 1952 of "sculpture for children." According to the rather dramatic reviewer Aline Louchheim, Weiss "is a mother as well as a sculptor, and in her former capacity has spent endless hours in the cement imprisonment of city playgrounds. The concentration-camp atmosphere [yikes. -ed.] became so appalling that she was inspired to invent new forms of playground equipment that would be gay and imaginatively provocative for children and agreeable for thier long-sitting parents."

The Times goes on to describe Weiss's "full-scale models" of animal-shaped playground structures, and it all fits perfectly with Peter Stackpole's LIFE photos. While acknowledging the pieces were not ready for commercial deployment, Weiss argued her work was experimental, and intended to demonstrate "a new approach to playground equipment." The Times agreed that "taken as such, it deserves wide scrutiny and discussion."

Weiss's show predates by almost two years the big "Play Sculptures" competition and exhibition in 1953-4 sponsored by The Museum of Modern Art, Creative Playthings, and Parents Magazine. She's not mentioned in Susan Solomon's otherwise awesome history, American Playgrounds, and I can't find any other mentions of her art or playground work. Let the hunt continue.

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

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