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More than Murals: Public Art in the Loop
Douglas DuBrin

Photo: Doug DuBrin
When most people think of visual art these days, their minds travel to the hallowed halls of museums and galleries. In Chicago, of course, there is an abundance of both, with the Windy City sporting world-class venues from the storied Art Institute to the cutting edge MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art). However, on the following canvas, one will not find brush strokes celebrating the walls of the pay-and-gaze place. No, this space is dedicated to the art of the people and for the people—that which is outdoors, gritty, and free.

In the Beginning
I can trace the genesis of my own appreciation for outdoor art to the Rodin Museum (Musee Rodin) in Paris some twenty years ago. After paying my dutiful respects to the world-revered collection inside, I meandered outside to an adjacent, dazzling green space. Here I encountered none other than Rodin’s most recognizable piece, Le Penseur (The Thinker). At first I was thunderstruck, wondering why this legendary sculpture was left naked outside to endure the elements (it was January I recall). I was further flummoxed when I spied atop the cogitating fellow’s bronze crown a freshly delivered…deposit…from a bird. The horror! How could such a masterwork be left to suffer the insults of the natural world, relegated to the status of the public WC? However, my initial reaction did not darken my ultimate appreciation for the piece. In fact, seeing Rodin’s masterpiece “communing” with nature made me even more aware of The Thinker’s brilliance. That particular pigeon excrement had actually awoken in me a desire to understand the connection of art to the world outside of a museum.

A Brief History
Perhaps above all creative expression (Michael Jordan notwithstanding), Chicago is known for its architectural legacy, which, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies van der Rohe, encompasses more than 150 years of artistic trail blazing. And, yes, architecture is a visual art form in itself, one that is unique in its marriage of aesthetics and utility. The history of Chicago’s public art, though, is just as long, with early works dating back to before 1837, when the town was first incorporated. Yet what distinguishes public art from architecture is that almost without exception, it is produced for the purpose of appreciation, inspiration, and education. Yes, outdoor art often piggybacks on architecture, as the building becomes the canvass for the mural or mosaic. Certainly, a well situated urban sculpture can double when necessary as a chair, cot, or end zone—that chair, cot, or end zone, though is still first, and last, a work of visual art.

Photo: Doug DuBrin
The Art Itself
The corpus of public art in Chicago is too bountiful to see during a mere stint in the city (or even during a lifetime). I have situated this investigation, therefore, in one general locale, the Loop, but not necessarily because it is the area most readily identified with Chicago—there truly is amazing public art to be found in most every hood in town, from Bronzeville to Pilsen to Lincoln Park. As far as the breadth and scope of the works, though, the Loop is public art nirvana. And while many of the following examples conveniently reside near major tourist spots and mass-transit stops, others do take some gumption to discover—which, for the offbeat visitor, can be preferable. I have further narrowed the works down to only those situated outdoors. Although there are copious options to explore within the Loop’s public and private buildings alike, I see the public-art experience as best served in the elements themselves (heartfelt apologies to those who visit in February). Lastly, although I have explored a representative sampling of the Loop’s outdoor-art collection, it is anything but exhaustive. The tour I have mapped for us does pass by (and bypass) numerous unmentioned works, all valuable in their own right. In no way is their omission a judgment.

The Journey
Our point of departure today is the elevated train, or “L,” platform of the Brown Line’s Washington stop. Peering down to the west, we immediately spy Louise Nevelson’s Dawn Shadows, a massive, self-enveloping,
all-steel sculpture. This urban hawk’s view allows us to see from above how a sculpture can complement the grit and grumble of Chicago’s streets. For a terrestrial perspective, we swiftly descend the stairs and turn to the left. Here, we are the prey as the work’s shadows are cast upon us as the train rumbles away, starkly illustrating how truly urban city art can be.

We continue our voyage into the guts of the Loop with a visit to The Picasso; the piece kisses the corner of Washington and Dearborn. Technically untitled, downtown Chicago’s most recognizable example of public art sits sentinel-like in the plaza dedicated to the city’s most famous past mayor, Richard J. Daley (dad to the current mayor, Richard M. Daley). This megalithic work was designed by the megalithic Spanish artist himself, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and installed in 1967. Because of its odd form (technically Cubist), the sculpture has had a polarizing effect on city residents and visitors. Some view it as a peculiar eyesore that contradicts the
Loop’s supposed balance and flow; others see it as quintessential Picasso—complex, abstract and, above all, mind-bending. (A caveat: On sunny, summer afternoons, be careful not to roast your skin on the creature’s heat-absorbent flesh.) Just south of The Picasso across the street is compatriot artist Joan Miro’s humbly titled Miro’s Chicago. Crammed among striding public office buildings, this lovely oddity ostensibly explores the relationship of the earth with the sky, and how the female serves as a mediator of the two. With its seemingly ludicrous facial expression, the work also captures one of Miro’s most notable characteristics—playfulness. Embedded within the grounds of the foreboding Cook County Administration Building, Miro’s Chicago injects into the plaza a sorely needed dose of frivolity. It looks like an extraterrestrial critter moonlighting as a kitschy
drink stirrer.

About 1.5 blocks directly south, we encounter legendary Surrealist Marc Chagall’s The Four Seasons, which at first glance appears to be a fallen piece of massive building material. The reality is that the 70-foot-long sculpture is a brilliant homage to Chicago’s complex character. The work, a mosaic of seemingly countless colors and hues, was conceived and fabricated in Chagall’s French studio and then sent, panel by panel, to Chicago for installation. To represent the city’s dynamic growth, Chagall made modifications to the sculpture almost until his death in 1985.

Strolling two blocks south atop the rattling subway to the corner of Jackson and Dearborn, we encounter the Loop’s second-most recognizable work of titanic art, Alexander Calder’s Flamingo. Created in 1974 to complement the van der Rohe-designed federal buildings that share a plaza, this abstract red giant strides nearly the entire Federal Center Plaza and, with its gaping construction, invites people to walk--and fall--under its spell.

Since our trek so far has been reasonably well planned, we are now going to backtrack a bit (“a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” says Emerson), which will allow us to sneak another glance at the previous stops. At the northwest corner of Randolph and Clark, we come upon Jean DuBuffet’s aptly titled Monument with Standing Beast. Created in 1984 as part of Illinois’s Art-in-Architecture Program, the work makes its home in the concrete yard of the glass masterpiece James R. Thompson Center. A vivid celebration of breathing artistic form, the Beast seems to open and close on itself, daring us to enter its pulsating entrails and be digested.

Photo: Doug DuBrin
Free At Last
Next, we begin to emerge from out of the L tracks’ shadows into the relative light of Millennium Park. To do so, we turn about face and march directly east on Randolph to Michigan Avenue. If you haven’t noticed yet, the Park is now in front of us in all its 25-acre, green-and-grey-spaced glory. Officially begun in 1997, Millennium Park is a work of public art in itself, albeit one that has been the subject of great controversy regarding the financial burden shouldered by the taxpayer. However, whatever excesses are associated with its creation, the Park is still a marvel and displays a staggering display of revolutionary outdoor expression—simply walking the sprawling grounds is to experience an urban art bonanza. Before plunging into the Park’s grounds, though, we are going to take a sorely needed respite at Harry Bertoia’s untitled musical sculpture. To arrive at this melodious masterwork, we cross to the north side of Randolph at Michigan Avenue.

Just before reaching Columbus Avenue, we reach the grounds of the sky-scratching Aon Center (previously the Amoco Building). Here we first see, and hopefully hear, a sculpture inspired in part by Aeolus, the Greek god whose harp was plucked by the wind. Remarkably, this “harp” is played by the gusts as well—since wind is a shamelessly renewable source in Chicago, especially here by the lake, this precious symphony is forever playing. Here we can also rest our weary limbs and doze to the sculpture’s soft sounds, leaving another impression on us of the relationship between outdoor art and the world it inhabits.

Photo: Doug DuBrin
Once we wake up, we backtrack on Randolph to Michigan Avenue and head south along the Park. Between Madison and Monroe, we come upon the marvel that is British artist Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. Referred to by many as “The Bean,” this gargantuan stainless-steel legume literally reflects Chicago’s skyline and, due to
its composition, quivers (albeit ever so slightly) in response to the atmosphere. Spending some time with Cloud Gate can allow us to truly witness how art and urban landscape communicate. Once we break from Cloud Gate’s spell, we walk a bean’s throw south to Jaume Plensa’s The Crown Fountain, an example of interactive outdoor art in every sense –sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste (the last I do not recommend indulging, though). The basic premise of this singular work is a mammoth, simultaneous display of the recorded images of ever-changing Chicago faces that periodically spit streams of water both at each other and at the crowds surrounding them. Summertime, obviously, is preferable for bathing in the spit. From here, we may wish to further penetrate the Park’s flesh and soak in (if our bones can handle it) the venue’s amazing entirety. Yet if we are more linear in our ambitions, we will gather the gumption for our final stretch and power walk south along Michigan Avenue.

Peace At Last
Consuming the southeast corner of Grant Park is the city’s latest contribution to the public-art canon, Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Agora. Already causing a delightful brouhaha, the display features a spooky assortment of 106 nine-foot tall lollygagging headless humans. This collection of iron giants is sure to ignite the city’s psyche and become an indispensable organ of Chicago’s already revolutionary corpus of outdoor art. For our last taste of the tour, we spy west through the forest of limbs a spectacular panoramic vista of the town’s incomparable cityscape and reflect on what our senses have ingested throughout the day.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Art Institute of Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art

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