From The Archive
Rick Perlstein
No. 4  March 1993

Picasso at 25

 Chicago and the civilization of deviance 

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1963: Before Picasso

In 1963, Chicago architect William Hartman was assigned the task of procuring an appropriate sculpture for the plaza in front of the newly-built civic center his firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, had designed. The center was Mayor Richard J. Daley’s showpiece: a monolithic thirty story black steel tower built in the au courant International Style for a city anxious to display to the world its au courant international style.

So Hartman journeyed into the European heart of darkness to approach the only artist grand enough to put the capstone on this monument to civic hip—none other than the formidable Pablo Picasso. Hartmann didn’t fear, for he came bearing gifts, several sacred objects from his native land: a Sioux Indian war bonnet, a White Sox hat and blazer, a Bears’ helmet, a Chicago Fire Department helmet—and, the object the natives of Chicago revered most of all, a check for $ 100,000.

Picasso graciously accepted everything but the check which was, after all, chump change for the master. He would design the sculpture, free from the sullying taint of the filthy American lucre, which might have bound him to create something his middlebrow benefactors might find intelligible; say, a statue of a civil war general on a horse. His work was to be proffered to the city of Chicago as a gift from the Europe of haute-couture to civilize the Hog Butcher to the World.

Picasso set to work, and two years later, he had produced a scale model of the work, over which the following benediction was inscribed:

The monumental sculpture portrayed by the maquette pictured above has been expressly created by me, Pablo Picasso, for installation on the Plaza of the Civic Center in the city of Chicago, state of Illinois, United States of America. This sculpture was undertaken by me for the public building commission of Chicago at the request of William E. Hartmann, acting on behalf of the Chicago public building commission, and I give the maquette to the Art Institute of Chicago, desiring that these gifts shall, through them, belong to the people of Chicago.

The wording here is significant; his was to be a monumental sculpture, whose construction would symbolically bind the people of Chicago under the authority of the civic fathers of Chicago, through the talismanic power of the great artiste, “me, Pablo Picasso.” Its import was not merely artistic, but political—a monument to imposed civic order itself, disciplined under the sign of Culture.

1967: Unveiling the Picasso

Picasso never in his life set foot in Chicago. His design was realized, all fifty-feet and 162-tons of it, at the American Bridge Division of U.S. Steel of Gary, Indiana. It could withstand, the engineers there promised, winds of up to 185-miles-per-hour—and even the torrential hot-air gusts of the politicians who would hold forth under it at civic functions in the ensuing years. The statue was transported in pieces and assembled at the site in the summer of 1967, its construction bankrolled by $300,000 in donations from latter-day descendants of the tycoons who built Upton Sinclair’s jungle and then assuaged their guilt by building William Rainey Harper’s University of Chicago.

The unveiling, on August 15, was an historic event. It represented Picasso’s first and only foray into public art, and the debut of the very first piece of abstract public sculpture in America. With this cultural two-bagger, the City with the Perennial Inferiority Complex announced to the world of the limp-wristed cappuccino drinkers that they couldn’t push Chicago around anymore!

The significance of this was not lost on Chicago’s boosterist press. One commentator proudly proclaimed that the unveiling ceremony would divide Chicago history into two periods, “BP and AP”—Before Picasso and After Picasso. The Chicago Daily News breathlessly described the unveiling:

It was, probably, the greatest day in the cultural history of Chicago. The thousands who jammed Civic Center Plaza to witness it, left with impressions that, years later, they will doubtless will recall for their grandchildren. There was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (led by Seiji Ozawa), playing at an outdoor public ceremony for the first time in its history. There was Gwendolyn Brooks, Chicago’s Pulitzer Prize poet voicing a poem she wrote specially for the occasion. And, most important of all was the piece de resistance—the five-story abstract sculpture of a woman’s head by the famed Spanish artist Pablo Picasso that seems destined to become the symbol by which Chicago will be known the world around.

Once again, the language here is significant. Chicago’s greatest cultural achievement, “the symbol by which Chicago will be known the world around” is revealed as borrowed goods, prostituted from a “famed Spanish artist,” and sanctified by a Japanese conductor. Its power actually issues from its very distance from any quality that could properly be called Chicagoan.

And, significantly, its power issues from its baffling unfathomability to the honest plain folks who inhabit the city. Life magazine reported that in the midst of the fifty thousand celebrants, “pickets demonstrated the whole project on the grounds of incomprehensibility.” Here high art serves a novel political function: rather than merely providing material for the self congratulation of the idle-rich for their patronage of the “radical” and “subversive,” it holds an entire city in the thrall of radical chic. “It is a head—but whose head no one knows,” Life continued. “Some see a horse’s head, others the head of Picasso’s Afghan hound. In the minds of the project’s sponsors it is the head of a woman.” Brooks’ unveiling poem registers the significance of this very confusion, however, for the cultural work of the statue:

Does man love art? Man visits Art, but squirms.

Art hurts. Art urges voyages—

and it is easier to stay at home,

the nice beer ready.

In the common rooms

we belch, or sniff, or scratch.

Are raw.

But we must cook ourselves and style

ourselves for Art,

who is a requiring courtesan.

We squirm.

We do not hug the Mona Lisa.

 

We

may touch or tolerate

an astounding fountain, or a horse-and-rider.

At most, another Lion.

 

Observe the tall cold of a Flower

which is as innocent and as guilty,

as meaningful and as meaningless as any

other flower in the western field.

In other words, the statue’s very condition of possibility as a civic monument seems precisely its irrelevance to real lives of people living within the arbitrary geographic boundaries signifying “Chicago.” If you don’t like it, there’s something downright unpatriotic about you; don’t you want Chicago to be a “world-class” city? Civic Center Plaza (later renamed Daley Plaza) soon became the epicenter for a never-ending pageant of rituals held “under the Picasso”—public performances, government ceremonies, civic celebrations—where people living in Chicago are “cooked and styled” as Chicagoans, far removed from the “common rooms” where they would ordinarily belch, sniff, and scratch. As a locus of civic pride, the “deviance” of the sculpture fashions Chicago into a marketable commodity, rendering invisible the struggle and toil of diverse peoples that constitute the actual materiality of any city and replacing it with a purchased, sanitized civic semiotic. An inscrutable product of decades of antibourgeois sentiment, the Picasso sculpture does not here merely épate le bourgeois, but rather it creates him; it is a monument in the service of the complexes of civic pride which undergird the construction of civil subjects as such. You can’t fight city hall; it’s too damned hip.

1992: Veiling the Picasso

Since the Enlightenment, European culture—in its poetics and its politics, in its utopic dreams and its distopic nightmares, has rested on the premise of the ultimate availability of an objective perspective, an archimedean point of view, a universal subject of history. Irreducible aesthetic laws, the ultimate meaning or meaninglessness of existence, the revolutionary end of history or the evolutionary perfection of human freedom, all were thought to open themselves up to the possibility of human knowledge, refinement, and ultimate resolution. Man thought he could see clearly. Picasso’s life project of rigorously interrogating the “essence” of the subjects he represented was part and parcel of this complex of notions.

This is the thought that sprung to mind one day when, walking around downtown, I saw the Picasso sporting a ten-foot tall birthday cap. I walked on, determined to locate the reason for this rude and unseemly rupture of the modernist project, in the year 25 AP. Had some clever concept artist decided to replace the stately seamlessness of this masterpiece of the high modern with an ironic bit of postmodern pastiche?

No. It was “Picasso 25,” the city’s 25th birthday celebration for the Picasso sculpture. A colorful banner hung from the civic center facade, proclaiming “Public invited to dance at 25th birthday party,” and below that, “Richard M. Daley, Mayor.” Hey! I was ready to boogie (“Can I cut in, Mr. Mayor?” “Why certainly, young man.”). But, alas, the dancing was to come later. There first was to be a ceremony featuring the mayor himself, the Spanish Consul, and the now-Illinois Poet Laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks. I strolled the grounds, anxious for the festivities to begin.

There are dozens of birthday cakes arrayed along a line of tables. I learn that they have been donated for the occasion by Chicago’s most prestigious restaurants and hotels, whose pastry chefs have had a field day recreating the sculpture in cake batter and frosting. On my way to a table where bright blue souvenir T-shirts, balloons, and mugs are being sold, I run into a man who, in an era of modernist certititude, would have been confined to a mental institutions. He wears a clown outfit (which is, coincidentally, the same colors as Picasso’s birthday cap) covered by a ratty gray tweed jacket, a tattered bowler hat, and mutters to himself, dancing in a circle. I browse the wares for sale; “Each unique, full-color, hand-painted Picasso 25 silk scarf was created by designer Tolanda Lorente. Dimensions: 40″ x 40″”. I fill out an entry blank to win a free flight to anywhere in the continental United States.

The crowd hushes as the ceremony begins. The Spanish Consul speaks first. He gives a high-minded speech, droning on about Picasso’s philosophical influences and his impact on modern aesthetics, and his “message of freedom and peace against terror and fascism.” He speaks with the flair and style of a Ricardo Montalban selling Cadillacs. Then Daley le petit speaks. He begins by quoting Dad’s remarks from the 1967 unveiling: “What is strange to us today, will become familiar tomorrow.” This is perhaps Richie’s way of commenting on the family business, for, as Marx just as for the Daleys, history has repeated itself in Chicago, first as tragedy, and then as farce (exactly one year after the Picasso was unveiled, policeman were clubbing innocents at the ’68 Democratic Convention while the whole world watched; this year, the Chicago police are under investigation by Amnesty International for torture). He blathers on: “People continue to debate what the sculpture is and what it represents … Towering giant of art in this century … He was at the forefront of every major art movement of this century [and we got him—not New York!], and though he never visited this city, he obviously had a place in his heart for this city … same steel that drove the economic engine of this city … union of public and private that made this city great … ” And so on. He speaks with the style and flair of one of those small business owners who does his own commercials, but has trouble reading the cue cards.

Then Gwendolyn Brooks, who delivers another Apologia for Art to compliment her 1967 effort:

Set,

seasoned,

sardonic still,

I continue royal among you.

I astonish you still.

You never knew what I am.

That did not matter and does not.

 

Mostly

you almost supposed I almost Belong; that I

have a Chicago Beauty, that I

have a booming Beauty.

 

I tell you that although royal

I am a mongrel opera strange in the street,

I am radical, rhymeless—

 

But warranted!

Surely I shall remain.

Then, as if to assure that things will keep on a campy keel, we are presented with a concert of “Spanish dance,” by a couple on parole from the Fred Astaire Dance Studios. Finally, the head of the Mayor’s Office for Special Events, our MC, bubbles, “We’re all going to sing Happy Birthday and enjoy our cakes.” The crowd, mostly a mix of curious yuppies on lunch break and senior citizens who look like they had marked the event on their calendars a month in advance, oblige her. The crowd is then invited, at last, to dance, “to,” the MC states, “the greatest music in the world.” The “Stanley Paul Dance Orchestra”, which appears to have an afternoon free between weddings, strikes up an appropriately listless performance of “Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town.” The man in the clown suit starts dancing first, wearing now a straw hat, an American flag in his hand. and then some of the senior citizens take to the floor. A photographer in a safari jacket and a big-game zoom lens squats histrionically, framing an elderly waltzing couple and the guest of honor in the same shot—“I hope you don’t mind it I take some pictures … just don’t look at me … ” A fat ward-boss type with hair the same greasy-gray tone as his three-piece suit chomps a thick stogie. Someone hails him heartily, “Hey, Louie!”

And a young man with a goatee scribbles furiously in a notebook, remarking that it is the only the statue’s veiled quality—symbolized by the obscuring of the aesthetics of the piece with a ten-foot red, yellow, and blue birthday cap—that is this moment’s very condition of possibility. Were any of the sculpture’s intended symbolic resonances actually obtaining at all, the earth would open up beneath the trailer-hitch housing the Stanley Paul Dance Orchestra, sucking the tuxedo’d musicians and everyone else present into the fiery bowels of the earth itself, and “me, Pablo Picasso” himself would thunder down angrily from the heavens. Or not.

Our faithful scribe composes his own poem, honoring this implosion of avant garde and kitsch, European high-modernism, and American low-postmodernism, Pablo Picasso and Richard Daley(s), Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Stanley Paul Dance Orchestra at the “Picasso 25” celebration:

It looks mostly like a vagina,

From Behind.

From the front,

A phallus, flaccid.

Chicago’s taunting androgene,

Unaroused, and Unarousing,

The steeled might of civic boosterism,

Tempered by the blank stares of a baffled public,

Avant-Garrulous.

Rick Perlstein is a contributing editor of The Baffler and author of Nixonland and other books.

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