Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Picasso Thing

This week during a ceremony in Daley Plaza commemorating the golden anniversary of the work of art known to every Chicagoan simply as "The Picasso", Mayor Rahm Emanuel called its introduction to the city a "critical inflection point in Chicago's story."

Almost fifty years ago to the day, that point wasn't lost upon Mike Royko, who in his Chicago Daily News column published the day after the unveiling of the fifty foot sculpture by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, called the event, not without a trace of irony, the "cultural rebirth of the city." True to his curmudgeon spirit, Royko continued:
Out there in the neighborhoods and the suburbs, things probably seemed just the same. People worried about the old things·would they move in and would we move out? Or would we move in and would they move out? 
But downtown, the leaders of culture and influence were gathered for a historical event and it was reaching a climax with Mayor Daley standing there ready to pull a ribbon. 
Thousands waited in and around the Civic (now Richard J. Daley) Center plaza.
They had listened to the speeches about the Picasso thing. They had heard how it was going to change Chicago's image.
When Mayor Richard J. Daley struggled, then finally succeeded to free the artwork from its shroud, Royko wrote that the Picasso was greeted by a spattering of applause, followed by lots of silence.

Royko, like many Chicagoans at the time, wasn't particularly taken by the sculpture.
They had hoped, you see, that it would be what they had heard it would be. 
A woman, maybe. A beautiful soaring woman. That is what many art experts and enthusiasts had promised. They had said that we should wait that we should not believe what we saw in the pictures. 
If it was a woman, then art experts should put away their books and spend more time in girlie joints.
Mike Royko was no art critic. But he was one of the best observers and chroniclers of the life and times of this city that you will ever read. He was writing at a time when this city was bitterly divided over race, class and ethnic identity which he alluded to in the column. That would all come to a head the following year as the city burned during the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Royko pulled no punches when it came to describing his passionate distrust of Mayor Daley, the Chicago Democratic Political Machine, and the moneyed establishment, all of whom exerted their considerable influence upon the city and in doing so, among other less charitable things, made the Chicago Picasso possible. To him, the Picasso was nothing more than a bone the powers-that-be threw at the people of this city, a silver lining within a cloud of greed, corruption and arrogance that controlled Chicago. And Royko famously made a living out of pointing out, as Jerry Garcia once sang, that every silver lining has a touch of gray. On someone's comment that the Picasso captured the "spirit of Chicago", Royko picked up on that point and ran with it:
...from thousands of miles away, accidentally or on purpose, Picasso captured it. 
Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the Summerdale scandal cops, the settlers who took the Indians but good. 
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... 
It has the look of the big corporate executive who comes face to face with the reality of how much water pollution his company is responsible for and then thinks of the profit and loss and of his salary. 
It is all there in that Picasso thing the I Will spirit. The I will get you before you will get me spirit. 
Picasso has never been here, they say. You'd think he's been riding the L all his life.
I suppose few Chicagoans at the time read that deeply into the Picasso; they just shook their heads and failed to see what all the fuss was about. After all, to them it was just a big pile of rusty metal that didn't really look like much of anything recognizable.

Fifty years almost to the day after its unveiling, the rusty Cor-Ten steel of both the sculpture and the building it stands in front of, has developed as promised, a lovely rich, deep bronze patina, Today taken out of the context of the time, Royko's words and the feelings of the average Chicagoan sound philistine and sacrilege. The Picasso is every much as beloved, and part of Chicago's iconography as the lakefront, the Water Tower, the Chicago Theater marquee, the Wrigley Building, and the Marshall Field clocks.

Just as most locals never set foot inside the Art Institute, Symphony Center, or other institutions of so called "high culture", I dare say that Chicagoans deep down consider the Picasso if not beautiful, at least something to be immensely proud of. Just as those esteemed institutions, the Picasso has put this city on the map of respectability. After all, being regarded only as the city of  hog butchering, Al Capone rat-a-tat-tat, and corrupt politicians, gets a little old.

Young man "owning" the Picasso
If you don't obsess over the silly question of what it is supposed to represent, the Chicago Picasso is indeed, to my eyes anyway, a beautiful object in its own right. The form of its graceful, sensuous lines set against the ninety degree angles of the surrounding buildings creates a powerful study in contrast, especially when the light is just right. But that's only the half of it. The Chicago Picasso has done what none of the other great works of public art that were inspired by it have managed to do. It has become part of the urban fabric, and in doing so, has transcended its role as a work of art.

When you think of objects of art in a museum, chances are you take them dead seriously, your immediate reaction is to look and not touch. If that thought doesn't happen to occur to you, there are guards to remind you. Likewise, for a while, the Picasso was cordoned off with chains so you could not get too close, presumably to prevent the natural inclination of children sliding down its base. Removing those barriers played a big role in humanizing the work.

In his speech the other day, Mayor Emanuel said the Picasso belongs to all of us, and that is certainly true. Today without the chains, day and night you can see children and adults as well, using the sculpture as if it were an enormous playground apparatus. It's hard to imagine that Pablo Picasso, himself a child at heart, would have objected. Less exhilarating but equally poignant is the crevice underneath the base which serves at times as a shelter for homeless people.

Daley Plaza, Chicago's agora, is hands down the city's most democratic public gathering space. True to the democratic nature of the place, during his speech the other day at the foot of the Picasso, there were demonstrators shouting Mayor Emanuel down.

As Daley Plaza's centerpiece, the Picasso has borne witness to important moments in this city's history for the last half century. Joy, tragedy, exaltation, frustration, anxiety, hope, and every other imaginable emotion have all played out in front of the sculpture. The plaza is the site of political rallies, demonstrations, celebrations, memorial services, ethnic festivals, a wide range of musical and dance performances, farmers markets and the annual Kristkindlmarkt, the most authentic German Christmas market anywhere this side of the Maginot Line.

In 1983 I was in front of the Picasso at a pep rally for the Chicago White Sox who were about to enter the post-season for the first time in my memory. Four years later I was there when the official announcement was made that Mayor Harold Washington had just died. A few weeks later I was present in the plaza as Eugene Sawyer, a good man who was appointed mayor by the City Council in the most shameful of ways, lit the city's official Christmas tree. I saw Lech Wałęsa there in 1989, soon after he led Poland to a peaceful revolution from its Soviet subjugation. I was there in the late seventies when Iranian students demanded that the Shah be ousted from power. I attended many more events, both happy and sad, at the plaza, that have faded into the recesses of my memory, save for the presence of the great statue and its somewhat ironic role  (given its iconoclastic origin) as a stabilizing force mediating the array of events taking place around it.

Today as we read and hear stories of the anniversary, reporters are still eliciting opinions from passersby over what they think the Picasso represents. For all his shortcomings, miscues and malaprops, Richard Daley the Elder set everybody straight when he said, hitting the nail right on the head: "with modern art, you're just supposed to use your imagination."

At the unveiling fifty years ago this coming Tuesday, either Daley, or his speechwriter came up with another remarkably prescient line:
We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.
Powerful words spoken by a man not known for profound utterances, how can it be you may ask that Richard J. Daley of all people, son and lifelong resident of the once hardscrapple, provincial neighborhood of Bridgeport, was instrumental in bringing the Picasso to Chicago?        

Daley prided himself on being a builder and Chicago is filled for better or worse, with roads, bridges, buildings, projects, institutions and monuments that are the direct result of his power and influence over his twenty one year reign as mayor of Chicago. In that respect, he was no different from other big city mayors of the fifties, sixties and seventies. Speaking from experience having lived through the era, people back then had a profound faith in the new; in those days the word "modern" was an unequivocally positive term.  No matter how banal, uninspiring, or purely awful it may have been, anything modern was unfailingly preferable to anything old. That is precisely why there was so little objection to the wanton destruction of some of Chicago's greatest buildings during that era, virtually all of them replaced by vastly inferior modern buildings.

That the Picasso was strange or didn't conform to Daley's expectations of what art should be didn't matter in the least, the fact that it was important and new was all he cared about. When he became mayor in 1955, Richard J. Daley could very well have not known Pablo Picasso from a hole in the ground, but shortly after learning that Picasso was the most important Modern artist around, Daley became the artist's biggest Chicago benefactor. And Picasso returned the favor.

The story goes that the architect William Hartmann of the architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill first approached Picasso in 1963 at his studio in Paris, Hartmann allegedly mentioned to Picasso that he was offering him a "site for the most important piece of sculpture in the United States." Never known for a small ego, those words were music to Picasso's ears. Back in Chicago, a man of no small ego himself, Daley was quite pleased, giddy in fact when Hartmann relayed the story that Picasso asked him if Mayor Daley was still in charge of Chicago. Despite the fact that they never met in person, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Hartmann reportedly offered the artist a check for a cool $100,000 for his efforts, which Picasso turned down. The sculpture would be Pablo Picasso's gift to the people of Chicago.

The work itself was the result of several years of sketches and three dimensional maquettes, some of which were displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966. While the exhibition wasn't overwhelmingly attended, word got out that this would not be your grandfather's public monument. There was a bit of resistance to the construction of what for the time was a groundbreaking project. One alderman, a Republican of course, famously suggested that a statue of Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks be erected instead. There were also rumblings about Picasso's communist sympathies. But Mayor Daley put his foot down and insisted the project go forward, reportedly saying: "Leave the art to the artists, and the politics to the politicians."

Maquette and preliminary drawing of Chicago Picasso
that were exhibited at the Art Institute in 1966,
one year before the unveiling of the sculpture
In the end, it may seem impertinent to lump Chicago's Picasso with the expressways, universities, housing projects and all the other major public works projects built under Mayor Daley's watch, but there it is. Richard J. Daley forever changed the face of Chicago and not all of it for the good. Mike Royko was right about Daley about 95 percent of the time, but he fell a little short with the Picasso thing. It is a piece that defies categories. It can be whatever the viewer wants it to be. To Royko it may have been a metaphor for all that was evil and corrupt about the city. Conversely, it could be a beautiful object representing the more edifying aspects of the spirit of Chicago.  Or if you are so inclined, it could simply represent a woman, an Afghan Hound, a horse an insect, or most likely all the above. Like all good art, it makes you stop and ponder. You may not have the answer but sometimes all that's important are the questions.

Beyond its own merits, the Chicago Picasso opened the door, the flood gates actually, for public arts projects to flourish all across the city and the country. Ironically in this, the "year of public art", officially proclaimed by the current mayor in honor of the anniversary, we are learning of the possibility that some of the works of art mentioned by Rahm Emanuel in his speech in front of the Picasso, are themselves endangered, either by the elements, or by removal. It turns out that of all the works of public art in Chicago, only the Daley Center Picasso is protected by landmark status, ensuring that kids of all ages generations from now, will still be able to slide down its base, and that it will continue to stand watch over the ebbs and tides of the flowing river of Chicago history.

It didn't happen very often in this town, but in the case of the Chicago Picasso, Mayor Daley got the last laugh. This coming Tuesday morning, the fiftieth anniversary of the unveiling, I'll be looking toward the sky and tipping my hat to Hizzoner.

Ya done good with this one Mr. Mayor, real good.

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