Sunday, August 8, 2021

Hoopla for Chicago Picasso—Almost All is Forgiven

                            Unveiling the Picasso in Daley Center Plaza in 1967 drew a crowd of gawkers.

The Chicago Picasso—it has no other name—turned 50 years old in August 2017 and it was a very big deal.  How big a deal it is might mystify non-Chicagoans who underestimate the Toddlin’ Town’s municipal vanity.   Aspirations to be lauded as a World Class City and center of the fine arts meets common Babbitt boosterism.  It was the subject of essays by two of the city’s sharpest newspapermen, Rick Kogan of the Tribune who was at the dedication and Neil Steinberg of the Sun-Times, who was not, as well as several magazine pieces, all sorts of TV time, and social media postings. 

The city itself is staged a reenactment of the unveiling on August 8 that year in Daley Plaza conceived by artist and historian Paul Durica with all of the appropriate civic arts tsars and mavens and musical performances by the Chicago Children’s Choir and the After School Matters Orchestra.  The musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera Chorus evidently expected to get paid.  This gathering was actually a week early.  I don’t know why they didn’t pick the actual anniversary.  Maybe the Plaza was booked.

The actual dedication was held on August 15, 1967 during a summer had been in the news mostly for the riots that swept the South and West Sides.  Mayor Richard J. Daley, whose crown as Boss of The City That Works had been tarnished, was mighty glad for the opportunity to show off just how highbrow the Hog Butcher to the World could really be.

Of course today the Picasso is a—mostlybeloved Chicago icon.  Back in 1967 many of the city’s elite cultural gatekeepers, some of whom had never gotten over the shock of the 1913 Armory Show and were widely looked down upon as mere provincials by Manhattan sophisticates, and the blue collar lunch box proletariat were united in despising and being mystified by the Spanish artist’s gift to a city he had never seen.  Many suspected a commie plot or foresaw a fall into decadence and corruption.  Others just thought it was ugly and dumb.

Classic Chicago chroniclers Studs Terkel and Mike Royko were both on hand to document the Picasso dedication.

Count Chicago’s keenest observer, Daily News columnist Mike Royko in the latter category.  He called it “big, homely metal thing …[with] a long stupid face…[that] looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.”  Which meant it was perfect for the city. “Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.”

That other tireless chronicler of Chicago voices, Studs Terkel was on hand lugging around his heavy old reel-to-reel semi-portable tape recorder to capture the wisdom of the hoi polloi. Quotes from that tape litter almost all of the stories being done this week about the original dedication.  You can all most hear the hard bitten accents of some.  From Rick Hogan’s piece:

“A pelvic structure of a prehistoric monster,” “A politician because it’s got so many faces,” “A bird, “A big butterfly.” Some people were befuddled (“Is that the front view?”) and one was obviously a loyal Democrat (“If Daley says it’s good, it’s good enough for me”).

And from Steinberg’s :

“At first glance, it looks rather grotesque…” said one. “You got something like this, 99 percent of the people don’t know what it resembles,” observed another. “A nightmare,” added a third. “A woman!?” marveled another. “A woman, yes, definitely, now it makes some sense. At first, when they had no idea what it was, I didn’t think too much of it. But now I like the idea of a woman being placed at the civic center. It seems like the woman has to do with everything in life, and this has to do with the good things in life. This is a civic center and the goodness of a woman. That’s my idea.”

Which reminds us of the huge controversy about just what the hell the thing was, anyway, much of it fueled by the media.  There were many theories put forward—a vulture, the artist’s pet Afghan hound, a baboon, a starving lion, a woman of course, and just a big practical joke on the city.  As for me, youthful as I was at the time, I never had any doubt it was a woman.  Despite attempts to revive the controversy this year, mostly by clueless TV anchor people, it turned out that I was right.

Picasso's Head of a Woman sketch from 1962 is pretty definitive in confirming the artist's subject.

Art scholars have found doodles and sketches of similar forms dating back to Picasso’s halcyon days in Paris back in 1913.  Somewhat definitive is a 1962 sketch of a nearly identical form that the artist clearly labeled Head of a Woman.  Hard to argue with that.  And we even know pretty certainly which womana teen age girl actually. 

Sylvette David was about 17 or 18 when Picasso spotted her in the company of her boyfriend walking by his studio in 1954.  The old satyr was smitten, as he often was.  He was able to get the girl with the long swan-like neck and the high pony tail that spread out behind it to pose for him for several studies, including a realistic profile and several cubist deconstructions.  Unlike many of his other muses he was never able to bed girl and in fact named one of his 40 compositions of her was called The One Who Said No.  That pony tail not only became the “wings” of the Chicago statue, it inspired the signature look casual look for Brigit Bardot.  Sylvette went on to her own successful career as a painter and artist now known as Lydia Corbett.  She is now a lively 80 years old and recently said of Picasso, “I never thanked him enough. He immortalized me. I’m like the Mona Lisa. Amazing, don’t you think?”

Silvet David in 1954 with one of dozens of studies Picasso did of her.  That high pony tail that splayed out behind her head and neck would be echoed in a monumental sculpture more than a decade later.

Back in 1957, I was not at the unveiling.  I had graduated from Niles West High School in Skokie that spring and was spending the summer washing dishes at a Howard Johnson and getting ready to start Shimer College in Mt. Caroll, Illinois that fall.  I read all about the controversy in the papers, and undoubtedly devoured Royko’s sour take on it. I first saw it in person a few months later at an anti-war rally in the Plaza.  As a matter of fact all of my early encounters were at rallies and marches where the towering sculpture dominated the wide open space. 

I remember being impressed by its size and how its rust brown surface echoed the cladding of the Dailey Center itself.  I was pretty sure that Picasso was not an art-to-match-the-sofa kind of guy.  I was right, he had not dictated a color.  That came from the supplier of the steel to construct it, the American Bridge Company division of the United States Steel Corporation which used naturally oxidizing COR-TEN steel, the same material as used in the building.  Over the years both have darkened to what is now a grey with only hints of reddish brown.

Picasso was hands down the most famous artist in the world when he was visited by a committee of Chicago boosters bringing tacky gifts from Hizzoner with a request for him to create a monumental art work for otherwise desolate plaza of the new monument that the Mayor was erecting to himself.  The artist was amused, flattered, and skeptical.  But among the gifts was a photo of Oak Park’s native son Ernest Hemingway.  Picasso excitedly exclaimed, “My friend! I taught him everything he knew about bullfighting. Was he from Chicago?”  His visitors may have been a little vague in their reply.  At any rate he agreed—and more over agreed to make his creation a gift to the city.

                                      Picasso hastily sketching out his intention.

He started work in May, 1964 basing his design on sketches he had already made, including the Head of a Woman mentioned before.  He translated those two dimensional images into a three dimensional by making sketches on plywood, cutting out the parts, and assembling them with glue and wire.  He had been using a similar process to make smaller scale painted-on-sheet metal sculptures from his cubist reflections since Sylvette had posed for him.  But this time he proposed to leave the surface of the finished work raw, rather than painted in order to emphasize the shapes that seemed to shift when viewed from different angles.

Picasso with few revisions translated this first model into a 42 inch high maquette that was first displayed to the public in London during a major retrospective exhibit.  It drew raves from the British art cognisante.  Then the excited city hall put the model on display at the Art Institute where it remains to this day.  So Chicagoans, at least the museum visiting slice of the population knew what the pig in the poke was going to look like.  Some shared an excitement of being in the avant garde, but many were furious on both esthetic and political grounds—the artist was a known leftist and had recently been glad to accept a Lenin Prize, the Soviet Union’s answer to the Nobel Prize.  There was loose talk in some captive nation taverns in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods of blowing the damn thing to smithereens. 

The Woods Charitable Fund, Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Foundation, and the Field Foundation ponied up the roughly $352,000 cost of erecting the 50 foot high sculpture that would weigh 147 tons.  American Bridge created a final 12 high model for Picasso to approve that included some structural re-enforcements to support the enormous weight.  The artist agreed and fabrication work began at the U.S. Steel rolling mills in Gary, Indiana.

The parts were delivered by truck and instillation began on a re-enforced pedestal on May 2. 1967.  As it rose it was shrouded in scaffolding and canvas.  Work was completed in early August and final touches were put on dedication plans.

Gwendolyn Brooks looks as conflicted as she felt getting ready to read a poem before the unveiling of the statue.

On the big day the Plaza was filled with the curious. Mayor Daley and every other politico with enough clout crowded the dais along with all of the accredited art lovers.  Gwendolyn Brooks was asked to compose and read a new work for the occasion. Chances were strong that Daley had never read the works of the Black woman with strong opinions about race relations in the city, urban renewal, rampant police brutality, and the rising voice of Black Power.  On the other hand the poet had scored Pulitzer Prize and someone had named her Chicago’s Poet Laureate so she was just what the doctor called for in a program meant to buck-up the city’s cultural credentials.  For her part Brooks was flattered to be asked and aware that this sort of thing was just what was expected of the Poet Laureate.  But she was conflicted.  She hardly knew what to think of what she had seen of the sculpture and wasn’t sure she liked it or approved.  “Man visits Art, but squirms...” was as much enthusiasm as she could muster that day just before the canvas shroud dropped.

The ever vigilant Royko took note, however, of the symbolism of Brooks’ prominent presence.  “When [Aldermen] Keane and Cullerton sit behind a lady poet, things are changing.”

By the time the 25th anniversary rolled around in 1982 and Brooks was invited back for another crack at it, she had grown used to and fond of the Picasso.  She could be more honestly effusive.

sardonic still,
I continue royal among you.
I astonish you still.
You never knew what I am.
That did not matter and does not.

When the drapery finally dropped some observers thought they observed a scowl on the Mayor’s face.  Others thought it was more of a bemused smirk as if he was pleased as punch at getting away with a world class con.  Likewise there are conflicting reports on the crowd reaction.  Loyal machine partisans in the media reported cheers and applause.  Others described stunned silence giving way gradually to the kind of polite pro-forma clapping you would give to a third rate singer.

Whatever the immediate reaction, the Picasso quickly became a Chicago icon.  As critic Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, had predicted in defiance of the chorus nay sayers, the sculpture would “become an art landmark, one of the most famous sites in the world.”

Sometimes the Picasso was crudely rendered and hardly recognizable in souvenirs like this bracelet charm.

And thanks to city Law Department faux pas Chicago lost the copyright on the monument’s image by publicly displaying it at the Art Institute without protection.  Souvenir stands were soon awash in post cards, posters, t-shirts, jewelry, snow-globes, bronze trinkets of all sizes, and high-end collector’s edition art models.  Something for every budget.  No one could come home from a Windy City visit without some kind of Picasso memorabilia.

On the cultural front, the statue was the first monumental outdoor modern public art in the country.  It immediately blew heroic bronzes and classical motifs out of the water. Within a decade it seemed that no public project could go up without a head-scratching set piece from downtown plazas and government buildings to modest village halls, suburban shopping malls, and even office and factory campuses.  This trend was accelerated with a Federal Government policy that 2% of the cost of new construction be set aside for the arts and state and local policies that aped it.  A lot of sculptors got work, not all of them creative genius like Picasso.

The Picasso has weathered to gray with just hints of the former rust brown.  Children continue to use it as the world's most expensive piece of playground equipment.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Chicago’s Loop where Alexander Calder’s Stabile adorns the Dirksen Federal Building, Claus Oldenburg’s ironic Bat Column rises,  Marc Chagall’s mosaic covered monolith graced the First National Bank of Chicago Plaza, as well a works by Joan Miro’s and Henry Moore.  But so does mediocre stuff not to mention the hideous Snoopy in Blender outside the white elephant James R. Thompson State of Illinois building.

Today Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate a/k/a The Bean in Millennium Park may have taken the title of Chicago’s most famous and photographed work of public art.   


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