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Monument with Standing Beast deconstruction

‘Monument with Standing Beast,’ a Jean Dubuffet sculpture colloquially known as ‘Snoopy in a Blender,’ has been removed from the front facade of the Thompson Center.

Google’s takeover of the Thompson Center means some notable artwork has been evicted

One Sunday earlier this month, Tom Guenther passed the James R. Thompson Center on his way to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he intended to check out the museum’s new Christina Ramberg retrospective.

He ended up experiencing art history before leaving the Loop. Passing the Thompson Center’s front facade, Guenther — a preparator of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago — encountered late French artist Jean Dubuffet’s sculpture Monument with Standing Beast mid-disassembly, its parts rigged and loaded onto pallets.

“Of the Picasso and Calder and all those, I honestly think the Dubuffet was my favorite,” Guenther said. “It got me into art. It’s probably why I’m at the MCA today.”

You might know Dubuffet’s fiberglass sculpture as “Snoopy in a Blender,” joining the ranks of other city art landmarks better known by their nicknames than their real titles. (Hi there, Cloud Gate.) As previously announced by the city, the 10-ton, 29-foot-tall black-and-white sculpture must be moved to make way for tech titan Google’s overhaul of the Thompson Center.

But Monument with Standing Beast is just one of many artworks that was on display at the Thompson Center before the Google overhaul began. The glass-walled site housed other monumental sculptures, including John Henry’s Bridgeport (2021) and Richard Hunt’s Illinois River Landscape (1984). On display there, too, were modestly sized paintings by Chicago Imagists such as Karl Wirsum and Gladys Nilsson, members of the notable art collective Hairy Who.

So with the Thompson Center now getting a Google glow-up, where does the art go?

A couple places, it turns out. Per state spokesperson Jayette Bolinski, Hunt’s Illinois River Landscape ended up in the Springfield headquarters of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), which administers all art owned by the state, including the pieces in the Thompson Center. Henry’s Bridgeport is on joint loan to three Rockford institutions: its Art Museum, Convention & Visitors Bureau and the city itself. Still others are now in the collections of the Illinois State Museum and “successor facilities” to the Thompson Center at 555 W. Monroe and 115 S. LaSalle streets.

But the future of Monument with Standing Beast is, for now, about as ambiguous as the tangled sculpture itself. Disassembly began several weeks ago and is scheduled to wrap by the end of the month. After that, Monument with Standing Beast will be transported to a state warehouse, where it will be stored until the state finds “a suitable and prominent home” for the statue, Bolinski said.

The natural resources department is still “working with several potential partners” to house the work. The Art Institute is among those in the running. In a statement to WBEZ, a representative said the museum would gladly accept the Dubuffet “on long-term loan, whenever it’s ready.”

But there are no immediate plans for much-needed restoration work — something the state would be responsible for as the owner of the artwork. It is not clear how much restoration work is needed or who would foot the bill.

Installed in 1984, Monument with Standing Beast was one of Dubuffet’s last works. He died the following year. Like the Chicago Picasso before it, Dubuffet’s Monument divided viewers upon its unveiling 40 years ago. Passersby told the Chicago Tribune the sculpture “look[ed] like something left out in the rain too long.” Others were still more pointed.

“Now that we’ve seen the Jean Dubuffet sculpture ‘Monument with Standing Beast,’ when is it going to come down?” an aggrieved reader wrote the Sun-Times in 1984.

Guenther will go to bat for the Dubuffet any day. A lifelong Chicagoan, he spent his teens and early 20s admiring the statue while working as a bicycle messenger for downtown city departments. The more he learned about Dubuffet — who coined the term “art brut” to describe work by untrained artists — the more resonances he saw with Chicago’s own tradition of “outsider art,” later represented by artists such as Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum and Wesley Willis, and by organizations including Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

“Chicago tends to champion their outsider artists,” Guenther said.

Dubuffet himself lectured on the subject in 1951 at the Arts Club of Chicago. That lecture, “Anticultural Positions,” is a wincing read now, asserting a dichotomy between the “cultured” West and “primitive” or “savage” civilizations.

Even so, the lecture is considered a turning point in legitimizing outsider art as an area of scholarly and curatorial attention. For that, Tribune art critic Art Artner considered Dubuffet “the spiritual father” of Chicago artists in the 1950s and ’60s, observing that he was more appreciated here than in his native France.

For now, however, the Beast will be retired from public view.

Hannah Edgar is a Chicago-based culture writer. Their work appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Musical America and Downbeat.

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