Since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, building a better city has been a top priority for Chicagoans. Celebrated architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan flocked here to build the city that we know today. Alongside architecture, public art has been a fixture of Chicago aesthetics for decades. The city’s public art includes some exemplary pieces of modernist art. Here are the stories behind four sculptures that define public art in downtown Chicago.
Designed by Pablo Picasso in 1967, this piece is technically unnamed, but is colloquially referred to as “the Picasso.” It was one of the first public sculptures to be placed downtown and sits in Daley Plaza inside the Loop. Commissioned by the architects of the Richard J. Daley Center, Picasso refused the payment for the piece, instead creating the sculpture as a gift to the city of Chicago. The Picasso looks a bit like a jungle gym and it is not uncommon to see visitors of the plaza climbing on and around the sculpture.
ALEXANDER CALDER’S FLAMINGO
Head a few blocks south in the Loop and you will find yourself dwarfed by the Flamingo, a large vermillion abstract sculpture sitting in the Federal Plaza. Alexander Calder designed this sculpture in 1974, clocking in at an epic weight of 50 tons. Calder wanted his sculpture to wind and arch, a curving pop of color surrounded by monumental steel buildings. Flamingo was the first sculpture to be unveiled under the Percent for Art program—a program which administers a percentage of the city budget to public art.
JOAN MIRO’S CHICAGO
Down the street from Picasso’s sculpture is a work by contemporary master Joan Miró, fittingly titled Chicago. This piece was unveiled in Brunswick Plaza by Chicago’s first female mayor Jane Byrne in 1981. Miró’s sculpture is a 40-foot statue of a woman tucked between two skyscrapers. It is a mixed media sculpture—steel, wire mesh, concrete, bronze and ceramic tile produce Chicago.
ANISH KAPOOR’S CLOUD GATE
Known to all Chicagoans and visitors as “The Bean,” this sculptural feat is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the whole city. Contrary to popular belief, the actual name of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture is not The Bean—it’s Cloud Gate. Kapoor’s design was based on liquid mercury and consists of 168 stainless steel plates welded together. The highly polished structure is a mirror to Millennium Park and the buildings that surround it. The bean-shape bends and curves giving viewers a perfect photo opportunity as the reflections are distorted. The sculpture was the product of a design competition and debuted in 2004.
Chicago is known for its public art, from sculptures to murals to interactive pieces in parks. Public art is meant to be enjoyed by the people and be accessible to all. Sometimes that accessibility leads to rare acts of vandalism. Just last week, Cloud Gate was tagged with spray paint. According to the Chicago Tribune, workers were able to remove the graffiti quickly and restore Chicago’s iconic sculpture.
In our work as art consultants, we have worked on a variety of projects involving public art or conservation. We have coordinated the moving and storage of large-scale outdoor sculptures. We also work with talented conservators to restore artwork when accidents happen. Helping companies find, install, and protect art for the enjoyment of their employees, customers, and the public is one of our chief joys as a company.
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