It took about eight hours to drive down from Ontonagon, Michigan, what with the stop at Held's, in Slinger, Wisconsin, to stock up on beef jerky, string cheese and bourbon brats. Four days gone, just enough to give home a sense of unfamiliarity. "Hey, I live here? Niiiiiice...."
Back in the office at last, I fired up the iMac and checked in on what was happening. Eric Zorn, on his Facebook page, noted the removal of one of those art installations that sometimes appear in Pioneer Court, the open space just south of Tribune Tower. Eric posted a photo of a crane removing this massive tableau, writing:
Good riddance, "Return Visit" -- the view from our conference room as this enormous piece of kitsch comes down for its trip to Peoria.No argument here. I was not a fan of "Return Visit," though I did rather like Johnson's "Forever Marilyn," a Brobdingnagian Marilyn Monroe in her famous "Seven Year Itch" pose that had been there in 2008. Somehow the film icon gave herself over to rough caricature more readily than does the 16th president.
Though I suppose artistic intent must factor in somehow. What if this piece, or the humongous fawn that popped up over the summer on the banks of the Chicago River, just across from the Sun-Times, are supposed to be these godawful giant refugees from a thrift store bin? A small touch—Lincoln's unseen right hand snaking into the back pocket of the distracted tourist and removing his wallet, a microwave oven-sized pile of poop behind the fawn–might have utterly redeemed them.
I will admit I dislike the fawn less than I disliked the "Return Visit," perhaps because it seemed a more truthful rendition, while Honest Abe and his sweater-wearing interlocutor have the just-off air of humans made from butter at the State Fair. The fawn, appearing suddenly and without fanfare, induced a sense of wonder and affection. I'm glad it's there. And I've seen worse—far, far worse, such as the bronze children, their features too small for their heads, which in turn are too small for their bodies, scattered around the park in downtown Northbrook, like some kind of evil spirits lurking by the shrubs.
Though "dislike" might be too strong a word. I snapped some pictures, but never would have thought of "Return Visit" again, nor probably noticed that it had disappeared if I passed next week. Art touches you, leave an impression, and non-art, well, it's just there.
Eric's use of "kitsch" to describe the thing intrigued me. Kitsch is one of those realms, like pornography, that we know something belongs to when we see it, yet is hard to define in general. My full Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1978, doesn't even try, going from "Kitling" (a small cat, a word worthy of reviving) to "Kitten." But I suspected it might have snuck into the Supplement, and there it was: "Art or objets d'art characterized by worthless pretentiousness."
Hmmm. "Worthless pretentiousness." That doesn't sound right. If I had to start naming kitsch objects, I would suggest kewpie dolls, ceramic cat figurines, black velvet paintings of Indian chiefs shedding a tear, shot glasses in the shape of barrels with the names of states, sold at gas stations. "Pretentiousness" doesn't seem right. "Lack of ambition" would be better. Maybe I can find a better definition.
The online Merrian-Webster seems to hit closer to the mark than the Oxford: "something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality." Under that definition, "Return Visit" is kitsch, first in concept—a 25-foot-tall painted bronze Abe Lincoln giving directions to a tourist—an idea simple to the point of idiocy, without a redeeming sly wink, or subtle subversion. Lincoln looks like a make-up screen test for a character in "Planet of the Apes" and the tourist is the most anodyne white individual imaginable.
How could this piece have been salvaged? A clever title would have helped considerably—"Now the Dubuffet isn't the most Godawful Public Art in Chicago" leaps to mind. "The Wrigley Building is Right in Front of You, Asshole" is even better.
I think I know what's going on here. Anticipating a potential need to know what this thing is called, I snapped a picture of the plaque. See if you can spot the problem:
It's "atelier," right? The Seward Johnson Atelier. Which Webster's defines, rather thickly, as "an artist's or designer's studio or workroom," missing the sense of grandiosity to the term. It's as if I referred to my books and columns as an "oeuvre," which I would never do, because, while largely correct ("a substantial body of work constituting the lifework of a writer") it carries the stench of the self-importance and academia.
Looking at Johnson's Wikipedia page, I learned a few germane facts: first, that the artist is 87 years old. Second, that he is the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, the founder of Johnson & Johnson. Third, that his work has been labeled "kitsch" by critics for at least 30 years.
Which, taken together, must stay the lash of criticism, at least as wielded by me. Heirs of vast fortunes are not famous for their depth, their artistic heft, and Johnson's biography hints at a life of earnest amateurism. Harsh, perhaps, but I doubt many 87-year-olds are navigating the deepest recesses of the Internet, which my blog must qualify as a denizen of the lower realms. I hope that isn't condescending or ageism — the truth is, you create a public display, even if you are a kindergartener, you invite critique. But it might get back to him, and, kind soul that I am, I wince at the thought of him being hooted out the door. There's no reason, the point being made to my regular readers, we can't end on a positive note, for the benefit of the artist. Something like:
Chicago will be a less artistic place this week than it has been since Nov. 1, 2016, when Seward Johnson's spectacularly wonderful "Return Visit," was installed on the Tribune Tower's Pioneer Court. The massive bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and a regular salt-of-the-earth citizen of the Prairie State, which must rank alongside the Art Institute lions,"Cloud Gate," and the Picasso as gems of the city, will be sorely missed, and we can only pray that Rahm Emanuel finds the $100 million the statue is surely worth, to purchase Johnson's masterpiece and return it to its rightful home.There, if you must afflict the old gent with a portion of this column, share that with him.