Sunday, August 6, 2017

50 years ago: Chicago squirmed at its new "big, homely metal thing"

     Gwendolyn Brooks thought it looked stupid.
     Chicago's Pulitzer Prize winning poet hadn't yet set eyes on the new sculpture the city had asked her to laud. The 50-foot-high, 162-ton monument was being installed behind screens at the Civic Center, out of sheets of COR-TEN, the same steel used in the building behind it.
     She had only seen photographs.
     "The pictures looked very foolish," the future poet laureate of Illinois later said, "with those two little eyes, and that long nose."
     But a gig's a gig, though her foray into occasional verse reflected her unease.  
     "Man visits Art, but squirms," she read at the unveiling, Aug. 15, 1967 a grand public ceremony where 50,000 Chicagoans — at least according to police estimates — were serenaded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while waiting to meet the sculpture that some predicted might replace the Art Institute's lions as a symbol of the city.
     The city had certainly seen the sculpture before it was unveiled. The previous September, the 42-inch model that Pablo Picasso had donated to the city went on display at the Art Institute.
     The work had no title, and Chicagoans debated what it might be. A woman's head? An Afghan hound? A seahorse? A baboon? The Tribune called it a "predatory grasshopper." Mayor Richard J. Daley said he saw "the wings of justice" in the sculpture, and his was the opinion that really mattered....

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  1. Thanks Neil. Way to capture a moment in time that has stretched into the future so eloquently. Great reporting. Insightful commentary. Way to show both sides of an important story about our city

  2. Thanks FME. What I'm especially proud of is this: I hate the Picasso. I've always hated the Picasso. I thought it was a hoax perpetrated on Midwestern rubes, eager for European validation. But rather than go with that bias, I recognized that I am not, in fact, the only person in the world, nor the superlative expert in art, and decided I would do that seek-out-other-people-and-find-out-what-they-think thing. This piece was saved by Michael Darling, at the MCA, and Robert Shea, at the newspaper, who unbidden pulled the Sun-Times clips from around that day, including one on hippies at the unveiling. I am so grateful for both of them going out of their way to be helpful.

    1. I'm not quite on board with the hoax theory, but there is definitely nothing Midwestern about it. Whatever it is, it really doesn't scream, "Chicago!" But, I suppose we should be grateful Picasso got the commission and not Salvador Dali.

    2. I don't believe for a minute that it's a hoax. It's too much like most of what else he did and, with so much of his work at AIC, I don't think he resented us. I also understand he never cashed the check, so it was ultimately a gift (I realize that could be urban legend--cue Bill Savage). Now, Artie Shaw putting a band together to play his hits to prove a point about audience taste, or lack thereof, to "put one over" on "jitter-bugging morons," I think is valid. That's exactly what he said he was doing.

  3. So glad to have read this; I've always taken the Picasso for granted, not giving it the attention and contemplation it deserves. Learning more about the history behind it I'm much more appreciative of it. And not knowing exactly what it represents can make a work of art more compelling. I like the above photo of the child sliding down the slope toward her mother; it brings out the warmth and openness the sculpture offers to our city as well.

  4. Yes, nicely done.

    I've always been pretty ambivalent about the Picasso -- which goes hand-in-hand with being ambivalent about Picasso, in general. But, I've grown accustomed to its face, and I think the scale and the dull steel fit the site well.

    I like the aspect of it serving as a big slide for kids in the plaza -- a bonus which you exemplify in your photo. My recollection (not gonna look it up) is that the sculptor of the Crown fountain never anticipated kids playing in that water, either, which is hard to imagine.

    To me, the fact that "you can find similar images in Picasso’s work going back to 1917" argues against the "fleece the rubes" idea, but who knows. I certainly appreciate Koons' perspective.

    Though, really, the "prank on the rubes" theory could be applied to much of modern art, IMHO. If they filled 2 of the rooms in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute with random, everyday oddities they'd found in dumpsters, I'd be hard pressed to figure out whether they belonged in some of the installations, or not. ; )

  5. I agree about the scale and the dull steel being just right. It wouldn't work everywhere, but on that site I think it's just right. It fills the space and compliments the building nicely. Don't care what it represents -- if anything. That it fosters such speculation is a virtue.


  6. Chicago is especially fortunate, I believe, in the amount of monumental modern art within walking distance in the Loop. I'm not that into the Picasso, although clearly I think it's in line with his portraits of woman at AIC. The Calder at Fed. Plaza is the best of all, particularly in contrast with the Mies bldgs: I don't care for the Miro across from the Picasso, nor the Dubuffet at the Thompson center. Calder and Henry Moore grace the AIC gardens, and I, for one, LOVE Oldenburg's (sp?) "Batcolumn." Among other things, like most pop art, it's purposefully hilarious. I also like the Chagall at whatever First National Plaza is called now. Start w/the 19th cent. architecture at Dearborn and Jackson, take Dearborn north and you can see most of it for yourself within a few blocks. Also heartily agree with Mr. Evans that the speculative aspect is part of the point.

  7. That's the first I've read about what you thought of the Picasso. I was about to ask. Haha.

  8. I was 7 when it was unveiled. I thought ...I don't know, it just looked like nothing real. SW side blue collar it looked weird. But...weird can grow on you, and it can change you. Change how you look at things so even if you don't know what it is you can appreciate the curve of a line, an unexpected interruption, until you can see beauty in the oddest places. And those places aren't odd anymore.


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