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The Reflective Head
by W.C. Bamberger. Our newest Critical Read takes on Michael Ayrton's commission for the S. S. Kresge Company.
For years Reflective Head, a 21 and a 1/2 foot high bronze and mirror sculpture by Michael Ayrton, attended the entrance courtyard of the corporate headquarters of the S.S. Kresge Company in Troy, Michigan. The sculpture was one of a very few commissions the artist Michael Ayrton took from corporate clients, and it had been unveiled to significant public and critical support in 1972. The work was the largest sculpture he had ever created.
The relationship between the artist and his corporate patron was an unlikely one. Ayrton was an English artist and writer, whose work was best known for its mythic and psychological themes. S.S. Kresge Company was the discount retail empire that later became Kmart.
At the unveiling of the sculpture, Ayrton learned that Kresge Company had renamed the piece, Corporate Head, without his permission.
In The Reflective Head, author W.C. Bamberger explains how this name change affected Ayrton. "In addition to being an accomplished sculptor, painter, and printmaker, Ayrton was a writer, so this dismissive name change must have rankled him both as artist and as someone with a sensitivity for the resonance of words. He would have known full well that viewing the sculpture under the business-oriented name rather than its more complex and human-centered original would change what the viewer sees."
This dismissive attitude towards the sculpture set the tone for its tenuous history with its corporate owner. When Kmart's fortunes began to decline, so did those of Reflective Head. It would take five years' work to save the sculpture and see it relocated in a public park in Troy. Its story offers a lesson in the difficulties of creating public art for corporate clients, whose fortunes (and legacies) are more fleeting than those of art.
W. C. Bamberger is an author, editor, translator and publisher. He has published essays on artists Trevor Winkfield and Donna Dennis, and composers Mauricio Kagel and Christos Hatzis, among others. His latest translation is Bess Brenck Kalischer's hallucinatory 1922 German Expressionist novel, The Mill. He lives in Michigan.