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Public Art and the Masses: Examining Sculpture in Grant Park

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In recognition of Chicago’s “Year of Public Art,” Chicago Gallery News is featuring a series of articles chronicling milestones of public art in Chicago. The second in the series examines the connections between three sculptures in Grant Park

By FRANCK MERCURIO

Public art, by definition, is intended for the public—you, me, and the rest of the masses—it is meant to be consumed by all, no matter one's individual social status, economic means, or political influence. But public art is not only for the masses; it is often about the masses. The south end of Grant Park provides three great sculptural examples: two permanent and one recently de-installed.

Agora (2006) by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, who recently passed away, gives new meaning to the phrase “the faceless crowd.” Pedestrians walking along Roosevelt Road toward the Museum Campus can’t help but notice—and often engage with—this collection of 106 headless human-like forms. Giant in size, each figure walks in a different direction, seemingly intent on reaching its destination, oblivious to the mortals milling below them. In their preoccupation and hurry, these iron (not bronze) figures seem to reflect the anonymous hustle of city life.

Agora means “gathering place,” and appropriately, Abakanowicz’s installation marks the spot where one of Chicago’s greatest gathering places once stood: the Illinois Central Depot (1893–1974). The artist’s ghostly figures seem to evoke the unnamed millions who passed through this railway station during its 81-year existence. Many of those passengers included African Americans escaping the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, more than 500,000 African Americans migrated to Chicago between 1916 and 1970. The majority traveled by train along the Illinois Central Railroad lines, which linked the southern states to Chicago.

The new arrivals must have been impressed by the view of Grant Park and the city skyline that greeted them outside the railway station’s great Romanesque Revival archway. Just north of the station, they could see the General John A. Logan Memorial (1897) rising some 30 feet above the park.

Dedicated in 1897, the Logan Memorial stands today as an example of a not-so-typical “bronze man on a horse.” American artists Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) and Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860–1950) collaborated on the commission, capturing the dynamism of the General riding his warhorse into battle. The memorial was a true team effort; Proctor, an animalier, modeled the stallion; and two women sculptors, Annette Johnson and Mary Lawrence Tonetti, assisted Saint-Gaudens in modeling the figure of Logan. (Regrettably, Johnson’s and Tonetti’s contributions have often been omitted from the historical record.)

Cast in bronze, the Logan sculpture stands atop a giant earthen mound, a dramatic architectural element that anchors the memorial to its site in Grant Park. Designed by Stanford White (of the New York architecture firm McKim, Mead and White), the mound recalls the Anglo-Saxon burial tumuli of Dark Age Britain, but also evokes the monumental earthworks of Cahokia in southern Illinois, Logan’s old stomping grounds.

Logan was a complex character. A popular Illinois politician before the Civil War, he helped legislate the state’s infamous “Black Laws” of 1853, which prohibited African Americans from settling in Illinois. But the General seems to have experienced a kind of political—and moral—conversion while serving in the Union Army and later as a US House representative and US Senator. According to the John A. Logan Museum, “This was a very different Logan. It was a Logan who voted for constitutional amendments to abolish slavery and to grant citizenship and voting rights to African Americans…Throughout this time, Logan continued to fight for civil rights for America’s former slaves and supported women’s suffrage.”

Logan had transformed himself into a “man of the people,” and on the occasion of his death, the Illinois state assembly commissioned the memorial in his honor. In July 1897, a staggering 500,000 Chicagoans turned out for the unveiling of the equestrian sculpture—nearly one-third the city’s population at that time. “Logan Day” was designated an official city holiday and celebrated with a 17,000-person military parade on Michigan Avenue and a naval procession on Lake Michigan. The masses had turned out en masse to honor Logan and dedicate his bronze likeness.

Fast forward to 1968 when the Logan Memorial was again at the center of a mass gathering, this time the political protests outside the Democratic National Convention. Barred from protesting in front of the Conrad Hilton, the site of the convention, hundreds of people staged an impromptu “sit-in” around the Logan monument. Iconic photographs record crowds of protestors occupying the memorial’s great mound—with General Logan seeming to lead them into battle [see top image].  

For a brief period, one other public work fêted the masses in the south end of Grant Park. In 2016, the city installed Tony Tasset’s Artists Monument (2015) adjacent to the Logan Memorial. A literal recording of the masses, this sculptural work documented the names of nearly 400,000 artists—the famous and the obscure—on colorful panels wrapped around two reclaimed shipping containers. Tasset listed the names in alphabetical order, treating each artist equally—a gesture that calls attention to the collective power of artistic creativity. Paradoxically, this “monument” was a temporary proposition and de-installed after a few months on view. But you can still visit its more somber sister installations, which recall Chicago history and celebrate the power of the people in their own distinctive ways.

Up next: Franck Mercurio recounts the battles between traditionalists and modernists by looking at Lorado Taft's Fountain of the Great Lakes and John Storrs' Ceres and making connections to contemporary public works by Roger Brown and Richard Hunt.

Top image: Protesters climb the General Logan statue in Grant Park while thousands gather on the ground in August of 1968. The Illinois Central Railway Station can be seen in the background. Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune Historical Archives