No Little Plans: The Battle for Public Art in Chicago

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 third in the series recounts the battles between traditionalists and modernists in the world of public art.


On summer days, the Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden provides a cool refuge from the heat and noise of Michigan Avenue. Formal in composition, yet modern in conception, the garden is a masterwork of mid-twentieth century landscape architecture. Its designer, Dan Kiley (1912–2004), planted a simple grid of hawthorns and honey locusts surrounding a large rectangular reflecting pool, activated by rows of water jets. Presiding over this urban oasis are five bronze muses from a bygone era, each representing one of the Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.

Modeled in various stages of dress (and undress), each idealized female figure holds a giant clamshell with water flowing from one shell to the next, mimicking the hydrology of the Great Lakes. This exemplar of American Beaux-Arts sculpture—titled Fountain of the Great Lakes—is the work of Lorado Taft (1860–1936), the Illinois-born sculptor, instructor, writer and lecturer.

Educated at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1880s, Taft first gained national attention at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. There, he put his academic training to good use, creating two monumental groups of figures for the fair’s Horticulture Building. Later, in 1903, Taft made a name for himself by writing the first comprehensive history of American sculpture. Around this same time, he conceived the idea for Fountain of the Great Lakes, reportedly inspired by a suggestion from Daniel Burnham (1846–1912), the Chicago architect, urban planner and promoter of “no little plans.”

Burnham included a rendering of Taft’s fountain in his influential 1909 Plan of Chicago. A product of the City Beautiful movement, Burnham’s plan presented a holistic vision of Chicago, unifying urban design, architecture and public sculpture. Within this context, outdoor sculpture was viewed as an important civic amenity.

But Taft’s and Burnham’s idea to promote Beaux-Arts ideals through public sculpture did not gain much public traction. Times were changing in 1913. Even before Fountain of the Great Lakes was unveiled that September, it was already out of date. The academic conventions of Beaux-Arts classicism—and artists like Taft who championed it—were being challenged by a younger generation of modern artists. The 1913 Armory Show (which opened at the Art Institute six months before Taft’s fountain was unveiled) turned the American art scene upside-down. A celebration of European and American Modernism, the exhibition rocked New York before arriving in Chicago, where it was largely greeted with derision.

Taft’s scorn for some of the Armory Show sculptors—in particular Matisse, Brancusi, Archipenko, and Gaudier-Brzeska—was recorded and published in his 1917 book Modern Tendencies in Sculpture. He described their works in colorful language that ranged from “foolish caricatures” to “startling abortions.” Taft was no less kind to critics and members of the public who supported and embraced this art of a new age.

But despite Taft’s protests, the genie was out of the bottle. In 1916, inspired by the Armory Show, a group of Chicagoans founded the Arts Club of Chicago, expressly as a vehicle for showcasing modern art. Here, many European and American modernists received their first major exhibitions in the United States, including Brancusi and Picasso and a few lesser-known artists, such as Lorado Taft’s one-time student John Storrs.

The son of a Chicago real estate magnate, Storrs (1885–1956) spent much of his twenties bouncing between the United States and Europe, studying sculpture in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Hamburg and Paris. In 1913, he began studying under Auguste Rodin, and soon fell in with the modernists of the Paris art scene, making social and professional connections with the likes of Jacques Lipchitz, May Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Storrs began experimenting with abstraction, venturing from figurative works into non-objective compositions and working largely in a Cubist style.

Storrs exhibited at the Arts Club of Chicago on three separate occasions in the 1920s, and his works were well received by critics. In his 1927 show, Storrs displayed many of his “studies in form” and “architectural forms”—abstract constructions of stone and metal reminiscent of Art Deco skyscrapers. It is very likely that he met the architect John Wellborn Root, Jr. (1887–1963) of Holabird and Root at this exhibition. (Root’s aunt, Harriet Monroe—the founder and publisher of Poetry magazine—was an active member of the Arts Club and hosted a reception at the exhibition.) Within a few months, Holabird and Root gave Storrs his first major public commission: a project to create a monumental figure to adorn the new Chicago Board of Trade Building.

The result was Ceres (1930) a 31-foot-tall aluminum statue representing the Roman goddess of grain. Storrs designed the sculpture as an extension of the architecture; the figure’s streamlined form and long vertical lines echo the lines of the building. Capping the structure’s pyramidal roof, Ceres serves as a kind of exclamation point at the apex of the building.

The influence of Modernism is apparent in the design of Ceres. Storrs simplified the figure, reducing its forms to essential elements, much in the manner of Brancusi. Yet, despite the sculpture’s abstracted formal qualities and industrial materials, its allegorical subject grounds the figure in earlier traditions. Ceres holds sheaths of wheat in one hand and a trader’s sample bag in the other, symbolizing the commodities sold within the building. She is the city’s Machine Age goddess of wealth.

Ceres is Chicago’s first work of public art designed in a modern idiom, and she influenced later artists in a number of ways. Fast forward to 1991 when an artist of a later generation, Roger Brown (1941–1997), looked to Ceres and classical mythology as inspiration for two murals located a few blocks north of the Board of Trade Building. The controversial Chicago architect Helmut Jahn commissioned Brown to create the two murals for a new office building at 120 N. LaSalle Street.

Brown was associated with the Chicago Imagists, a group of artists set in opposition to art movements in New York, especially Abstract Expressionism. The Imagists found value in figuration, which they interpreted in surreal, cartoonish and quirky ways, often using humor and satire to inject social commentary into their work.

The interior mural, titled Arts and Sciences of the Modern World: LaSalle Corridor with Holding Pattern (1991) depicts a stylized version of the Chicago Board of Trade Building topped by an outline of Ceres. On either side, skyscrapers rise up along LaSalle Street, while two passenger jets fly high above the scene. A light shines down on the Board of Trade—through Brown’s signature arcs of clouds—projecting a kind of sacred glow onto the building and on Ceres herself.

The massive exterior mural (22 feet tall by 57 feet long) above the entrance to 120 N. LaSalle is well known by many Chicagoans. It depicts two male, winged figures flying above a body of water. Titled Arts and Sciences of the Ancient World: The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus (1991) [Pictured, top of page], the mural takes its inspiration from classical mythology, specifically the story of Daedalus, the architect and inventor, and his son Icarus. The scene depicts them fleeing imprisonment using fabricated wings.

The exact meaning of the mural has been much debated. On one level, it can be read as a cautionary tale about “flying too close to the sun”; a warning to business leaders on LaSalle (and politicians in City Hall across the street) to reign in unbridled greed and ambition.

But a more subtle reading interprets the two figures as a portrait of Brown and his partner, the architect George Veronda. Curiously, both Daedalus and Icarus are represented in an identical manner—in fact, they look like brothers instead of father and son. In many of his works, Brown used a coded visual language—easily read by those in the know—but perhaps invisible to those outside the world of gay male culture. In this reading, the work represents a radical—even subversive—take on public art.

Each generation of artists brings its own mix of radicalism and traditionalism to public art. In a sense, Brown was following the precedents of earlier artists—such as Storrs—who developed new forms and concepts for the public to consider within the somewhat conservative, institutional framework that often finances public art commissions. What will the next generation of artists present to the city of Chicago?    

Top image: Roger Brown (1941-1997). Arts and Sciences of the Ancient World: The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus, 1991, Italian glass mosaic and stone, 22’ x 57’. Mural over the entry of 120 N. LaSalle Street, Chicago. Photo: William Bengtson. Courtesy of the Roger Brown Study Collection Archive, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Read more from Franck Mercurio's Public Art series:

Public Art and the Masses: Examining Sculpture in Grant Park

The Origins of Public Art in Chicago: From the Bronze Lions to Skylanding