A Second Cup of Tea with Suzanne Delehanty

In the previous Miranda, Suzanne Delehanty sat down for tea with ICA staff and reminisced about the museum under her directorship in the 1970s. This week we pick up with a second cup of tea.

On the floor in ICA’s upstairs gallery, two wooden beams with subtly concave edges lie side by side. This is Tracks, by minimalist artist Robert Morris. Part of ICA@50—an exhibition that celebrates the museum’s 50th year by organizing new projects inspired by earlier exhibitions—Tracks looks back to a 1974 ICA show, Robert Morris/Projects, organized by Suzanne Delehanty, who today is joining ICA staff for a cup of tea.
Tracks plus other stuff

Part of Tracks, with more of the exhibition behind it. Photo: Aaron Igler / Greenhouse Media

Projects featured an eight-foot high, thirty-foot around piece, Labyrinth, which was commissioned for the show. Visitors could walk inside it—if they dared. A sign at the entrance to a narrow walkway warned, “Persons with claustrophobia or delicate health are not advised to walk through the labyrinth. Smoking is not permitted.” Delehanty recalls working with Penn’s business office and risk management people to hammer out the wording of the sign. “They were very supportive,” she says. She remembers too, with evident pride, how detail-oriented John Taylor and ICA’s crew of installers were as they put Labyrinth together: “They had absolutely consistent nailing patterns throughout. It was exquisite craftsmanship.”

Robert Morris/Projects, 1974, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

Labyrinth was hardly the only big, logistically complicated project she was involved with at ICA. There was, for instance, the Christo installation (1968), a truncated pyramid of oil drums which her predecessor, Stephen Propokoff organized when Delehanty was still an office assistant.

“We hired an engineer to see if it would fit with the bearing weight of the floor. Then we got these beautiful, pristine oil drums from Sun Oil. Yellow and blue. But we couldn’t borrow them. The only way we could get them was to buy them first. So all of a sudden the Penn Treasurer’s Office is getting $75,000 bills for these oil drums! And we said, Don’t worry, we’ll return them and receive a credit.” She describes how they laid out a path of cotton batting to protect the hundreds of drums as they rolled them from the truck into the building: “Like a runner at a wedding ceremony.”

“People in science and engineering were good friends to ICA,” she recalls. “I think scientists and doctors gather information visually. They are very natural eyeball people, to put it simply.” She tells us about an engineering student who gave his time to a 1973 project by Phillips Simkin. Called The Public Center for the Collection and Dissemination of Secrets, the piece invited people to whisper secrets into phones at the 30th Street Railroad Station and, in exchange, hear the secrets of others (recorded on cassette tape on previous days) whispered back. “We were down there sweeping up the train station at six in the morning,” Delehanty says, adding, “When we unveiled Simkin’s project, the Watergate scandal broke out and drew national media attention to Simkin and ICA. That project deserves more attention today.”

Then there was Paul Thek, whose 1977 show PaulThek/Processions, organized by Delehanty, was his only US museum exhibition in his lifetime. In part this may have been because Thek, who suffered from mental illness, was so difficult to work with. “He burned so many bridges,”Delehanty says, then tells us how she first saw Thek’s work at the 1972 documenta in Kassel, Germany. “I was just blown away that someone could make something so magical out of newspaper and found objects. If you saw the list of things we borrowed [for the show]! The bathtub, the ton of sand. Eggshells. It was fun to get the community together to do that.”
Paul Thek bathtub

Paul Thek/Processions, 1977, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

Some of her fondest memories are of Eugene Feldman, the graphic designer and printer and Penn Fine Arts Professor who designed and printed many ICA catalogues and other materials. “Gene was a kindred spirit to ICA,” she says, then recalls how he started printing as a young man—tickets for his New Jersey synagogue. During World War Two he was attached to the Army Mapping Unit, then came home and started the Falcon Press on Ranstead Street in Philadelphia. “People used to go there on Saturdays and hang around. There was always coffee, and good things to eat. Lou Kahn would hang out there. Feldman was the first person to have a computerized typesetting machine on the East Coast. He was a very supportive person for artists, and for ICA.” Gracefully, without fuss, he provided whatever paper seemed best for ICA books, invitations, and announcement cards.

“We really learned what printing cost when he went to the great beyond,” Delehanty says. Feldman died in 1975.
Eugene Feldman book

Books by Eugene Feldman, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

It’s getting late. The tea is gone, and the cookies are reduced to crumbs. All the shows, artists, supporters, programs, helpers, colleagues, and friends, summoned by Delehanty’s stories, seem to crowd and jostle just at the edge of vision. “Sometimes you just wonder how you did all this stuff,” Delehanty says,and puts down her cup.

—Rachel Pastan
Tea table

Tea table

To learn more about ICA’s history, and how it is sparking new projects, visit ICA@50, on view through August 17.

To stay up to date with all ICA’s tracks and labyrinths, email miranda@icaphila.org.