On the day Chicago’s Picasso sculpture was unveiled, Aug. 15, 1967, it suffered an identity crisis from which, we fear, it has never recovered.
“What the heck is it?” one Chicagoan asked that day.
“It’s supposed to be a woman’s face,” another Chicagoan said.
“It’s pickles and ice cream,” said somebody else.
Now, on the eve of the Picasso’s 50th birthday, the poor thing still has people confused.
“It has to be a monkey,” said Doug Wyatt of Palatine, checking out the Picasso on Friday.
“No, a baboon,” said Brett Nemmers, a visitor from Fort Lauderdale.
“Could it be a Kardashian?” asked somebody else.
Whatever people may say, happy birthday, our Picasso. We know exactly who and what you are: Chicago.
For decades, the Picasso was the face of Chicago on millions of postcards, calendars and paperweights. Now the “Bean” in Millennium Park more often does the honor. But without the Picasso there might be no Bean, nor more than 100 other artworks in public spaces all over Chicago’s downtown.
Nor might the average Chicagoan be quite as sophisticated about public art, happy to roll around in the ambiguities and uncertainties. Which, come to think of it, is a wise way to go through life.
The Picasso was the first piece of public art in Chicago intended to confuse. It wasn’t some dead president on a pedestal, some general on a horse. Pablo Picasso, the great artist who designed the sculpture for Chicago for free, meant to keep us guessing. Art historians since then have pretty much established that Picasso modeled the sculpture on the likeness of a young French woman he knew, who had a high pony tail and a long neck. But that was a starting point.
Now after 50 years, though, the Picasso is less about what the artist had in mind and more about what we have brought to it. The Picasso is the guardian angel of office workers eating lunch in Daley Plaza. It is the heat on the skin of children when they use it as a slide. It is the photo we took of somebody we loved standing in front of it on a winter day. It is the great day we had with friends after meeting there. How many Chicagoans have said, “I’ll meet you at the Picasso”?
When a rusting Cor-Ten steel sculpture stands in one place long enough, it becomes the city itself.
Since 1978, Chicago has set aside 1.33 percent of the construction budget for city-owned buildings for public art. It was a novel idea at the time, and the Picasso gets credit for that, too.
We didn’t always understand artworks like the Picasso, but we knew we wanted more.
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