While I was in high school in the early 1970s, the University of Iowa was building a new Music Building along the Iowa River. This was the name I knew it by: New Music Building. My friends and I were actively interested in the construction. I followed a group one time into the catwalk area of Hancher Auditorium. It must have been a Sunday because no work crews were around. My friends walked across a plank that had been laid across two very high lighting points. I refused to cross it, and I still think of that today as one of the moments I cheated death.
If you looked at the New Music Building from the opposite side of the river, it was not too far-fetched to see it as a giant machine enclosure. One of my friends called it the “Thing of Great Power.” This became our alternate name for the New Music Building, the “TOGP.”
On the grounds of the TOGP were four huge limestone blocks in a group: three standing upright and one on its side. I didn’t have any idea why they were there until I attended the University of Iowa myself and spent one brief semester in my sophomore year as an art major. The artist, Luther Utterback, came to talk with our class. I don’t remember much about what he said, but it was an evolutionary experience for me. I learned that there was such a thing as public art, environmental art. I discovered that these weren’t just four rocks dumped onto the lawn, but that they had been quarried and placed according to a design, and that a competition had selected that design to be awarded the public art contract. The art work had an intended time scale of centuries, as the blocks would settle into the landscape, adjusting and adapting to the geologic forces of nature.
I have a vague and questionable memory that the sculptor told us, in that class meeting, that there were actually five blocks of stone in this installation, but that one was completely buried. I can’t find any confirmation today and it’s possible I made up that memory, or that it came from a different art project.
I became interested in public art and I recall that I wrote a class essay assignment about an abstract metal sculpture by Richard Field that was in front of the Iowa City Civic Center. My casual impression of this work is that it looked like a giant insect with antennae and legs. I learned that its title was “Triaxal Hemicylindrical.” Standing in front of this work, contemplating its title, I saw with a flash of insight that it did have three axes and it was entirely made up of split cylinders in two different sizes. It was geometrically exactly what the artist called it.
In 2008 the Iowa River flooded to historic levels and the Music Building and Hancher Auditorium were destroyed. It didn’t occur to me until today to wonder what happened to Luther Utterback’s stone blocks. Apparently they weren’t washed down the river in an adaptation to the geologic forces of nature. According to a University of Iowa web site, in 2013 the sculpture was “relocated on the grounds for a new Hancher Auditorium.”