Site without specificity – Picasso and Chicago

Pablo Picasso, Untitled ("The Picasso"), dedicated 1967, Core ten steel, 50 ft. high, Daley Plaza, Chicago
Pablo Picasso, Untitled (“The Picasso”), dedicated 1967, Core ten steel, 50 ft. high, Daley Plaza, Chicago
Photograph taken by author, 27 March 2013

I promise this is not a blog solely about public sculpture, though I do find it interesting that I both feel the need to express that caveat and have been thinking about ‘public things’ a lot lately. Once you start looking for them, you realize these encumbered objects are everywhere, and while they take on tremendous collective significance they often remain invisible. It is a weird experience to regularly walk by a 50ft. hunk of steel and not ‘see’ it. This week, however, a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago and its new exhibition, Picasso and Chicago, made me acutely aware of the dissonance between sculpture’s visible and invisible nature, especially in regards to its always complex connection to site.

Picasso and Chicago is meant to highlight and celebrate a special, one hundred year relationship between Pablo Picasso and the City of Chicago, which began with the 1913 Armory Show at the museum. What this translates to, in practical terms, is essentially a retrospective survey of Picasso’s career, seen exclusively through works owned by the Art Institute and private collectors in Chicago. This focus, no doubt partly a shrewd and economically pragmatic curatorial decision, results in a show comprised mostly of prints and drawings that still affords an opportunity to revisit Picasso’s undeniable, heterogeneous artistic talent. After viewing the show I remain unconvinced that the world needed yet another blockbuster-type Picasso exhibition. Admittedly, this assertion may have more to do with my own Picasso-fatigue. The long lines outside the museum all day, on a random Wednesday well over a month after the show opened, would seem to prove me wrong.

What I found most curious about the exhibition is the curatorial framework. The emphasis on Picasso’s ‘special’ relationship to Chicago, considering Picasso never visited the city or even the States for that matter, signifies transactions of patronage more than the specifics of a geographic locale. Major exhibitions have been hinged on far more tenuous constructs, so I do not mean this to be a criticism of the exhibition but rather a launching point for discussing the hinge on which the whole thing rests, on what is the most palpable, obvious connection between the artist and city: “The Picasso” sculpture that has occupied the south section of the plaza outside the city’s civic heart, the Richard J. Daley Center, since its dedication in 1967.

Installation view of last gallery of Picasso and Chicago, showing sketches from early 1960s of what would become the Chicago commission.

The first and last galleries focus on this commissioned work. The latter completes the chronological flow of the exhibition, marking the end of Picasso’s career. The gallery contains sketches of the sculpture, which was not created in response to the particular site – the new plaza and building designed by the Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill – but was a modified version of an idea he had in the early 1960s to create a large sculpture depicting a woman’s face.

IMG_0492The sculpture also appears in the first gallery of the exhibition, though under far more dramatic conditions.  A lone maquette rests on pedestal in the center of the space, heavily spotlighted and contextualized within the historical moment of its dedication; visually through the wallpapered photograph and audibly by a fantastic and effective recording that includes Studs Terkel interviewing Chicagoans present for the unveiling ceremony. Picasso’s untitled work, though receiving mixed reviews, some of which are included on wall texts, quickly became a landmark and highly reproduced icon of Chicago, even though its form had little to do with its specific site – as the commissioning body no doubt fully knew it would. Then president Lyndon B. Johnson, in a message read at the dedication ceremony declared: 
“Your new Civic center plaza with its unique and monumental sculpture by one of the acknowledged geniuses of modern art is a fitting addition to a city famous for its creative vitality. Chicago, which gave the world its first skyscraper and America some of our greatest artists and poets, has long recognized that art, beauty, and open space are essential and proper elements in urban living. You have demonstrated once again that Chicago is second to none.”

In a way, Picasso and Chicago the exhibition and Picasso and Chicago the historical connection can be understood in the context alluded to in Johnson’s statement: Chicago’s ‘second city’ anxiety that never seems to completely abate and perpetuates a need to prove itself more than a provincial outpost, a need the existence of a museum like the Art Institute ostensibly obviates. The bookended galleries, the multiplicity of media at play showing and explaining the existence this single sculpture, not to mention the awareness that the “real” work is only a few blocks away, resulted in a wonderfully complex if not thoroughly dissonant experience of art and the art object. The AIC chose to extend the space of the exhibition by installing bright, sculptural letters spelling out Picasso and a cube version of their square logo in front of “The Picasso” (see first photo), but for those who venture over to the Plaza, a very different viewing context awaits.

Still from Blues Brothers (1980)
Still from Blues Brothers (1980)

Standing in front of the work, I did not immediately think of beauty or global prominence, but instead heard the drums and whistles of a large protest taking place concerning budget cuts and school closures by Chicago Public Schools. I could not help but recall what I, only half-jokingly, think of as the true icon of the city,  the film Blues Brothers, or more specifically the scene that saw the two protagonists drive a stolen cop car into the government building that is the real dominating force of the plaza. I thought back to the maquette in the first gallery. A bottleneck effect had been created by the countless visitors entering the space who paused to take photographs of their children and companions (see above photo) next to the model. Back in the plaza, as I moved around what is a truly dynamic if not a bit chromatically gloomy, or maybe just perfectly “urban,” public sculpture, I was struck by how no one seemed to notice it, let alone pose in front of it. This is not to say this never occurs. I think somewhere in my own family’s archive is a photograph of me exuberantly standing next to the steel, animal-like woman, but on this particular afternoon, no one had their cameras pointed at its beautiful open lines that frame the reflections on the windows of the buildings adjacent to the plaza. People hurried by, rush hour traffic swelled, and the voice of Studs Terkel was replaced by sirens, horns, and the circulating helicopters covering the protestors.

IMG_0501“The Picasso” is not a site specific work. Its presence in Daley Plaza came about because of a successful courtship with a titan of Modern art by the Chicago Public Building Commission, and yet standing there in front of the sculpture on a cold, technically spring, Chicago afternoon, I could not help but feel like it inextricably belonged there, that it spoke an awful lot to and about the city – enough perhaps to even justify one more Picasso exhibition.

For those of you around Chicago and interested in seeing a little Picasso, whether indoors or out, Picasso and Chicago is on view through 12 May 2013. “The Picasso” is on view 365 days a year at Daley Plaza, at the corner of W Washington Street and Dearborn St.


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