Ah, the Picasso. Chicago’s famous symbol came wrapped in intrigue. – Chicago Tribune
Paul Gapp, the Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, wrote this article before his death on July 30, 1992. It is his last article. It was originally published on Sunday August 9, 1992 and this issue of The Arts was dedicated to his memory.
A quick way to rank the symbols of any city is to walk to the nearest souvenir counter and find out what is most often decorated on ashtrays and shot glasses. In Chicago, Picasso’s sculpture clearly ranks near the top.
This enigmatic work of art (is it a woman’s head, a bird, Picasso’s pet dog?) has proven to be one of the most powerful figures in the city’s pantheon. It’s no small triumph in Chicago, where competitive works include John Hancock Center, Marina City and Sears Tower.
The Picasso of Chicago also rests on a base of populist power. The hoi polloi – as well as the intelligentsia – love it as much as they revel in the schmaltzy old water tower that survived the 1871 fire.
In retrospect, this quality of love is a bit surprising. When the Picasso was unveiled 25 years ago this summer, it was so heavily criticized by the masses that some feared it would never rise above mockery. Admittedly, he still has detractors in artistic circles as well as in the general public. His status as an icon is nevertheless solid. Locals brag about it and tourists go out of their way to admire its inscrutable self-declaration.
After 25 years, it is also possible to fully appreciate Chicago Picasso’s overall relationship to the Daley Civic Center, in whose plaza it stands. We understand better how the evolution of architectural currents played a role in the creation of sculpture.
Three Chicago architectural firms collaborated on the 648-foot-tall Daley Civic Center, which was completed in 1965 as a courtroom building. Jacques Brownson of CF Murphy Associates was in charge of the design. The other companies were Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett.
At the time the building was under construction, architect and cultural leader William F. Hartmann of SOM was already pursuing his hope that Pablo Picasso would create a monumental sculpture for the site.
In 1963, Hartmann made the first of several visits to the Spanish artist, who lived in the south of France. Hartmann was accompanied by architects CF Murphy and Norman Schlossman.
Picasso had never seen Chicago, and until the day of his death in 1973 he would never see it. To give him the flavor of the place, Hartmann gave Picasso an album of photographs of Chicago and a model of the construction site. To lather it up a bit with memorabilia, Hartmann added a White Sox uniform, a Bears helmet, a fireman’s hat, an Indian war bonnet and photos of Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg.
Picasso is delighted, but does not immediately commit. Hartmann made several more visits. Eventually, the great artist agreed, first making preliminary sketches and eventually a 42-inch model of the Chicago sculpture as we see it today. Additionally, Picasso said he would present it to the people of Chicago as a gift.
For Hartmann, Picasso’s persuasion was in part an extension of SOM’s success in marrying other works of art and architecture in the years following World War II.
As early as 1948, the SOM-designed Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati was graced with the Joan Miro restaurant murals and an Alexander Calder mobile in the lobby. From the 1960s, SOM can boast of successful collaborations in New York, in particular those where the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi highlight the buildings of the architect Gordon Bunshaft.
Now it was Chicago’s turn, and the next step was to transform the Picasso-designed 42-inch scale model into a 50-foot, 162-ton piece that would stand in the plaza of the Daley Civic Center. The Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Fund, Field Foundation of Illinois, and Woods Charitable Trust agreed to foot the $300,000 manufacturing bill.
The Picasso was designed by the American Bridge Division of United States Steel Corp. in Gary, Indiana. The work was overseen by Polish-born Anatol Rychalski, a senior designer for American Bridge who also happened to be an accomplished sculptor.
Rychalski and his colleagues, working with SOM, produced design drawings showing every proposed structural detail, just as they would if they were working on a skyscraper or a railroad trestle. By studying the Picasso today, one can imagine the complexity of the profession. Each of the rods in the upper part of the piece enters the heavier elements of the sculpture from a different angle, for example.
Because the huge sculpture had to withstand the basic forces of wind and gravity (just like a tall building does), the American Bridge team came up with precisely calculated shapes and connections that have never been a factor when Picasso was addressing purely aesthetic concerns with the relatively small scale model.
At the same time, Rychalski must respect Picasso’s concern for the visual resonance between the sculpture and the building it complements. Picasso also wanted his work to adapt to the dynamics of the buildings that line the square to the south, west and east.
After satisfying themselves with all of these points and gaining approval from the bosses of the American Bridge in Pittsburgh, Rychalski and his men finally assembled the giant work of art, sandblasted it, then took it apart for l ship to Chicago on flatbed trucks that were custom built for the job.
The steel in the sculpture was of a patented type called Cor-ten, long used primarily for freight cars until architect Eero Saarinen used it boldly on the long, low John Deere office building & Co. of Moline in 1964.
Cor-ten is a high strength alloy deliberately intended to rust for a few years, becoming harder in the process and changing from a bright rusty orange color to a deep purple. It had never been used on a skyscraper until it was applied as a coating on the Daley Civic Center, and using it for sculpture was a logical next step.
Chicago’s brawny new skyscraper, then, had been in place and rusting mightily for two years before the Picasso was trucked to its site and welded together under wraps that kept the public spellbound.
As soon as the building was completed, there were skeptics who complained of streaky rust. However, it left no mess after flowing down the sides of the building, as the architects had provided discrete drains for runoff. Additionally, Chicago’s heavy air pollution hastened the steel’s maturing period.
Anyway, the Picasso was opened on August 15, 1967, when a crowd of 50,000 watched Mayor Richard J. Daley pull a cord that unveiled the massive work (the Civic Center was named in honor of Daley posthumously). Three clerics deliver invocations, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays Beethoven, a choir sings the national anthem and Gwendolyn Brooks reads a poem she composed for the occasion. It was quite a day, even for Chicago.
Still, the sculpture took some getting used to and could hardly be overlooked, if only for its height, bulk and prominent location.
Many Chicagoans hated him and said so in interviews and letters to the editor. They said he looked like a cow, a dog, a vulture, a platypus, a robot, a baboon and the abominable snowman. Others loved it even though its images seemed to flicker and change with perspective. One man said it looked like a “steel flower, the head of a proud woman, a nun with a fluttering veil. . . Picasso himself firmly refused to interpret the work or give it a title.
But while the backlash was aggressive and persistent, it eventually gave way to acceptance and the prevailing sentiment that prevails today: the Chicago Picasso is a powerful and much-loved icon who doesn’t need to project a clear message to signal the stature of its creator or the tenacity and energy of the city in which it has found its place.
In fact, it became so popular that the Public Buildings Commission soon claimed copyright in the sculpture and began charging royalties for its reproductions. After all, the profit potentials of ashtrays and shot glasses were huge.
However, Federal Judge Alexander J. Napoli denied the copyright claim when it was challenged in court. The judge said: ‘The widest and most uninhibited reproduction and copying of a provocative public sculpture can only be for the purpose of benefiting society.’
Meanwhile, the Chicago Picasso became the first of a series of major new sculptures that paraded down Dearborn Street between Randolph and Jackson. The Picasso was followed by the stabile by Alexander Calder and the mosaics by Marc Chagall in 1974 and the sculpture by Joan Miro in 1981. Elsewhere in the city center the city has acquired a tremendous number of works by artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson, Virginio Ferrari and Isamu Noguchi. .
The sculptures created for skyscraper plazas across the country in the 1960s and 1970s were partly the result of zoning bonuses that allowed buildings to be taller if surrounded by generous open space. Nobody wanted sterile places, and the works of art followed.
As zoning incentives became more sophisticated, architects designed other amenities, and large structures tended to be built right up to the sidewalk line. At the same time, postmodern architecture restored the popularity of building ornamentation and reduced the demand for large outdoor sculptures.
Today, new large-scale sculptures are not unheard of, but many are commissioned for interior sites such as atriums and conservatories.
Yet of all these, none can match the Chicago Picasso in power and popularity. Young and old love it, thousands photograph it, and you rarely hear more grumpy complaints about its figurative ambiguity. Plus, the generously sized steel sculpture is a perfect counterpoint to the Daley Civic Center, one of the city’s great masterpieces of modern architecture.
If there is malice in the fantasy of sculpture, why not? So much the better for the implacable sobriety of the building facing it.
Happy 25th anniversary, O Great Enigma. Could it be that we didn’t love you so much if we knew what you are?