A $3 million renovation of Doherty Hall in the early 1970s gave sculpture students at Carnegie Mellon University the ability to make large works. Instructors also took advantage of the new opportunities. As a visiting professor in the fall semester of 1974, sculptor Steven Jay Urry used these facilities to produce a 30-foot stainless steel sculpture called Reflections. It was among the largest sculptures in Pittsburgh at the time.
A native of Chicago, Urry discovered metalworking from a high school welding class during a year his family spent in Berkeley, Calif. He became a peripatetic art student with a natural sense for materials, especially metal. By the late 1960s, he was associated with a group of American sculptors who were thinking about their medium in monumental terms. He participated in two seminal outdoor exhibitions — Eight American Sculptors in Chicago in 1968 and Sculpture Off the Pedestal in Grand Rapids, Mich. in 1973. The exhibitions were liberating. They allowed artists to work at any size, and they presented contemporary sculpture to people who might never enter a museum.
CMU not only provided Urry with all the space, equipment and student labor he needed to work on a monumental scale but, most importantly, provided him with free materials, too. An alumnus and trustee named David Schmid had recently donated three tons of stainless steel sheets, produced by his firm Techalloy Company Inc., to the Department of Art. Urry quickly claimed the stash for himself. It was the first time he was given the opportunity to work with stainless steel and proved to be the only time.
Urry was intuitive but inarticulate — a poor combination for lecturing. Instead, he incorporated the design and fabrication of his massive sculpture into the two courses he taught that semester. “Rather than following a set time for classes they come and go at all hours and we frequently working all night,” he told Post-Gazette art critic Donald Miller in December 1974. “Afterwards I stumbled to my bed in my studio here and the next thing I know it’s midday. We’ve been eating, living and breathing sculpture.”
Although Urry regularly worked in steel and particularly in aluminum, his designs were more organic than industrial. Many had a liquid, melting quality. Others snaked through the spaces provided for them, like tributaries through silt. Even the sharp edges in his sculptures seemed soft, as though cut from clay rather than from metal. Because stainless steel is less malleable than his preferred aluminum, Urry fashioned the flat sheets into multifaceted surfaces, which he welded into an arching, bending and twisting tube that was wide enough for children to climb through. The design was sleek and sharp from a distance. A closer investigation revealed ragged details, such as imperfect welds and unpolished filing marks. He called it Reflections. As he explained to the Tartan in September 1975, “A climb through it should be as fascinating as its exterior, which will mirror the surroundings: the sky, the grass and trees, and the people passing by.”
Even with the expanded studio, Urry’s ambitions exceeded his resources. The sculpture was too large to remove from the building. His team constructed Reflections using small welds that could be broken apart to move the sculpture outside for permanent assembly and polishing. The work was set to debut at the 1975 Three Rivers Arts Festival, but it was damaged during the move. Instead, Urry and his students installed the sculpture on a wide lawn near the CMU College of Fine Arts building in August 1975.
The sculpture was destroyed one night, a few years later, when “a group of well-oiled fraternity brothers climbed on top of the piece and began to bounce up and down on it at its resonate frequency… Steve said that the piece was extensively reinforced and he couldn’t believe they could produce so much damage,” Steven’s brother Lynn Urry said in 2012, as part of an Urry retrospective at the Koehnline Museum of Art in Illinois.
By Eric Lidji, writer
Steven Jay Urry (1939-1993) was born in Chicago and took classes at the University of Chicago, the School of Art Institute of Chicago, the California College of Arts and Crafts and the San Francisco Art Institute, although only the final institution has a record of his attendance. Urry maintained a studio in Chicago from 1964 until 1973, in New York from 1973 to 1981 and later in Miami before returning to Chicago. While best known for working in steel and aluminum, he also experimented with plastic and foam.