Everyone’s Picasso, Amid Confusion and Disappointment

First, it was quiet. Like a street in the early hours before a parade. A feeling of ceremony hung in the air, underscored by the seats still being set up before the stage. The eyes of The Picasso―”like the eyes of every slumlord who made a buck off the small and weak, and every building inspector who took a wad from a slumlord to make it possible,” in the words of the inimitable Mike Royko―looked out over the plaza, with a stare as vacant and unimpressed as any, oblivious to the crowd beginning to assemble in its honor.

Fifty years ago, the scene was much the same (though the crowd was considerably larger then―as many as 50,000 onlookers by the Chicago Tribune’s estimate at the time―whereas Tuesday drew several hundred by most counts), and the anticipatory air that is specific to civic ceremonies surely must have been the same.

In 1967, when the tarpaulins dropped away, the crowd, by all reports, greeted this sculpture, this thing, on which the cultural identity of the city had been so hopefully pinned, with a smattering of applause, and then silence. A sharp pang of disappointment must have accompanied that first glimpse for anyone anticipating a more typical expression of monumentality and beauty.

The Picasso being unveiled in 1967 by Mayor Daley

The Picasso has, of course, become a beloved icon of Chicago, endlessly photographed, and a stop on every tourist’s to-do list, the skepticism and shock having long since worn off. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s ceremony upheld the precedent set by its forebear, as the pervasive feeling out in the crowd was once again one of confusion mingled with disappointment, this time at the lack of coherence and grandiosity expected on such an occasion.

Though the trappings of a great civic ceremony were present at this event, deemed “Everyone’s Picasso”―flags were raised, choirs sang―something wasn’t right. Perhaps this is a result of ceremony designer Paul Durica‘s failure to commit to staging the event as either a reenactment or a rededication. This insistence on blending elements of the two tread precariously the fine line between history and memory, begging the question: is 50 years enough time to have passed for such an event in the first place? What are the implications of staging a reenactment of an event from recent history―recent enough that many members of the crowd (who were asked to stand and identify themselves at one point in the ceremony) were present for the initial unveiling? And if the ceremony won’t be reenacted in full, why not merely rededicate the sculpture?

The ceremony programs articulated this awkward juxtaposition by noting the original lineup of speakers beneath each present day speaker’s name and credentials. The complete and utter lack of continuity, free of any noted justification, was startling: an Art Institute chair taking the place of a governor, a museum director standing in for a judge, and maybe most perplexingly of all, an experimental composer supplanting a rabbi. The speeches given were predominantly riddled with the standard boosterism expected from the civic pulpit, though not everyone proved capable of remaining on topic. Lisa Yun Lee, executive director of the newly christened National Public Housing Museum, somehow felt that a ceremony honoring Chicago’s legacy in public art was the appropriate time and place to relay her personal opinions relating to a variety of social issues, resulting in an uncomfortable and irrelevant interlude in the program.

A few instances, however, managed to cut through the strange trajectory of the proceedings, such as when the microphone at the speaker’s podium went out, and someone thought to strike up the Chicago Children’s Choir to fill the time until it could be brought back on, or when a lone sandwichboard-wearing, megaphone-wielding protestor circled the crowd, shouting incoherently about injustices real or imagined. These moments had a way of grounding the event, provoking a sentimental response from those prone to contemplating the complicated civic history of our great city.

The ceremony felt the most complete―felt, for the first time, correct―when Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed the crowd. Sincerity was evident in his voice when he talked of Chicago’s storied past, of his hopes and plans for its future, without ever shying away from the city’s harsh realities, past and present.

Conspicuously absent from the speaker’s lineup were a representative from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the world-renowned architecture firm behind the Civic Center, and great proponents of the Picasso at the time of its unveiling, as well any members of the clergy. The latter seemed peculiar not only because the original ceremony included representatives of multiple faiths, but because the designers of the present day ceremony still chose to conclude the program with a benediction.

The purpose of the 1967 ceremony was, of course, to unveil the sculpture for the first time to the public. There was widespread hope leading up to this week’s ceremony that this process would be reenacted, that those present the first time could relive that moment, and those who were not would be able to come as close as possible to witnessing the gravity of that moment. This was, then, a rare opportunity to invoke the past through action, to transcend those 50 years, and allow onlookers a reason to renew their appreciation not just for this work of art, but all that it remains a symbol of. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

One of the “veils” handed out to the crowd at Everyone’s Picasso

Artist Edra Soto, listed as “veil designer” in the ceremony program, instead produced blush-colored fans made of hardstock, which were handed out to a portion of the crowd. The face of the fans bore a printed metallic design which borrows loosely the lines of the sculpture; less an homage and more a startlingly disrespectful corruption of the hand of Picasso. The intent behind these objects (which many members of the crowd, at least in the vicinity of this reporter, initially mistook as merely being odd souvenirs) was that those present would, on cue, cover their eyes with the fans and simultaneously drop them to “unveil” the sculpture anew. Not only was this a deeply underwhelming answer to what should have been the seminal moment of the ceremony, it felt careless. It came across as an insult to the intelligence of every civic-minded party present; as though its designers felt the crowd could be satisfied with a charade on par with something intended for the amusement of a child.

In 1967, Royko wrote that immediately after the unveiling, “Most of the throng was silent…. Most just turned and walked away. They had wanted to be moved by it. They wouldn’t have stood there if they didn’t want to believe what they had been told―that it would be a fine thing.”

Last Tuesday, we would not have stood there if we hadn’t wanted to believe what we had been told. If we hadn’t wanted to be moved. Perhaps, then, disappointment is the most appropriate emotion that could have been elicited on this occasion. After all, the Picasso remains a work of art that derives its power from abstraction. It asks for far more than it gives. Why should that change, simply because 50 years have passed?

Categories: Art

2 replies »

  1. This review is so arbitrary and viciously insensitive to what the Chicago Picasso event intended to be that I have decided to provide facts to your readers. As a participant and an individual that understands the great efforts that the City of Chicago and the Department of Cultural Affair does in supporting the arts and give trust and agency to artists and creatives around the city, I find this review completely irrelevant. This event was not a theatric play!!!! This event used the format of the original unveiling of the Chicago Picasso to inform audiences about today’s importance of public art. This event choses the Chicago Picasso to highlight it’s history – perhaps you have noticed that all the press surrounding this event focused on informing about the story of the original unveiling that took place in Chicago in 1967 – so relevant to this date, as a frame to celebrate present and future public art in our city. This event was presented as a reenactment and the celebration of 50 years of the Chicago Picasso is emblematic of Chicago’s public art. A reenactment is a format that can be as narrow or as broad as the producers decide to present it. Every speaker at this event presented a dedicated speech that gave audiences an insight to the importance of the Chicago Picasso and it’s impact to the history of Chicago’s public art.

    In this article, your choice of words make is sound like using a fan as a veil was an arbitrary decision. When I was invited to create a symbolic veil for this event I immediately thought of a hand fan and it’s connection to Spain, were Picasso is from. Fans have an extensive history that goes back to ancient Egypt. Fans were also referred to as a face screens. They are associated with royalty and ritual. Sometimes fans were used to intensify the strength of a fire. In the 1500’s the paper fan was popularized in China and Japan. During the 18th century it took a different turn, becoming a mass produced object. One of it’s many functions was to be used for advertising. Through technology (lithography) you could find fans with painting reproductions. They also were used to commemorate national events. The symbolic veil that I designed is inspired by the Chicago Picasso formal elements. This cubist sculpture possesses very dynamic angles. It’s core, looks like a rib cage or a burst of parallel lines. There’s views were the lines overlapped, but at it’s frontal view, the sculpture appears to be completely flat. My Picasso fan design has contour lines that come directly from the Chicago Picasso sculpture. Art generates art, art in not a personal invention. This was a tribute. This symbolic hand veil was also meant to be a souvenir that participating audiences could take with them. This piece was produced by artists-run press company Spudnik Press – again, the city supporting local artists and organization.

    I had the pleasure to meet the director and the communications manager of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP at the end of this event. They were present and very exited to be there. They also asked me to sign my fan design and have a picture taken with them. In fact, I felt overwhelmed with positive feedback at the end of the event, mostly listening to audience members expressing how clever and original the unveiling was.

    During these current times, were we are facing such difficult political environment – art fundings constantly in jeopardy – exercising vicious negativity against something that ultimately is trying to celebrate art making is something to reflect on. You missed the point completely! After researching you as a writer, I noticed that you have no art history (or art) education noted background on your resume. I also noticed that you curate or run a gallery that does not exist. Additionally, I noticed that your art attempts. Working on informing your perspectives on art in general is my advise to you. Good luck in life.

    • Edra–

      It was very generous of you to take the time out to share your thoughts.

      Since you refer to the information you’ve given as strictly factual, I feel it is necessary to make the following correction where you chose to address me personally: I did run (and curate) a free, public Center for the Contemporary Arts out of the Gunder Mansion, in cooperation with the Chicago Park District, for two years. I believe this may be what you are referring to as a nonexistent gallery. We closed down at the end of 2016, a fact which was publicized at the time. So while we are no longer operational, I can assure you, we did very much exist. I still maintain a curatorial practice, primarily working in partnership with alternative spaces and galleries throughout the city.

      I would also like to raise the point–regardless of my own educational background–that one should not need a master’s degree in art history to appreciate, in full, a civic ceremony dedicated to public art.

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