Nothing renews one’s faith in the future of this city quite like seeing 150 people turn out, of their own volition, on a weekday evening to witness and participate in a discourse on the role of civic art in Chicago. This was the scene on Thursday night in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall, where a panel discussion entitled Public Offerings: Sculpture as Civic Art was held. The panel consisted of scholar of 20th century art Amanda Douberley, historian to the Park District of Chicago Julia Bachrach, and noted public artist Tony Tasset. Each delivered a short lecture on the subject at hand, providing a multi-faceted look at the history and contemporary practices associated with civic art in Chicago and the world over.
As politely informative as those short talks may have been, the real work began when the three sat down with venerable Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan for a moderated discussion. Kogan unhesitatingly dove in, invoking the late architect William Hartmann (once a managing partner at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, best known for personally persuading Pablo Picasso to create the sculpture installed on Daley Plaza), noting his assessment that civic art was linked directly and indelibly to architecture, that its beginnings were formulated as a direct response to the absence of ornamentation in modernist building designs. This sparked a lively debate on one of public and civic art’s most unavoidable concerns: the confluence of art and architecture.
Refuting the contingent concept that abstract sculpture became common as civic sculpture during the rise of public art in Chicago (the late 1950s through the 1960s) due to its ability to translate materiality and scale from surrounding architecture to a pedestrian scale, came Bachrach’s stance, built on the notion that abstraction in civic art was born as a deliberate antidote to the “didactic” quality of traditional, hyper-detailed figurative monuments. From Douberley’s sentimental standpoint, there was the suggestion that works of public sculpture acted as objects independent of environment, as “receptacles for collective memory” that fulfilled their obligations by being “civic symbols that act as personal landmarks,” surrounding architecture aside. Tasset weighed in on the matter, noting that not just architecture, but the larger consideration of site plays an important and fluid role. Tasset went on to cite examples of his own work that have been installed in multiple locales (specifically, Eyeball, a three-story fiberglass eye that once stood in Pritzker Park in the Loop, and is now permanently installed on an open pedestrian plaza in Dallas) and the role shifts in site play in allowing the works to act as a “sympathetic reality check,” leveraging site both for and against interpretations of optimism. Throughout this wide and impassioned discourse, Kogan unflinchingly kept the conversation moving and on topic.
Perhaps the most appropriate summation of the evening can be found in a passage Kogan shared from Mike Royko’s coverage of the unveiling of what is to this day colloquially known as simply “the Picasso.” That wellspring of Chicago civic art, that which 50 years ago gave us a beginning that allows us to gather together again today to continue the conversation which it—be it willfully or passively—started. In that column, Royko condensed every hopeful expectation that had been pinned on that work, every ounce of expectation that accompanied its arrival, and heralded the excitement, the incredulity and the disappointment that onlookers felt that day at the unveiling, upon finding that the work of art that they had been told would lead to nothing less than the cultural rebirth of the city was and is a large, unknowable metal object, devoid of the typical symbolic trappings of hope, and posed the following with his characteristic succinctness: “Why not? Everybody said it embodied the spirit of Chicago.”