Icons and Interventions in Chicago and the Potential of Public Art

A temporary installation by Suzanne Lacy, Full Circle (from “Culture in Action”), 1993. Boulders and bronze. John McWilliams

Chicago’s public art demonstrates the diversity and the difficulties inherent in public art in the 1990s.

The tourist version of Chicago has at its core the towering steel untitled female head by Pablo Picasso, a huge abstracted face in the familiar “primitive” style of the great master’s portraiture. Half African mask, half glowering visage, the Picasso, as it is generically known here, and its aesthetic merits were hotly debated when it was installed in the grand Daley Civic Center Plaza in 1967 in front of the Modernist city offices. Thirty years hence, however, the familiarity of the Picasso has afforded it icon status, no longer a subject for discussions of taste. Now it is often surrounded, as if invisible, with farmer’s markets, press conferences, and children’s performances. Skateboarders have found its large steel base an excellent platform on which to practice jumps and turns.

The Picasso is one of many freestanding Modernist sculptures that populate Chicago’s downtown landscape. Another abstracted woman by Joan Miró gazes north across the plaza at the Picasso. A long wall mosaic by Chagall mirrors the stained-glass installation by this same artist at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago. A brilliant orange Calder stabile squats in front of the post office in the shadow of the extremely rigorous Mies van der Rohe Federal Plaza. Two late Dubuffet works grace the entrance of the spaceship-Postmodernist State of Illinois building designed by Helmut Jahn. West of the Loop, where fewer tourists tread, is a big baseball bat by Claes Oldenburg.

A permanent public work in Chicago by Isamu Noguchi, Celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Founding of the Republic, 1976. Granite and stainless steel, 40 ft. long. Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1992 and 1993, around the time the city’s 19th-century heroic sculptures -including two Indians on horseback, several generals, and Goethe-were being scraped and polished back to their bronze glory, a new public project was mounted which threw into relief the relative relevance of all of this grand gesture. Sculpture Chicago, a nonprofit institution supported by a long list of arts patrons and powerful art cognoscenti, hired Mary Jane Jacob to curate a public sculpture exhibition. The organization had been mounting temporary shows once every two years for about a decade; mostly big sculpture sited around the Loop and the lakeside Grant Park for the summer. The quality had been consistently high, but the projects generally had a low-key, relatively conservative profile. Jacob shifted Sculpture Chicago into high gear.

Chief curator of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in the mid-’80s, Jacob had furthered her career at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, then had made a big splash at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina. There she invited many up-and-coming artists to execute large-scale “installations” which interacted with the architecture and social history of the city. In a sweep of all the major art periodicals, Jacob established that public sculpture could be something other than big heroic hunks of metal in downtown plazas.

Ellen Rothenberg, An American Garden (from “Re-inventing the Garden City”), Union Park installation, 1995-96. Text and architectural garden structures including fencing and benches.

Jacob’s plans for Chicago were even more radical, and the resulting exhibition, titled “Culture in Action,” continues to be cited as a landmark in public art (see, for example, Malcolm Miles, Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures, London: Routledge 1997). She invited artists to propose projects for the public sphere which emphasized process, dialogue, social interaction, and education-like Joseph Beuys’s “social sculpture”-in which any physical manifestation (the art object) was either unimportant or nonexistent.

Chicago was a good place to try this experiment in a new type of public sculpture. Though never recognized as a city-wide characteristic, many socially effective art projects-both traditional and avant-garde-have become successful parts of the city’s urban fabric. Mexican and Puerto Rican mural projects have brought these communities together under the tutelage of fine-art painters for decades. African-American community centers have provided social spaces wherein artists and non-artists could benefit from each others’ perspectives. The Chicago Public Art Group has been collaborating with governmental and school agencies to bring artists and students together to collaborate on public works such as mosaics and bus benches. Urban Gateways, Marwen, and CAPE (Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education) are established programs which bring artists into the schools and develop arts-integrated curriculum.

Several notable individuals’ artistic efforts also indicated that the expansive Chicago terrain was ripe for sculptural exploitation, and that the discussion surrounding it had already begun. Mr. Imagination, a self-taught artist, worked with a neighborhood to build a surrealistic landscape in a city park. Randolph Street Gallery had brought in a giant projection by Krzysztof Wodiczko, which shone on the face of a housing project and commented on the landlord-tenant relationship. Dan Peterman had his studio in a recycling center south of the University of Chicago, and was quietly mapping the economies of the city’s scavengers. For a gallery show, Adam Brooks had done a survey of residents of the quickly changing Wicker Park neighborhood, polling responses of the population’s mix of Poles, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Caucasian artist-types.

Haha, Flood Site (from “Culture in Action”), 1993. Hydroponic garden. John McWilliams.

One project hit the nerve that experimental public sculpture is meant to rattle. The collaborative group Haha (Richard House, Wendy Jacob, Laurie Palmer, and John Ploof, who met at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the ’80s) invited the art world out to a west side community center. The mostly white audience traveled to the mostly black neighborhood and were led onto a catwalk to look down on a swimming pool in which a team of African American water-polo players treaded water. The artists had been working with the team for many months, and had collaborated on this display of strength and control. However, the art visitors were not given nearly enough information about this process, and many felt manipulated into a voyeuristic racial situation without having given their consent. The fallout from this experience primed Chicago for a close observation of Sculpture Chicago’s ambitious project.

Eight projects were included in “Culture in Action”-three from Chicago, one from a duo who had been to school here, and the others from the national pool of artists prone to these kinds of projects. The three projects by artists who currently resided in the city were by Haha, Robert Peters, and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. Haha built and maintained a hydroponic garden (which provided herbs and vegetables for AIDS patients) in a storefront that also served as a gathering spot to discuss related issues. Peters, a long-time Chicago Conceptual artist, set up an 800 number which interactively explored racism and sexism in ordinary speech. Manglano-Ovalle collaborated with a community center to create Street-Level Video, which produced video projects and a neighborhood block party (a project that was later featured in a solo show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Other projects also brought art into communities usually ignored by the fine-art world. Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio worked with line workers at a Nestlé candy factory to conceive and produce a new candy bar (though Nestlé ultimately refused to manufacture the bar, and it had to be produced elsewhere). Daniel J. Martinez organized a multi-ethnic parade through the Maxwell Street area, where the state university had displaced local merchants while acquiring more real estate. Mel Ziegler and Kate Ericson worked with lodgers at a low-cost housing project to develop a new paint-chip chart with names and colors which better suited their particular lifestyles than the ones in the stores. Suzanne Lacy placed 100 small boulders around the Loop, each bearing a plaque with the name of a woman who is important to the fabric of Chicago’s diverse culture. Mark Dion created the Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group with high schoolers from two locations, one an upscale Lincoln Park school, the other in the impoverished west side.

Pablo Picasso, Untitled, 1967. Corten steel, 50 ft. high. Willy Schmidt, City of Chicago.

Jacob mounted a massive fund- raising effort which capitalized on the funding trends to bring art to “underserved” groups, and received substantial grants from most of the major government, foundation, and corporate sources. There was coordination with all of the major art institutions in town, and scores of graduate students were recruited for research and implementation of the projects. The public-relations effort was similarly massive, and included an elaborate pre-presentation in a fancy ballroom and a festive opening ceremony at the Arts Club, complete with balloons, the artists, the funders, politicians, people from the communities where the projects were to take place, and television news coverage. Critics were flown in from New York, bus tours of the projects were organized for the press and interested parties, and a catalogue, with essays by Michael Brenson, Eva M. Olson, and Jacob, was published in 1995 by Seattle’s Bay Press.

From the tone and amount of coverage in the art press, Jacob’s “Culture in Action” seemed to be a resounding success, breaking down the barriers between art and life upheld by aesthetic preconceptions and elitist class stratification. In Chicago, the lives of many community members were changed by their experience with the artists and their projects. But from day-to-day observation and listening to Chicago participants’ personal stories, the reality of “Culture in Action” was not quite so utopian. Most of the artists were shipped in for research and press events, with little lived knowledge of “community.” (Mark Dion’s weekend high-school class, to which he commuted from New York, gained the most frequent-flyer miles-getting an expense-paid trip to Belize with the students as part of the bargain.) Most of the “benefit to the community” was temporary, with the projects’ long-range impact more focused on the art world. “Culture in Action” was, in the end, more exemplary of the aestheticizing distance between art and life than the giant Picasso downtown.

Two years later, Sculpture Chicago hired Joyce Fernandes, longtime Chicago curator, educator, and resident, for their next venture. “Re-Inventing the Garden City” was in part Fernandes’s response to Jacob’s ambitious show. Her project was scaled down in terms of numbers and funding, and she tried to incorporate many more opportunities for artists to interact with the various communities involved, which openly included the professional arts community. Also, Fernandes specified that there be a viewable static final product-an art object or exhibition-as a necessary component of the proposals. Fernandes chose Pepón Osorio and Dennis Adams from out of town; Ellen Rothenberg, a recent resident; and Miroslaw Rogala, an immigrant who has lived in Chicago forover 10 years. The choices seemed relevant, and the structure seemed organized to avoid most of the pitfalls which made “Culture in Action” more bluster than brawn. But even though the preliminary round-table discussions and the artists’ proposals proved compelling, the project as a whole fell pretty flat.

Miroslaw Rogala, Electronic Garden/NatuRealiz-ation (from “Re-inventing the Garden City”), Washington Square Park installation, 1996. Multimedia sound installation.

Rogala had extravagant plans for an open-air video projection in Bughouse Square near the Gold Coast shopping area, which was the site of many political protests in mid-century. Due to lack of funds, his project was reduced to an incomprehensible sound piece which was tripped accidentally when passersby stumbled into its assigned area. Pepón Osorio’s Humboldt Park installation honoring Puerto Rican residents was the most successful aesthetically, but purportedly ended up causing divisions within the community, as people argued over who rated an Osorio shrine. Rothenberg’s text-laden garden project which was the result of workshops with local residents, suffered from being in proximity to the Democratic National Convention-the city wanted the parks to be pretty, not relevant, and most of its subtlety was lost on drive-bys. Dennis Adams’s plan to recreate recently destroyed store signs from a commercial block in Garfield Park was finally vetoed by the community-a poor African-American community located next to a grand early-20th-century park. The images that Adams considered to be representative of the neighborhood’s history were seen by the residents to be damning and insulting: signs painted by former prison inmates for failed burnt-out businesses on a corner now populated by drug pushers.

Fernandes’s project was valiant in its attempts to join an art-world utopia with real-world problems. Hearing Garfield Park residents arguing vehemently with the internationally famous artist Dennis Adams about representation versus artistic vision was very instructive in the attempt to reconcile the claims of public art with the public. Adams’s piece suffered the fate of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and John Ahearn’s figurative sculptures for the Bronx Police Station: the most interesting aspect of all three projects is that the “community” was finally allowed to reject them.

Since “Re-Inventing the Garden City,” attempts to further the dialogue of reconciliation between art and the public have faded somewhat, and Sculpture Chicago was saved from complete disappearance when it was incorporated into the public art arm of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Commercial interests joined with the city to place some heavy Botero sculptures and some lithesome horses by Deborah Butterfield in Grant Park. Tourists loved them, and many posed to have their snapshots taken with the sculptures. Three recent projects may portend as to the direction in which public sculpture in Chicago is tending, and where it may be most successfully relevant.

The Harold Washington Library was a major commission awarded to architect Thomas Beeby, a project many years in the making. The city’s percent-for-art program dictated that major funds be allocated for art in the new building. Beeby planned to count the “art” of his own design as the project’s “percent for art,” but city officials intervened, filling the library with paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs by a myriad of local artists, even though the architect had left virtually no room for the display of artworks. Beeby’s design included four huge copper finials with big owls to be perched on the four corners of his faux-19th-century Postmodern building, and the architect himself procured the funds to mount the huge florid doodads after completing the building, which was a perfectly acceptable massive edifice before they were added. As with most public sculpture in Chicago, the grandiosity and eloquence of the architecture is tough competition and mostly overshadows any attempt to integrate art into its plan.

Pepón Osorio, El Gran Salon de la Fama (The Grand Hall of Fame, from “Re-inventing the Garden City”), Humboldt Park installation, 1996. Personal belongings, memorabilia, oversized photo portraits, and trophies.

On the near south side, the city has recently mounted a major public art project for Bronzeville, a historic black neighborhood once occupied by 300,000 African Americans who immigrated to this Ellis-Island-like destination earlier in the century. The project includes a myriad of friezes, bus benches, maps, and sculptures that commemorate the history of the grand boulevard. The neighborhood is now rather bleak, with large apartment blocks scattered around, with no coherence of social space. Real estate development is beginning to encroach from the north, as the effects of the construction of Mayor Daley’s mansion complex by the Field Museum trickle down. The whimsical, reverent, relevant, usable art pieces are here not overshadowed by grand architecture, but by the aged, gaping space of the boulevard.

In 1997, Dan Peterman was commissioned to make a piece to sit temporarily in Grant Park for the summer. His 100-foot-long picnic table and 50-foot-square dance platform were made of recycled plastic-rather ironically signifying the infinite amount of waste produced by the city. The city government loved the pieces as sites for commercially sponsored events celebrating city life. But most days, people used the table as a place to eat lunch and take a breather, understanding the usefulness of the piece as incorporated into the urban landscape, regardless of its art status.

Art funding patterns and conceptual artistic concerns have made public sculpture a site for definitive research into art’s meaning in the 1990s. If activity in Chicago is representative of the progress towards this commendable goal, perhaps Ronald Jones’s little sculpture garden across the street from the Harold Washington Library is the most instructive. Right before “Culture in Action,” Mary Jane Jacob hired Jones to design a park setting. The New York-based artist set a half wall, a circular dais, and a winding walkway through a grassy block, with text inserts delineating its physical shape as referencing a Surrealist painting in the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago.

People soon trampled the curvilinear path, striking across in a severe straight line from one corner to an “L” train stop, establishing a direct route for commuters on their way to and from work, oblivious to the artist’s measured musings about the intersection of art and social history. Recently, however, the meandering path was resuscitated when an imposing wrought iron fence was placed around the park’s periphery, preventing random entry. Now, Jones’s work exists once again, as autonomous, as benign, and as useful as the Picasso-another icon there for the taking.

Perhaps public art need not be propped up by utopian goals to edify the public, whether in big steel pieces or intricate interventions into social systems. These goals strengthen the hierarchical separation between fine art and everyday life, even as they try to break those divisions down. Perhaps the diverse accumulation of public art in Chicago makes for a viable model for future projects because it contains all of the problems inherent in public art itself. Whatever the claims, the diversity of the public will shape the future of public art.

Kathryn Hixson is editor of New Art Examiner and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.