Playing with Chicago’s Public Art

This week our family saw an exhibition about public art in Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago focusing on important works of art enjoyed daily by thousands of Chicagoans and visitors to the city. In the Loop you can find works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Jean Dubuffet, Marc Chagall, and Alexander Calder in open air public spaces.

During our dinner talk that evening we thought about what made certain public works of art more beloved and successful than others. In Chicago, the Picasso is easily the most recognizable work of public art, although the Dubuffet and Miro works are within sight of it. Why the Picasso? My kids say that good public art should be “fun,” “interactive,” and “a puzzle.” I thought those were pretty good descriptors, and not just because I’m a proud dad.

So, with those parameters in mind, let’s take an admittedly subjective look at those works of public art that any visitor to Chicago’s Loop can easily find.

Miss Chicago (1975) by Joan Miro: I like this sculpture. It stands in an alcove across the street from the Picasso in Daley Plaza. Is it fun? I suppose it’s fun enough; it’s certainly not un-fun. Is it interactive? Well, you can touch it but that’s about it. Is it a puzzle? Art with any degree of abstraction is somewhat puzzling, but it’s not much of a leap to go from the title Miss Chicago to this crown-wearing sculpture with her arms thrown wide. Miss Chicago’s burden is that she stands almost literally in the shadow of the giant Picasso and she can never quite measure up to that.

Untitled (1967) by Pablo Picasso: What the heck is it? A horse? Seahorse? Dragon? That’s part of the fun and the puzzle involved in this huge sculpture so closely identified with Chicago. When the sculpture was dedicated in 1967, Mayor Richard J. Daley said, “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.” Today the Picasso is familiar, but it’s no less strange. Chicago’s Picasso is interactive in a couple of ways. First of all, looking at the sculpture from the front (with your back to Washington Avenue) yields the most common view and the view that is most abstract. But if you walk toward the Daley Center and view the sculpture from roughly a 10:00 or 2:00 angle, you will more clearly see the silhouette of a woman. This is one of my favorite things to show students and visitors.  (Click on the photo to the right to enlarge it.  Do you see the silhouette?) The Picasso is also highly interactive because you can sit on it, climb on it, and slide down it.

Flamingo (1973) by Alexander Calder: Alexander Calder is probably best known for his mobiles, and this giant sculpture in Chicago’s Federal Plaza is reminiscent of those pieces. The Federal Plaza, designed by Mies Van der Rohe, is a tightly constructed grid of straight lines on the ground and up the buildings, and Calder’s Flamingo is a welcome swoosh of loops and colors set in contrast to all that rigidity. It’s fun to look at. I suppose it’s a puzzle to try to see it as a flamingo. It’s interactive only to the extent that you can touch it and walk around, under and through it.

The Four Seasons (1974) by Marc Chagall: This four-sided mosaic has been roughed up by Chicago’s weather over the past few decades, so I’m glad to see that it is now under a cover but still accessible. The mosaic is bright and pleasing and fun to walk around. Its only interactive aspect is its size. You have to walk around it to see it all. Is it a puzzle? Thinking about the images and how they coincide with Chagall’s conception of seasons is an interesting puzzle.

Monument with Standing Beast (1984) by Jean Dubuffet: Located outside the State of Illinois Building across from Daley Plaza, this sculpture is a great photo spot. The sculpture has all kinds of odd angles, and it’s fun and easy to climb around inside it. The only real puzzle involved is trying to figure out the nature of the beast. Where does it stop and start, or does it stop and start at all?

Any thoughts on these works of public art are welcome, as well as any ideas about public art in your town. Thanks for reading.

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4 Responses to Playing with Chicago’s Public Art

  1. I love your kids’ ideas about what makes public art beloved and successful! I think I’m going to map these out on Google and see if I can’t figure out a walking tour. We missed the museum today but may be able to get there tomorrow after 2. Thank you for posting, Gary!


  2. I mapped it out! And what I love about using Google maps ( is that I can search for directions using public transit! If we can’t see it all tomorrow there’s always November. I love exploring Chicago!


  3. Pingback: Anybody Else Excited about NCTE11 in Chicago? | What's Not Wrong?

  4. Ann Jones says:

    The piece of public art I’d most love to see in Chicago is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate.

    In terms of interactivity, I’m not sure it’s always necessary but it can certainly have a real effect in generating public affection for a work.

    Here in London (and across the UK), there are quite a few temporary public art projects this summer in parallel with the Olympics. Some are interactive and fun:, others fascinating: and some are just pleasingly silly:

    There’s a place for all of them but I guess permanent works need to sustain our interest in a different way.


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