Sky Ballet was a three-day display of “sky art” coordinated by German artist Otto Piene in April 1970. At a time when Pittsburgh was battling a reputation for artistic conservatism, the event was undeniably innovative. It involved the general public far more than most artistic events by imaginatively expanding the definition of sculpture.
The idea to hoist sculpture into the sky followed a larger trend of “happenings” and “environmental art” in the late 1960s. Artists wanted to free their work — from traditional working methods, from cloistered museums and from the worn-out schedules of exhibition openings and closings. Artists wanted their work to infuse life in the communities where they lived. The 59th Annual Exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, held at the Carnegie Museum of Art in March and April 1969, was an important push in this direction. Titled “Our Environment,” it collected ideas for improving the city through art. The scale of these ideas ranged from dolled-up garbage cans and city buses, to giant outdoor sculptures, to an ambitious plan for redeveloping the Oakland neighborhood of the city according to progressive ideals. An oft-expressed sentiment after the show was regret at the inability to bring these proposals to fruition.
Just two and a half weeks after “Our Environment” closed, Piene gave a public talk at Carnegie Mellon University. He showed slides of his colorful, helium-filled polyurethane balloons floating over Cambridge, Mass., where he was an art instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The images stirred imaginations in the Pittsburgh art world. Many believed Piene was the man who could bring the spirit of “Our Environment” into physical existence. Toward the end of the year, the upstart Pittsburgh Council for the Arts asked Piene to produce a “sky event.” The organization had been founded two years earlier as an artist-led advocacy group charged with making it easier for artists to work in Pittsburgh and for bringing art into local communities.
Sky Ballet easily satisfied those goals. The event began on April 16, 1970, when hundreds of students from 35 public and parochial schools across the city flew their handmade “wind sculptures” in the former Penn Avenue Mall in East Liberty and from Grandview Avenue on Mt. Washington. These displays were large, helium-filled polyurethane balloons — some clear, some colored — fluttering in springtime breezes.
The next day, Piene launched “Red Helium Sky Line.” It was a 2,000-foot red polyethylene balloon anchored to the roof of One Oliver Plaza, the newest skyscraper in Pittsburgh. (U.S. Steel Tower was under construction at the time.) He had envisioned a thin red line whipping and writhing against the blue sky. Unfortunately, western winds broke the balloon, forcing Piene to anchor it in several places rather than allowing it to stream freely for its full half-mile length. “The sculpture was not a fantastically unusually esthetic event. The launching, from a distance, had a casual kite-flying quality,” Post-Gazette art critic Donald Miller wrote at the time. “But the wind’s selection of patterns created a quiet feeling of emotional elevation — one of the classic functions of fine art.”
Finally, on the evening of April 18, Piene harnessed Carnegie Mellon University freshman Susan Peters onto one of his balloon sculptures. It lifted her 150 feet above Point State Park while University of Pittsburgh graduate student (and Heinz Chapel organist) Barry Schrader played an electronic score composed specifically for the event.
Even as Sky Ballet was drawing thousands of curious onlookers downtown, the Pittsburgh Council for the Arts was falling apart. A week after the event, its executive committee recommended dismissing its small staff, accepting the resignation of its entire board of directors and closing its office. But Sky Ballet created positive reverberations for Piene and for Pittsburgh. In October 1970, the Carnegie Museum of Art commissioned Piene to design a sculpture specifically for the Carnegie International. “Red Rapid Growth” gave his balloons a prickly form, like giant sprouting crystals or a pop-art abstraction of fireworks exploding. Piene continued to work with Pittsburgh galleries and arts organizations at regular intervals throughout his career. In 2013, a year before his death, he returned to the city deliver another lecture at Carnegie Mellon University.
Environmental art requires the cooperation of cities. More projects die as unrealized ideas than become actual “happenings.” Sky Ballet was the biggest opportunity any city had ever given Piene to bring his experiments into existence and led to even larger opportunities, such as his best-remembered work — an arch of colored balloons called “Rainbow” launched at the 1972 Munich Olympics. For Pittsburgh, Sky Ballet made it safe for organizations to propose temporary art events, from Cindy Snodgrass’ “wind installations” in the mid-1970s to Florentijn Hofman’s “Rubber Duck” in 2013.
Otto Piene (1928-2014) was born in Germany. He studied art at academies in Munich and Düsseldorf and philosophy at Cologne University. In 1957, he co-founded the collective ZERO, which sought to redefine the visual arts in the aftermath of World War II by experimenting with new forms and methods. He was a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies from 1968 to 1971 and directed the organization starting in 1974. Piene worked various experiment media during his life. He made sculptures from light and paintings from smoke and coined the term “sky art” to describe lighter-than-air balloons floated over urban areas.