When Chicago’s Picasso sculpture was unveiled 40 years ago this month, people said it looked like a baboon or a dodo. One man called it “part of a communist plan to destroy all civilization and culture.” Alderman John Hoellen wanted to replace it with a statue of Ernie Banks.
Accepted now as an icon of Chicago, Pablo Picasso’s untitled monumental work was once the subject of outcry. By 1967, modern art was history, but “The Picasso” was one of the first modern sculptures of its scale to go up in the States, and it produced one huge controversy, says Michael Kammen, author of Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill partner William Hartmann persuaded Picasso to create the piece for the Chicago Civic Center (since renamed the Daley Center), which Hartmann helped design. In May 1965, Picasso donated the 42-inch model that the U.S. Steel Corporation used to create a 50-foot-high, 162-ton behemoth.
Mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly told speechwriter Earl Bush that Picasso’s Cubist plan “disturbed” him at first. However, Bush told Daley it would boost Chicago’s credibility, and Daley touted the accomplishment at press conferences. “I see it as a great head and a great eagle,” Daley told reporters. The more the mayor looked at it, though, the more he became convinced it was a woman. “You’re supposed to use your imagination in modern art,” he said.
In the Chicago Daily News, Mike Royko sardonically noted that Picasso had captured the city’s character. “Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone,” he wrote. “Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak…Picasso has never been here, they say. You’d think he’s been riding the L all his life.”
On August 15, 1967, a crowd packed the plaza for the unveiling. Gwendolyn Brooks recited her dedication poem that began, “Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms. Art hurts.” Then, at 12:22pm, Daley pulled a cord and a 12,000-square-foot blue covering billowed and fell.
Time magazine described the crowd’s response as “an awed and respectful hush,” while Royko wrote: “The weakest pinch-hitter on the Cubs receives more cheers.” An older woman loudly remarked, “It’s hideous. It means nothing. It’s like a cow sticking out its tongue at Chicago.” A police officer told Time, “I like it fine—whatever it is.”
Over in France, Picasso laughed when a reporter asked him what it was. “Meanings, meanings, always petty meanings,” was all he said. Later, Picasso seemed to agree when his wife, Jacqueline, told Look magazine, “Can’t they see it’s a woman’s head?” Picasso smiled and remarked, “Imagine how funny it would have been if instead of a classical Cubist sculpture, I had modeled something a little bit naughty.”
David Douglas Duncan, who had photographed Picasso extensively, insisted it was based on the artist’s dog, Kaboul. Picasso’s pictures of Jacqueline from the early 1960s strongly resemble the sculpture, but in one of them, Woman Seated in a Chair and Afghan Hound (Old Kaboul), it’s the dog that looks like the Chicago statue, not the woman.
In the decades since, the American people have gradually become more accepting of abstract and conceptual art in public places, Kammen says, especially when the citizens get a chance to give input. “That’s what calmed the waters,” he says. In 1981, Joan Miró’s female figure across the street from the Picasso sparked more complaints, but two playful pieces in Millennium Park, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (known as “The Bean”) and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, were immediate hits in 2004.
“They were popular from the outset. I think that’s wonderful,” says Gregory Knight, the city’s deputy commissioner for visual arts. But he muses, “Do they have the same kind of grit that made people resist the Picasso at first but ultimately adopt it as a symbol of the city? Controversy can be a good thing. Whether people love it or hate it, at least they’re not indifferent to it.”—Robert Loerzel