Gwendolyn Brooks thought it looked stupid.
Chicago’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poet hadn’t yet set eyes on the new sculpture the city had asked her to laud. The 50-foot-high, 162-ton monument was being installed behind screens at the Civic Center, out of sheets of COR-TEN, the same steel used in the building behind it.
She had only seen photographs.
“The pictures looked very foolish, ” the future poet laureate of Illinois later said, “with those two little eyes and that long nose.”
But a gig’s a gig, though her foray into occasional verse reflected her unease.
“Man visits Art, but squirms,” she read at the unveiling on Aug. 15, 1967, a grand, public ceremony where 50,000 Chicagoans — at least according to police estimates — were serenaded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while waiting to meet the sculpture that some predicted might replace the Art Institute’s lions as a symbol of the city.
The city had certainly seen the sculpture before it was unveiled. The previous September, the 42-inch model that Pablo Picasso had donated to the city went on display at the Art Institute.
The work had no title, and Chicagoans debated what it might be. A woman’s head? An Afghan hound? A seahorse? A baboon? The Tribune called it a “predatory grasshopper.” Mayor Richard J. Daley said he saw “the wings of justice” in the sculpture, and his was the opinion that really mattered.
Ald. John Hoellen thought it looked like a vulture and introduced a resolution in the Chicago City Council to replace the sculpture with one honoring Cubs first baseman Ernie Banks.
Animosity was stoked by the background of the Spanish-born artist, who in 1962 had accepted the Soviet Union’s Lenin Prize.
“I can’t for the life of me understand how the people of Chicago can sit idle while this so-called statue donated by the card-carrying Communist Picasso is unveiled right in our heartland,” M.A. Thoiona wrote to the Tribune two days before the unveiling. “To think that our children and grandchildren will have to look at this monstrosity for years to come!”
“It is said that Picasso made the design for the large monument in the civic center plaza to show his commie friends how decadent and gullible Americans are,” added Frederick Bertram.
The roots of the sculpture can be traced to 1959, when Chicago’s Public Building Commission voted to issue bonds for a new civic center just east of the County Building, the block bounded by Dearborn, Washington, Clark and Randolph.
Plans for a pair of towers surrounding a double-deck plaza ringed with stores proved too expensive. The two towers were fused into a single 31-story Miesian slab, and the double-deck concept was scrapped, leaving an enormous plaza that even a big square fountain couldn’t begin to fill. An artwork seemed necessary. According to William Hartmann, senior architect at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, one of three firms involved in the center, “We wanted the sculpture to be the work of the greatest master alive.”
That would be Picasso. Though the artist was in his early 80s, Life magazine liked to run images of the old satyr, bare-chested, drawing bull heads with light. Chicagoans had been familiar with his work for over half a century, ever since the 1913 Armory Show made its 20-day visit to the Art Institute — making it the first museum in the United States to display Picasso’s work. Critics puzzled over seven paintings by “Paul Picasso,” especially his oddly-wrought women.
“One can amuse oneself by … wondering why Picasso’s lady is so contorted contemplating her pot of mustard?” wrote Harriet Monroe, who a year earlier had founded Poetry magazine.
Hartmann and several associates approached Picasso through letters to the artist’s friends and eventually arranged a visit to his studio on the French Riviera. They gave Picasso gifts: a Bears helmet, a Sioux war bonnet, a White Sox uniform, a Chicago firefighter’s helmet. An autographed photo of Mayor Daley, plus a photo of Ernest Hemingway, prompting Picasso to exclaim: “My friend! I taught him everything he knew about bullfighting. Was he from Chicago?”
In May of 1964, Picasso began sketches — white outlines on plywood. He did not, it should be pointed out, pave new ground with this Chicago sculpture, instead recycling themes and images he had been noodling with for half a century. He didn’t quite pluck our sculpture’s design off the shelf. But close.
“Certainly not site specific to Chicago” is how New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik delicately put it, noting that you can find similar images in Picasso’s work going back to 1917.
Still, the sculpture would be his first monumental public commission.
“His biggest and most conclusive American statement,” Gopnik wrote.
The sculpture itself was constructed by the United States Steel American Bridge Division of Gary, Indiana, which shipped it in pieces to the city.
Ground was broken May 25, 1967. While the statue was being installed, the 42-inch model was in London, at a big Picasso show, where the English raved over it.
Critic Desmond Morris predicted the sculpture would become “an art landmark, one of the most famous sights in the world.” Regular folk liked it too.
“It will make a change from those dreary, fuddy-duddy statues that seem to litter most cities,” said a British secretary.
The day of the unveiling had a crowded, carnival air. This was 1967, remember, the Summer of Love. Dozens of young people in long dresses and beads and turbans, flowers painted on their faces, gathered for what the Sun-Times called “a love-in.” They beat bongos and strummed guitars.
“It’s a great reason to come here and look at something beautiful,” said self-described hippie Andrew Filipowski, 18.
Fifteen women called for peace in Vietnam, choosing that day because “the sculpture is a woman who characterizes strength and gentleness,” according to one.
A Barrington artist picketed the event.
“The Colossal Boo-Boo — A Creative Evacuation of Emotional Debris” read the sign carried by Carl Tolpo, 65, who called the work “sick art.”
During the official remarks, Hartmann claimed the unveiling may “prove to be a singular event in the cultural history of the world.”
While a new cultural icon was being unveiled, two Chicago journalistic icons mingled in the crowd gathered for the 11 a.m. dedication: Studs Terkel and Mike Royko. Terkel was carrying a portable tape recorder, preserving a variety of very Chicago voices, thick with accents and attitude.
“At first glance, it looks rather grotesque…” said one.
“You got something like this, 99 percent of the people don’t know what it resembles,” observed another.
“A nightmare,” added a third.
“A woman!?” marveled another. “A woman, yes, definitely, now it makes some sense. At first, when they had no idea what it was, I didn’t think too much of it. But now I like the idea of a woman being placed at the civic center. It seems like the woman has to do with everything in life, and this has to do with the good things in life. This is a civic center and the goodness of a woman. That’s my idea.”
Royko’s sharp eye plucked details from the scene, from Daley’s expression, “that familiar blend of scowl and smile” to the fact that Brooks was seated in front of power brokers Ald. Tom Keane and Assessor P.J. Cullerton.
“When Keane and Cullerton sit behind a lady poet, things are changing,” Royko wrote.
He captured the shock when Daley pulled a white ribbon that sent the turquoise percale shroud that had surrounded Picasso’s creation tumbling away.
“A few people applauded. But at best, it was a smattering of applause. Most of the throng was silent.”
Hugh Hough, from the Sun-Times, heard “cheers and applause.” Not Royko.
“The silence grew,” he wrote. “Then people turned and looked at each other. Some shrugged. Some smiled. Some just stood there, frowning or blank-faced.
“Most just turned and walked away.”
Royko stared at the “big, homely metal thing” and saw “a long stupid face” that “looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.” Royko saw reflected in it the faces of slum owners, brutal cops and mobsters, corporate polluters and corrupt city officials — and in a case of life imitating art, the city did indeed try to copyright the image, which Picasso had given them. But in 1970 a judge ruled that is efforts to publicize the sculpture before copyright was secured had left it in the public domain.
The Sun-Times’ editorial page celebrated that a city that “never quite managed to keep her artists at home,” now had some classy art that wouldn’t be going anywhere, “an official sign of welcome to new and stimulating creative effort.” As for what it symbolizes, “if it is the face of a lady, it is more enigmatic than the smile of Mona Lisa or the face of the Sphinx, and may, in time, become as familiar as both.”
The Civic Center posted guards to keep people off the sculpture — an effort that would eventually be abandoned as it became the most expensive slide in the world. History will note that the first unofficial gathering at the Picasso, the evening it was dedicated, was another love-in, this one with hundreds of young people, who drank soda and ate cookies, and did not necessarily gather there out of appreciation for the statue, which leader Eric Wilson, 22, called “one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen.”
Over the next half century, we got used to it. The Picasso, as it became known, was undoubtedly the face of Chicago — it had cameos in “The Blues Brothers,” “The Fugitive” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
The hostility remained too, among those who thought it was a hoax perpetrated by a canny old European artist on Midwestern rubes eager to borrow a little cultural sophistication.
Though history has been kind to our Picasso.
“There has been a real about-face in the last 10 years or so about late Picasso” said Michael Darling, the curator of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “Where people used to think it was bad and tacky, they have come to recognize it as pretty incredible and pretty great. The same thing happened to Andy Warhol. These things have been re-appraised, and people found something new and fresh. It is audacious. Anti-heroic, and has stood the test of time. I think we got lucky.”
Of course, we didn’t realize it right away.
“We had a really great artist who was still great, but we couldn’t see it, couldn’t see ahead of us at the time,” said Darling. “If you talk to a lot of younger sculptors today, like Aaron Curry, they would look at that Picasso and say, ‘Wow, this thing is incredible.’ ”
“It wasn’t really cool to be looking at Picasso in the art world,” said Curry, 45, who came to Chicago in 1991 to go to the School of the Art Institute and first encountered the sculpture. “I related to it, at first, as a painter. It was definitely a sculpture made by a painter. To be honest, it’s an ugly sculpture. Its weird face. Picasso could make a pretty face, and it’s interesting he chose to make something really difficult… it has helped me a tremendous amount, thinking about Picasso, putting things up in a space.”
The MCA’s Darling said the Chicago Picasso had a great influence on contemporary sculpture.
“To make something that big that’s that clumsy, that seemingly simple,” he said. “It’s making something mundane monumental. You can see and imagine how this emerged out of a cardboard model or some very humble beginning. I’m intrigued by how flat some of those big sections are, how they do look like cardboard and string, that it does look like a craft project, and how brave it is and audacious to make a giant sculpture of something like that. That kind of gesture ended up being an important gesture for public art. What Oldenburg would go on to do, what Jeff Koons would do.”
Koons, perhaps the most famous sculptor in the world today, known for his massive, mirrored ballon dogs, studied in Chicago in the mid-1970s and holds the Picasso sculpture in esteem.
“It captures everything we know about public sculpture,” Koons said Friday. “Its scale is perfect. In relation to your own physical body, how inviting it is. I would sit on the slope, walk on the slope. The interactive quality. Its design, engineered, not only physically strong. Overpowering, but at the same time the grace to invite you to participate. To have the conceptual durability to withstand the interaction of the public. It’s just a beautiful piece. It could be so many different things when you look at it. It could be a baboon, an afghan, a Dora Maar” — Picasso’s mistress and muse. “So many different interpretations. It’s more than one thing, greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a spectacular piece, the high water mark for public work.”
The Daily News predicted that those fortunate enough to be present at the 1967 unveiling would someday recall the great moment for their grandchildren. Not necessarily. That 18-year-old hippie at the love-in, Andrew Filipowski? Contacted half a century later, he said, “I wish I could remember it; it’s possible, I may have shown up” but his “recollection is pretty thin.” Contrary to all parental warnings about the negative effects of long hair and hippiedom on one’s career, Filipowski turned into a tech entrepreneur and financier. As for the Picasso, “I loved it then, and it’s aged very well,” he said Thursday.
Gwendolyn Brooks changed her mind after she clapped eyes on the thing.
“After I saw the Picasso, I admired it. And I’m glad it’s in Chicago,” she told a biographer.
She said she considers the sculpture — any sculpture — to be like a bouquet of flowers.
“We don’t ask a flower to give us any reason for its existence. We look at it and are able to accept it as being something different, and different from ourselves. Who can explain a flower? But there it is …”
On the 25th anniversary of the sculpture, Brooks returned for the celebration; the city of Chicago will have a 50th anniversary party at noon Tuesday.
In 1992, Brooks wrote another, less-conflicted poem to the sculpture, beginning:
I continue royal among you.
I astonish you still.
You never knew what I am.
That did not matter and does not.