Chicago's art and soul

Some said it looked like a rusty tin can. Others likened it to a baboon with wings. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune derided it as a "predatory grasshopper." Alderman John J. Hoellen even introduced a City Council resolution to have the piece removed.

The subject of the city's consternation in 1967 was a sculpture planned for Civic Center Plaza in the heart of downtown. In the months leading up to the unveiling, a small-scale model was previewed for the public at the Art Institute. Grotesque, some charged. Obscene, some suggested. Rumors even swirled that the finished five-story-tall steel piece was nothing more than a 162-ton hoax -- a monumental joke on Chicago played by its creator, Pablo Picasso. The fact that Picasso declined a commission and designated it a present to the city fueled the speculation.

Then -- Mayor Richard J. Daley tried to be reassuring. What seems strange today will be familiar tomorrow, he said, and Chicago will be ever grateful for this gift.

Three decades later, it's clear the mayor was right. Picasso's sculpture has become one of Chicago's most beloved sights and a symbol of the city: bold, tough, beautiful, multidimensional.

I lived in the Chicago area from 1989 to 1994 and return regularly to see friends and family. Like most visitors, I'm usually dazzled first by the skyline, the cloud-kissing towers built by such notables as I.M. Pei, Harry Weese and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

But on trips in December and April, I paid less attention to skyscrapers above and devoted more time to the treasures below: public sculptures by Picasso, Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg, Marc Chagall and Joan Miro. Like Picasso in '67, each of these artists has faced his share of public protest, critical scorn, vandalism, even the Second City's public enemy No. 1, winter. And each has endured.

Hundreds of modern sculptures line parks and adorn buildings all over town, some funded by the U.S. General Services Administration's Art-in-Architecture program, others the result of a city ordinance requiring new municipal buildings to include artwork.

I focused on major works in the Loop, the downtown business core, bound roughly by the curving Chicago River to the north and west, Van Buren Street to the south and Michigan Avenue to the east. Last winter, map in hand and muffs on ears, I set off to see as many as I could in one blustery afternoon. And this spring, after more research, I revisited my favorites to see them in a different light.

For out-of-towners, a good starting point May through October is just north of the Loop at Navy Pier, the waterfront shopping-dining-entertainment promenade. Every spring and summer, the front lawn and exposition hall host Pier Walk, a collection of large sculptures -- 80 artists' works this year.

From there, one can walk southwest into the Loop and toward the James R. Thompson Center at 100 W. Randolph St. In a downtown filled with classic boxy buildings, architect Helmut Jahn dreamed up an outrageous vision of mirrored glass and curved steel accented in orange and blue. If the building looks like a grounded spaceship, then Jean Dubuffet's "Monument With Standing Beast" must be an alien slithering out the front door.

Unveiled Nov. 28, 1984, the 29-foot-tall, 10-ton fiberglass structure still gets called "ugly and papier-mache like" (Citysearch) and "a deconstructed igloo or pile of dirty snow" (Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Online).

Dubuffet found inspiration in the art of children and the insane, whom he credits for the energy, vitality and humor in his avant-garde paintings. Guidebooks said "Monument With Standing Beast" is composed of four elements intended to suggest a standing animal, a portal and "architectural components." I still didn't get it.

I ducked into the Thompson Center for clues. The soaring 17-story atrium is a breathtaking expanse of glass walls and ceiling (more than 24,000 exterior panels and a total glass surface area of 400,000 square feet). No matter how many times I step inside, I always feel as if I've entered a UFO, not the offices of more than 50 state agencies.

Perhaps that's the point. It's not your standard governmental building. (Do most government offices freeze eight 100,000-pound ice blocks every night only to let them slowly melt the next day for use as coolant in the air-conditioning system?) Dubuffet's sculpture celebrates that unconventional approach, inviting visitors to step through the portal and into the crazy environment inside.

Next, a block down Dearborn Street, I stood at Richard J. Daley Plaza, the spot where the mayor pulled the tarp off the untitled Picasso sculpture on Aug. 15, 1967. It should have been heralded as the first public sculpture by the world's most celebrated living artist.

Instead it became a citywide controversy. On the morning of the unveiling, a crowd estimated at 50,000 packed the plaza: downtown suits, suburban homemakers, schoolchildren, hippies passing out flowers, picketers prepared to protest and security guards ready to respond.

When the wraps came off, the head-scratching began. Art experts recognized the sculpture as a woman's face, albeit in Picasso's abstract style. The public's reactions were decidedly different, according to Sheila Wolfe, a Tribune reporter on the scene. Onlookers saw a cow sticking out its tongue, a human rib cage and appendix, or "nothing, absolutely nothing."

I spent a good half-hour looking at the shapes and forms, letting my mind make odd comparisons and fanciful interpretations. If imagination is a gift, I decided, Picasso's thought-provoking work is one of the finest this city has received.

If the initial reception to Picasso's work was lukewarm, the reaction to surrealist Miro's sculpture across the way on Washington Street was downright frosty.

"Miro's Chicago," a 40-foot female form with arms outstretched toward passersby, was lambasted by art critics ("embarrassingly trivial," wrote the Trib's Alan G. Artner) and despised by many Chicagoans because, unlike the privately funded Picasso, the Miro was constructed partly with tax dollars.

The sculpture premiered in 1981 on the artist's 88th birthday, but within two weeks a vandal had splashed red across the base.

That paint was sandblasted, leaving only what I saw: a long concrete torso with a bell-shaped skirt and geometric accents of colored ceramic tiles. The body leads to a slender neck and a petite, abstract nose, followed by a fork-shaped crown of hair cast in bronze.

Chagall's piece a block south is titled "The Four Seasons," but it took only one season to nearly destroy two years of work.

The annual onslaught of sleet, snow and subfreezing temperatures that made my toes go numb and singed my ears last winter had taken its toll on Chagall's mosaic too. The piece, which premiered in 1974, had to be restored in the mid-'90s.

Now protected by a glass canopy, "The Four Seasons" seems comfortable in its home, the plaza fronting Bank One's 60-story headquarters.

The intricate images make quite a statement, covering every inch of a monolith that's 70 feet long, 10 feet wide and 14 feet high. I walked around all four sides, captivated by six fantasy-filled scenes of life in Chicago. Children laughing, couples dancing, musicians strolling, birds fluttering, sun shining, winds whirling -- all depicted with fragments of hand-chipped stone, marble, granite, glass and brick from Italy, France, Belgium, Norway, Israel and, of course, Chicago.

It quickly became my favorite Loop sculpture, not just because of its dazzling palette of 250 shades or its magical blend of fantasy and reality or its rendering of the earthbound and the heaven-sent. What made me connect with the piece was the artist's unmistakable love for Chicago -- its beauty, people and spirit. It's a love he developed while visiting the Art Institute over the years.

In one panel, a celestial figure dives from the sky under a glorious sienna sun. Even in the shiver of winter and the bright glare of spring, I could close my eyes and feel the onset of autumn -- a warm wind coming off summer-sunned Lake Michigan, the crackle and crunch of dried leaves underfoot.

Chagall donated his work to the city and even offered a special gift to workers in the surrounding skyscrapers: a resplendent mosaic of flowers on top of the monolith, visible only from above.

The next two stops on my tour were quickies. The lobby of the Inland Steel Building (30 W. Monroe St.) holds Richard Lippold's "Untitled (Radiant I)." The doors were locked and the security guard was unresponsive to my pleas, but through the windows I still could see Lippold's space-age spider web: Long rods and thin wires of gold, stainless steel and copper form an intricate geometric pattern hovering over a reflecting pool. It's hard to describe, but I imagine it's what a newly created star might look like, or a ball of light emanating energy in all directions.

Across the street, 33 W. Monroe St. is a building that's nondescript except for Chryssa Varda's 1980 untitled "light sculpture" in the eight-story atrium lobby. Six identical W-shaped blocks of white acrylic descend from the ceiling in a stack, each connected to the next by aluminum rods. An estimated 900 feet of neon tubing inside the Ws are supposed to pulsate with patterns of light. When I asked the security guard why they were dark, he said the building's owner wanted to save electricity.

Then it was on to Federal Plaza. In October 1974, just a month after Chagall dedicated "The Four Seasons," 76-year-old Calder rode through town on a circus wagon pulled by 40 horses and surrounded by clowns, elephants and musicians trumpeting the city's next spectacle.

A Trib headline dubbed his sculpture a "whatchama-Calder," but the artist had a more matter-of-fact description: "Sort of pink and has a long neck, so I called it 'Flamingo."'

Steel plates form two soaring, 53-foot-high arched "legs." They gradually converge into a wider torso with "wings" and, finally, a "head" that droops down to the ground, as if scavenging for seeds.

Other tourists and I couldn't help but chuckle as we walked around and under the arcs of steel painted vermilion (a.k.a. "Calder red"). What was so remarkable was the hulking assemblage's grace. "Flamingo" seemed to float aboveground, as if it could take to the sky with the next gust of wind.

It's a short walk from "Flamingo" to another Calder work, this one at the Sears Tower. I trudged to the lobby and found "Universe" in motion.

Calder's wall-mounted mobile is actually a collection of independently powered pieces that rotate at varying speeds. A 9-foot black pendulum swings from a 22-foot-long arm; a horizontal, car-length coil twists slowly; and two flat, 71/2-foot-wide metal discs are fused to create a three-dimensional "sun" that spins, changing from yellow to orange to black.

In April a family wedding reception brought me back to the Sears Tower, this time to the 99th floor of 110, a dizzying quarter-mile in the sky. The pulse of traffic and the stream of pedestrians below reminded me of Calder's constantly shifting world downstairs, a meditation on motion that conveys the inevitability of change and the reassuring prospect of harmony.

For the last stop on my tour, I saved the sculpture that had practically everyone crying foul: Claes Oldenburg's "Batcolumn."

Why install a 100-foot-tall, 20-ton steel baseball bat in front of the Social Security Administration building? Because, Oldenburg answered, earlier plans for a monstrous spoon and a gargantuan fireplug just didn't look right.

Pop artist Oldenburg ultimately decided on a bat because it best mimicked the columns of the nearby Northwestern train station. It also accomplished his goal of changing the public's perception of everyday objects by presenting them in unusual scale or unconventional materials.

Walking back to my hotel, I thought more about how these works have provoked thought, inspired the imagination or fostered a love of the city. Chagall felt that love so deeply that at age 87, he flew to Chicago to see "The Four Seasons" unveiled.

After the wraps came off to applause, the artist kissed the cheek of a startled Mayor Daley. "I will keep a great impression of Chicago," Chagall told the crowd, "for I have kept all of you in my heart."

He waved to the crowd and, after presenting a bouquet of blooms to the mayor's wife, the French artist received a floral-themed thank-you of his own. A group of schoolchildren held up a sign that read, "Vous Etes La Fleur De Notre Pensee et La Rose De Notre Coeur" -- "You Are the Flower of Our Thought and the Rose of Our Heart."

I couldn't say it better myself.

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