Commissioned Picasso Sculpture Unveiled At Daley Plaza, Chicagoans Outraged

by Alison O’Connor

For two years now, famed Spanish artist Pablo Picasso has been toiling away at his major contribution to Chicago, a monumental sculpture to be displayed in our own Daley Plaza. Commissioned by Mayor Richard J. Daley himself, the sculpture stands 50 feet tall, weighs over 160 tons and is built from Cor-Ten steel, the same material as was used in the exterior of the Daley Plaza it stands before. It was assembled at the U.S. Steel Company in Gary, Indiana, not far from Chicago. 

Now, in 1967, the sculpture, commissioned in 1963, is now revealed and presented without question or hesitation at Daley Plaza to the eager and awaiting public. Now, this sculpture is not your average statue of a stoic soldier or Native American warrior poised on horseback or in a uniform, nor does it depict an animal. In fact, most Chicagoans, this reporter included, have no idea whatsoever what to make of this strange behemoth of a figure. Even more peculiar, Picasso is said to have given his work no statement or explanation, so attached meaning. The ambiguity and brashness of the renowned artist’s sculpture is leaving the heads of many Chicagoans spinning.

It appears to have various shapes and components to its being. The base is very curvaceous and shaped like the base of a candle, perhaps. There seems to be a mess of criss-crossing lines that jut out from near the narrow top of the base, connecting from there to two massive planes which might resemble elephant ears, or very voluminous hair, to add a different perspective to the mess of possibilities the figure leaves. The face of the creature or person, what ever the being might be, seems quite alien, the tiny black dots of pupils very close together within a horizontal eye that might belong to a Cyclops, which would have been an astute guess had there been only one pupil instead of two. The nose is long and rectangular like a horse’s or an elephants (which would go along with the ears, if they are, indeed, to be taken as those of elephants). There is a fin, or tail, in back of the sculpture, which protrudes from above the base and connects the base and ears. Any guess I might throw out is as good as that of any other perplexed Chicagoan, who can only help but stare, or gawk, at this absurd creation.

Is Pablo Picasso indeed playing a joke on Chicago, on Mayor Daley, on the residents of the city? Or is he simply doing the outrageous, groundbreaking work we have come to expect from other renowned modern artists of this day and age? Gone are the once-simple rules of art, the realistic confines we had taken for granted, the fruit bowls, the nude men and women, the royal portraits, the landscapes. Time, the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso himself has ushered in what is called “cubism.” It is more accurate to say that Picasso is the leader, the father of the very movement, a new concept of art-making that seems to go beyond simply presenting an object or subject as is. The viewer is made to guess, or gape. Such a means of creation appears manipulative, leaving the viewer no choice but to stare, if even that. Perhaps it is more about the soliciting of controversy, stirring up the art-world, entire cities and populations as well as art critics, producers and patrons, shocking society out of its mundane sights and sounds. Perhaps it is simply the art of the future, the new modernity of art something to be embraced as a new means of the inception and conception of art itself? What ever the answer may be, the questions Picasso, the Cubist movement itself, and the artist’s bizarre and garish gift have left Chicago with are abundant.

Moreover, the public’s general reaction, so far as is displayed at the scene of the sculpture’s unveiling, appears to be more negative if anything. I’d even go as far as to say most Chicagoans are appalled, infuriated at Picasso’s work. At this time I spoke with a diverse few of Chicago residents at the scene, to observe what they had to say about the sculpture before their eyes, this new addition to the architecture and art of the city of Chicago.

Police Officer Sgt. McNeal, a visibly aggravated expression on his face, growled “What does this Pig-Ah-So jerk think he is? A funny guy? What’s so funny about a trash-heap of perfectly good steel dumped at the feet of Daley Plaza? What does he take us for, idiots? Damn Europeans.” Sandy Greenstein, an emergency room nurse come down to see what all the hubbub over at Daley Plaza was about on a break from her shift, added “You’re very right! Art is supposed to be pleasing to the eye! It’s supposed to be a thing of beauty, of depth! This modern-garbage isn’t art at all! It’s all shock and no substance. Heck, I don’t even know what it is!” The sergeant replied “me neither, I don’t think it’s supposed to be anything it all, which is more of an insult than a statement of artistry.” Sandy nodded in affirmation.

Walking around the buzzing and boiling crowd this August afternoon, I then ran into a young teen aged boy named Tim Matheson, who begged to differ with the other two Chicagoans. He told me “As an artist myself, I kind of see what this Picasso guy is getting at, I mean, it’s a new approach, it’s getting people going and making everyone think, isn’t it? It would be pretty boring if all art looked the same.” At this, a self-proclaimed professional artist named Dalton Desmond hotly responded: “I could do a much better job making a statement than any of those Cubist hacks! Art is refined, pure, clean and polished, not some abominable mess of materials you can slap the label of “art” onto! Especially not if you’re commissioned by Mayor Daley to make something meaningful, that’s supposed to be meaningful, anyway!” Both Matheson and Desmond had such differing views of the sculpture, which was interesting to note, especially from a younger artist such as Matheson, who appears to have taken to the new modern art style very well. Desmond, a man in his middle age, would understandably not take to the changes and fluctuations of art easily at all.

Meandering further along the scene, Chicago Alderman Lawrence Black, who I had the pleasure of spotting in the crowd, had some very choice words to say, akin to those of the popular consensus: “I don’t agree with this one bit! Let those modern artists get on with what ever the heck they want to do, but tarnishing our Daley Plaza with this?! Inexcusable! I don’t know if Picasso has lost his mind or what, but this is a giant slap in the face to all of the hard work and dutiful labor architects from all over the world have bestowed upon Chicago’s rich soil! I think any artist, any person for that matter, worth his weight in marbles should treat Chicago as something to be respected, not treated as a dumping ground for metal!”

It was all too clear what Black thought of Picasso and his work, and it echoed what could only be distinguished from the growing crowd at Daley Plaza as shouts of anger and outrage, cries of fury and pain. Walking further still, I ran into a tall, thin, striking young woman named Clara Gold, a professional model who was more toned back in her annoyance over the Picasso piece, but all the same disappointed, telling me “It’s something to look at in its own way, I suppose, but that’s no work of art. It’s really very ugly, if you ask me. Nothing pretty about that big mess at all! Maybe Picasso had a very ugly woman as his muse or something (Clara chuckled quite a bit as she said this).” I had a laugh a bit myself, at this little jab, and laughing with us was a street musician, saxophone in tow, named Reggie Harmon, who declared “Ugly woman is right! Wow, man, that is one gross chick! Looks more like an animal, the way I see it! Geez, man, what a trick this Picasso quack played! It has to be some kind of a trick, right? Nothing to do but laugh at the sight of it…”

Soon after, an enraged housewife, Joanie Jeffries, caught up with me and asked me directly “You’re a reporter, huh?” I told her yes, I am, and she went off immediately with “Well, tell the papers this! That monstrosity is a stain in this darned city! It’s a real eye-sore! I’ll be darned if I have to look at that thing while I’m alive and well! If this is the world of the future, it’s a real mess! This has nothing of the qualities of any art I’ve seen or known! Wait till my husband sees this! I don’t even want my kids to see this! Heck, THEY could make a prettier sculpture than this, and they’re newborn twins!” To this, Roger Smith, a cabdriver, added “Golly! What a dump! This city is getting worse and worse by the minute! The mayor’s got cheese for brains if he thinks this is something Chicago needs! Those Europeans are all a bunch of stinking communists, anyways. Stupid communist artwork, taking over our good American towns!”

In this din of angered and heated Chicagoans in the sweltering August day, the controversial and angering sculpture looming over all, only one voice among the masses seemed to voice any kind of real positivity, admiration for that matter, for the new Picasso creation. This voice was one Audrey Moltisanti, an student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, majoring in Art History. Moltisanti, a real admirer of Cubism and the fresh direction art was moving in through the 20th century, spoke up with great animation “I don’t see why everyone’s getting so peeved about this! They’re all so uncultured, these squares. It’s gotten everyone together, really made people think, and isn’t that art, throughout it’s vast history, has been all about all along? Put THIS in the papers: I love it! I really, truly do! It’s not supposed to be any one thing, it’s supposed to be an enigma, a complicated, strange, mess of a piece, just like Chicago itself! Picasso is way ahead of his time, clearly, if everyone is being so close-minded about him and his art.”

No matter what, Picasso’s sculpture has surely, as Moltisanti put it, brought Chicago together, though perhaps for worse than for better. It’s certainly created quite a stir, if not a flood of controversy sweeping throughout the city as we know it. Who knows if the sculpture will become a treasure, an icon to be eventually loved by the city or ultimately rejected as it is now, only time will tell. 

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