Pablo's gift

August 15, 2011

A crowd of 50,000 people jammed the Civic Center Plaza at noon on August 15, 1967. Chicago was unveiling its newest piece of public art: a gift to the city from the celebrated Pablo Picasso.

Covered with blue sheeting, the giant sculpture loomed over the plaza. Then Mayor Richard J. Daley pulled a cord. The cover dropped away and revealed . . . what?

That's the question people have been asking for the last 44 years. What is it?

The firm building the Civic Center had wanted something special to decorate the plaza. Picasso was the world's most famous artist, so they approached him.

At first Picasso declined. He'd never been to Chicago; he had never even been to the United States. But after much cajoling, he accepted. Maybe he was persuaded by a gift the Chicagoans brought him--a Sox jacket.

Picasso produced a 42-inch-high model that combined some of his previous designs. The final sculpture stands 50 feet high and weighs 162 tons. It is made of Cor-Ten steel, the same material used on the building behind it. The bulk of the $350,000 cost was paid for by private foundations. The artist himself refused a fee.

But still - what is it? The sculpture had no title. Was it a woman, or a bird, or a space alien, or something else? You had to stretch your imagination. "Art hurts," Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in a dedication-day poem. "Art urges voyages, and it is easier to stay at home, the nice beer ready."

Professional critics praised the Chicago Picasso. "The old master has done it again," one of them said. The Tribune called the sculpture "austere and powerful." As for the everyday person-on-the-street, opinion was divided.

"It's beautiful, soaring, marvelous," a Glencoe lady said. "It's horrible, worse than the pictures," a teenage girl commented. An elderly woman said the sculpture looked like "a cow sticking its tongue out at Chicago." Alderman John Hoellen, whose ward included Wrigley Field, suggested replacing the Picasso with a giant statue of Cubs' star Ernie Banks.

None of that mattered. Mayor Daley had decided the Picasso sculpture would go in the plaza, so in the plaza it went. "What is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow," he predicted in his dedication speech.

And Daley has been proven right. Chicago has become comfortable with its Picasso. We can chuckle at it, and snort at it, embrace it and carry on the discussion of what it's supposed to be.

Personally, I've always thought it looks like Bullwinkle the Moose.