Friday, August 01, 2014 - 70°F
SPECTATOR #1: Of course, everybody thinks it's a bird.
SPECTATOR #2: It looks like a horse. Or maybe a horse's end or something.
SPECTATOR #3: It looks kind of like a monster.
SPECTATOR #4: I think it looks like a bride.
SPECTATOR #5: It is an abstract expression. That's all it is. We should respect it as that.
Ask five different passersby at random what the sculpture outside of the Daley Center at 50 W. Washington Street represents and you're likely to get five different answers.
This 50-foot-tall, 162-ton landmark has become an indelible icon and unofficial logo for the city of Chicago. But what is it? And how did it get here?
It took an unlikely alliance between the conservative Mayor Richard J. Daley and the flamboyant Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. The man who managed to be a liaison between them was architect William Hartmann of the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.
Prior to the arrival of the Picasso statue, most public art in metropolitan areas was fairly staid, mostly statues of historical figures. Professor Franz Schulze of Lake Forest College remembers: "They were important as objects of history, not necessarily of art." But in the 1960s, the architecture of American cities started to reflect the sweeping cultural changes taking place in society.
In 1960, the Public Building Commission of Chicago approved a plan for a grand 31-story civic center. Even before ground had been broken, it was decided that a monumental sculpture would grace the plaza. But who to choose as sculptor for so significant a project? Various names were tossed about; then, as architect Carter Manny remembers, "It was suggested that we put names in a hat, and, remarkably enough, everyone had chosen Pablo Picasso." Gaining a Picasso would be an incredible coup for the city, but it wouldn't be an easy matter. Approval of the Spanish libertine must come from Mayor Daley, politically conservative by upbringing and nature. Architect Hartmann proposed Picasso's name to the Mayor, whose response was as surprising as it was swift. Manny recalls Daley said that "if you gentlemen think he's the greatest, that's what we want for Chicago, and you go ahead."
Picasso was 82 years old at the time. He was living on the French Riviera and "not one to make appointments." But the tireless efforts by Hartmann and his colleagues to seek out the artist and gain his participation culminated in Picasso's agreement to take on the project.
Once the Mayor approved the work, ("It looks like the wings of justice," Daley is reported to have told aides), he sent Hartmann back to Picasso with a check for $100,000 as payment. The artist, who had never specified a fee, examined it, and then put it back in Hartmann's pocket, saying, "This is my gift to the people of Chicago."
The statue was built from Picasso's design by U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana. Anatol Rychalski was the engineer in charge of the design and construction. "We had to roll steel to sizes which never have been rolled," he remembers. "Which means that the whole technology had to be to some extent improvised at the time." One of the workers commented, "You know, fellas, Picasso might be a great artist, but I tell you: he ain't no welder."
Finally, on August 15, 1967, the city dedicated the statue at a festive ceremony attended by thousands of Chicagoans who had crowded into the Plaza, in front of what was known then as the Chicago Civic Center. Earl Bush, who was Mayor Daley's press secretary, recalls the lowering of the shroud at the unveiling: "I nearly dropped dead because the thing didn't come down right away. But finally it came down and low and behold everybody gasped, "What is it. . .?" The public's response was loud and varied, and the controversy continues to this day.
SOME THOUGHTS ON CHICAGO'S PICASSO by program producer Phil Lanier
There are always surprises in store during any production. Most of them have to do with uncooperative weather, loud noises during interviews or equipment problems. One of the most pleasing surprises in producing Pablo and the Boss, though, was the increased appreciation I gained for the sculpture.
Of course, the temptation is to view the Picasso, as it is affectionately called, from directly in front and from some distance across the plaza. I also know the trick of moving slightly behind and to one side of the sculpture to see the female profile. As I spent time around the Picasso, a piece of art I thought I knew, I began to perceive it differently. Standing directly in front of it, up close, yielded a unique impression. The same was true when I stood directly behind the Picasso or across the street from it.
Then, there were the perceptions of others, people who pass through the plaza or who spend lunch breaks around the sculpture. I became fascinated with their varying interpretations of the Picasso. Sadly, we could use only a few in the program, due to time restrictions, but I hope viewers find their comments as interesting as I did.
Even though the Picasso is not what you might call a "pretty" piece of art, others working on the project found themselves falling under the sculpture's spell. Both the camera operator and the editor found that the more they looked at it, the more they saw, gaining a greater appreciation for the clever complexity of the art as well as the artist.
I suppose it was best summed up by one of the interview subjects, who said to me, "The Picasso is like a good friend. It reveals itself to you little by little as you come to know it."
Phil Lanier is a freelance writer/producer who has worked on everything from travel articles and magazine interviews, to broadcast commercials and documentaries. His 30-second public service announcements for The National Dairy Association and the Illinois Bar Association have frequently won awards. He also served as assistant director and provided the title for a local independent feature film, The Psychotronic Man.
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