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Does Man Love Art? A History of Public Art Controversy in Chicago

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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 fourth in the series examines the history of controversial public art installations.

By FRANCK MERCURIO

Controversy is never far from public art, especially in Chicago. Throughout the years, the city has seen its share of debates and scandals over art installations, ranging from cost overruns and incompetence to charges of public indecency and immorality to misplaced or destroyed artwork.

Even works that are much beloved today often began with rocky public relationships. When the city's famous “Chicago Picasso” (officially untitled) was unveiled in Daley Plaza fifty years ago this summer, it was not universally embraced. Indeed, most people puzzled over it. 

“Was it a joke? Was it for real? Why that? Everyone had an opinion,” wrote Chicago Tribune reporter Sheila Wolfe the day after the unveiling ceremony in August 1967. 

Writing in the same edition, the Tribune’s art editor, Edward Barry, reported on the crowd’s decidedly mixed reactions. “With applause, startled exclamations, and incredulous smiles,” wrote Barry, “Chicago received its long awaited gift yesterday from the most celebrated of living artists.”

Gwendolyn Brooks seemed to brace Chicagoans for the impending public controversy. In her poem, composed on the occasion of the Picasso’s unveiling, she wrote:

Does man love art? Man visits art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages—
And it is easier to stay at home,
The nice beer ready.

Art—especially public art—does indeed urge voyages. Each new work tends to push the boundaries of our collective sensibilities, challenging our shared notions of what art is supposed to be. The rules for evaluating public art go beyond formal and conceptual concerns and take into account other criteria that can make or break an installation. Does the work provide a civic amenity? Does it fit within its urban and architectural contexts? Is it accessible to the general public, both physically and intellectually?

All of these issues were debated with the unveiling of the Chicago Picasso in 1967. But what was then new and provocative gradually became familiar and accepted. Today, the gargantuan modernist sculpture serves as a symbol of Chicago; it’s considered a unique civic asset, one that paved the way for subsequent “plaza sculptures” by other renowned artists, including Calder, Miro, Chagall, Nevelson, and DuBuffet.

Yet despite its current popularity, the Chicago Picasso still presents a conceptual conundrum to many people. What exactly is it supposed to be? A baboon? A dog? A horse? A praying mantis? A woman? For decades, the question has been debated by experts and amateurs alike. 

“The identity of the sculpture’s inspiration [is] an ongoing controversy that to this day has not been definitively resolved,” writes Patricia Balton Stratton in her recently published book The Chicago Picasso: A Point of Departure. “Part of the reason for the uncertainty,” continues Stratton, “was that Picasso himself refused to speak about the sculpture’s provenance or even to name it, an act of negative creativity that opened up the sculpture’s field of meaning and made it truly public.”

Despite the intense desire to solve the mystery of the sculpture’s identity, the subject matter (if there is any) probably didn’t mean much to Picasso himself. Instead, the artist seemed more intent on refining a set of formal concepts that he had pursued and explored throughout his 70-plus-year career.

These explorations can be traced back to Picasso’s guitar constructions of 1912–1914 when he first experimented with planar and linear elements to define space and suggest volume. More radically, the artist used linear elements to compose his Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire (1928), a collaboration with the sculptor Julio González. These early works are the ancestors of the Chicago Picasso, which includes many of the same elements, but rendered on a monumental scale.

Picasso also played with the idea of seeing and experiencing the sculpture in different ways depending on the viewer’s vantage point.

Looking directly at the work, the viewer is confronted with a gigantic totemic figure, its “face” reminiscent of an African mask. Picasso collected art from Africa and Oceania throughout his career, and these works often served as inspiration for his own art, most famously in his painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).

However, looking at the Chicago Picasso from either side, the viewer’s perception changes; a profile of a woman becomes apparent, suggesting the many portraits Picasso made of his wife, Jacqueline, created during the same time period he was working on the Chicago commission.

These shifting perceptions reflect a kind of Cubist sensibility, providing multiple perspectives within one piece. But the Chicago Picasso also represents a lifetime of sculptural explorations, culminating in a single work and making a simple “one answer” reading of the piece impossible.

But even as debates about the meaning of the Chicago Picasso continue, it’s worth noting that it was not the first or last public art controversy in Chicago. One of the earliest to seize the public’s attention centered around a bronze sculpture installed on the front steps of the Art Institute in 1916: a rather handsome male nude titled The Sower.

The artist, Albin Polasek (1879–1965), had arrived in Chicago from Rome to head the School of the Art Institute’s sculpture department. While studying at the American Academy in Rome, Polasek had modeled The Sower, a classically inspired figure in the tradition of monumental male nudes in Western art. (Think Michelangelo’s David, but with an agrarian calling.) The Art Institute placed The Sower on public view outside the museum’s main entrance, in part to advertise a large exhibition of American sculpture, but also to celebrate the opening of a new gallery space—Gunsaulus Hall—spanning the Illinois Central Railway tracks.

The “naked farmer” immediately caught the gaze of many Chicagoans, who were not accustomed to seeing full-frontal male nudity on Michigan Avenue. It also caught the attention of the city’s first “censor of public morals” Major M.L.C. Funkhouser. He tried—in vain—to have The Sower taken off view in the name of public decency. Letters to Chicago’s newspapers were both for and against sculpture. Yet throughout the scandal, the Art Institute stood its ground, and Polasek kept his sense of humor.

“He was highly entertained by it all,” recounted Polasek’s wife, Ruth Sherwood, in her biography of the artist. “More over, the discussion brought him fame overnight. People who would never have thought to visit the Art Institute flocked downtown to see the ‘Sower.’”

Chicago newspapers also had fun with the controversy. When the time came to bring The Sower inside the museum (to accompany an exhibition of Polasek’s work), the Chicago Tribune wrote that “Nippy December breezes whistling about the Art Institute made it necessary for ‘The Sower’ to put on his pants or get out of the weather—so he has gone in.”

The Sower is now on permanent display at the Chicago Botanic Garden where he watches over the Esplanade four seasons a year—in all his natural glory.

Polasek’s masterwork remained controversial for only a few months. But not all public art controversies erupt immediately after a work is unveiled. In some cases, the scandal happens long after a work has been de-installed or decommissioned. 

Case in point: The controversy surrounding Chicago Rising from the Lake (1954) by artist Milton Horn (1906–1995) happened years after the sculpture was created. Today, this monumental bronze relief adorns the Columbus Drive Bridge along the Chicago River Walk. But the sculpture took a very circuitous route to its present home.

Horn originally created the massive 12-foot-by-14-foot relief for Parking Facility Number 1, the first city-owned and operated public parking garage in Chicago. Opened in 1955, the modernist structure at Wacker Drive and State Street accommodated a growing number of car commuters within a state-of-the-art facility. The sculpture, Chicago Rising from the Lake, took pride of place on the building’s gleaming white brick façade, where it faced north toward the Chicago River. There, it presided over a daily parade of automobiles, driving in and out of the facility, until the garage was demolished in 1983, making way for the Renaissance Hotel and the Leo Burnett Building.

But after its de-installation, the sculpture disappeared.

Several attempts were made to find it. Horn tracked it down in 1987 near the city’s Transportation Department office at 31st Street and Sacramento where it was found lying at the bottom of a tarp-covered swimming pool. Sometime later, the sculpture was moved to a metal scrapyard along the banks of the Chicago River. It was rediscovered there in 1994, receiving much press attention in the process.

Chicago Rising soon became a symbol of the city’s failures to keep track of and maintain the hundreds of works of public art that had been financed over the years by taxpayers. Horn’s sculpture sparked a movement in the 1990s to reform and improve the Chicago Public Art Program, which today oversees more than 500 works of art in 150 locations throughout the city—including the Chicago Picasso.

Happily, Chicago Rising was restored and reinstalled in 1998. The sculpture, rescued from obscurity, is now enjoyed by citizens and tourists alike as they promenade along the River Walk.

What new controversies will arise now and in the future? Perhaps one is the scarcity of commissions given to women artists and artists of color to create major works in highly visible locations. Projects such as the Wabash Arts Corridor are beginning to address and correct this historic bias. But prestigious civic projects seldom are awarded to artists that fall outside the "old white man" category. Hopefully, new commissions—going to a broader range of artists working today—will be as exciting, challenging and significant as the great ones that came before.

Top image: Thousands of people jammed Daley Plaza on Tuesday, August 15, 1967 to witness the dedication and unveiling of the “Chicago Picasso.” Photo: Richard J. Daley Center, Untitled sculpture (“The Picasso”), Chicago Illinois, 1963-1965. C. F. Murphy Associates, architect. Fazlur R. Khan Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.  Digital File #199207_151211-009.

Read more from Franck Mercurio's Public Art series:

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

Public Art and the Masses: Examining Sculpture in Grant Park

No Little Plans: The Battle for Public Art in Chicago